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Original Research Proposal – Inorganic

Original Research Proposal – Inorganic

As part of the written requirement for the Ph.D. degree, students will propose, write, and defend an original research proposal in their third year of graduate studies.

Scope of the Proposal

The proposal should describe a research idea that directly addresses a gap in knowledge. The topic area of your proposal should be outside the scope of your Ph.D. and undergraduate research areas. Proposals that explore a field or topic far from your current research are encouraged. If you have any questions about the scope of your proposal, please contact your advisor or a divisional representative.

Proposal Timeline:

December: Proposal abstracts due, with the goal of returning faculty feedback before the December holiday break. Faculty will red, green, or yellow light abstracts with written comments to aid in improving or guiding the trajectory of topic for development into a full proposal. In cases of a red light, a new topic may be requested.

January: Full proposal due to the inorganic faculty

February: Scheduled oral presentation and defense.

Possible Outcomes:

  • Pass: no additional work required
  • Partial Pass: deficiencies noted in the written or oral presentation and additional written or oral material may be required
  • Unsatisfactory: students are required to repeat the proposal process during their 4th year with a new topic

Guidelines for Proposal Abstract

Students will submit a two-page abstract that the faculty will evaluate for feasibility as a topic for a full proposal. The abstract should succinctly describe the gap in knowledge, outline the proposed research to fill the gap, and describe the impact of the proposed work. Graphical content is encouraged. Refrain from including technical details, these will be developed as part of the full proposal.

A number of questions often come up with regards to the goal and structure of the proposal abstract. Here are a few comments designed to help you find the right balance…

  • 1 page is often too short/3 pages is too long. Aim for 2 pages with a few embedded figures and/or schemes to help convey the key concepts you intend to explore. Make it visually appealing and easy to read so that your reader is more apt to actually read it.
  • This is not a review article. Give enough background to convince your reader that this isn’t a nothing-burger, but make focus the text on your idea, your hypothesis, and your really cool way of tackling the problem.
  • Pick a topic that excites you, one that you want to spend time exploring. Don’t worry if it doesn’t sound “inorganic enough”, as long as we can cover the topic adequately it’s all good. You’ll know if the topic is too close to what you are currently doing.
  • Most strong proposals, even interdisciplinary ones, have a core “chemistry question” that can be highlighted. It can be helpful to start thinking about what variables can be tuned and what those variations will teach you.

Guidelines for a Full Proposal

1. Project Summary

1 page limit. This is a self-contained, third-person description of objectives, methods, significance. Reviewers will use the abstract as a tool to construct their review, so it needs to be carefully written with that in mind. You want them to know what the key elements of your project are and their significance in the context of current knowledge.

2. Project Description

The project description has a 10 page limit, single spaced, including figures.

2.1 Goals and Importance

2.1.1 State Goals and Objectives

What are the main scientific challenges? Emphasize what the new ideas are. Briefly describe the project’s major goals and their impact on the state of the art.

  • Clearly state the question you will address.

2.1.2 Establish Importance

  • Why is this research area important? What makes something important varies with the field. For some fields, the intellectual challenge should be emphasized, for others the practical applications should be emphasized.
  • Why is it an interesting/difficult/challenging question? It must be neither trivial nor impossible.
  • What long-term technical goals will this work serve?
  • What are the main barriers to progress? What has led to success so far and what limitations remain? What is the missing knowledge?
  • What aspects of the current state-of-the-art lead to this proposal? Why are these the right issues to be addressing now?
  • What lessons from past and current research motivate your work? What value will your research provide? What is it that your results will make possible?

2.1.3 Introduce the Proposed Work

  • Identify the gap(s) in the field
  • Introduce your project to fill the gap(s)
  • Clearly explain the relation to the present state of knowledge, to current work here & elsewhere. Cite those whose work you’re building on (and whom you would like to have review your proposal). Don’t insult anyone. For example, don’t say their work is “inadequate;” rather, identify the issues they didn’t address.

Surprisingly, this section can kill a proposal. You need to be able to put your work in context. Often, a proposal will appear naive because the relevant literature is not cited. If it looks like you are planning to reinvent the wheel (and have no idea that wheels already exist), then no matter how good the research proposal itself is, your proposal won’t get funded. If you trash everyone else in your research field, saying their work is no good, you also will not get funded.

You can build your credentials in this section by summarizing other people’s work clearly and concisely and by stating how your work uses their ideas and how it differs from theirs.

2.2 Experimental Approach

  • Provide a broad technical description of research plan: activities, methods, data, and theory.

Write to convince the best person in your field that your idea deserves funding. Simultaneously, you must convince someone who is very smart but has no background in your sub-area. The goal of your proposal is to persuade the reviewers that your ideas are so important that they will take money out of the taxpayers’ pockets and hand it to you.

This is the part that counts. WHAT will you do? Why is your strategy an appropriate one to pursue? What is the key idea that makes it possible for you to answer this question? HOW will you achieve your goals? What will you learn through this proposed work? Concisely and coherently, this section should complete the arguments developed earlier and present your initial pass on how to solve the problems posed. Avoid repetitions and digressions.

The question is: What will we know when you’re done that we don’t know now? The question is not: What will we have that we don’t have now? That is, rather than saying that you will develop a system that will do X, Y and Z, instead say why it is important to be able to do X, Y and Z; why X, Y and Z can’t be done now; how you are going to go about making X, Y and Z possible; and, what new knowledge or insights you will gain along the way.

2.3 Outcomes and Impact 2.3.1 Plan of work

  • Present a plan for how you will go about attacking/solving the questions you have raised.
  • Discuss expected results and a plan for evaluating the results. How will you measure progress?

Include a summary of milestones and expected dates of completion. You are not committed to following this plan – but you must present a FEASIBLE plan to convince the reviewers that you know how to go about getting research results.

2.3.2 List Expected Outcomes

2.3.3 Conclude the Proposed Work

  • Reiterate the goals and importance
  • Address any broader impacts

3. References

  • Pertinent literature referenced within the project description.

Program directors often look in the bibliography for potential reviewers, and reviewers often look in the bibliography to see if their work is cited. If your bibliography has a lot of peripheral references, your proposal may be sent to reviewers whose work is not directly related to yours and who may not understand your proposal. On the other hand, if you do not cite the relevant literature, your proposal may be sent to reviewers who are not cited and who will criticize you for not knowing the literature. Most of the references in the bibliography will be cited in the Related Work section. The references do not count in the 10 page proposal limit.

Adapted from Write Like a Chemist, 2008 Oxford University Press
Adapted from Write Like a Chemist, 2008 Oxford University Press






Student name:

Proposal title:

Review Criteria

Reviewers will consider each of the three review criteria below for the pass/fail assessment.

1. Significance/Innovation (Is the overall scientific challenge clear? Is the knowledge gap/need clear? Is there a reasonable hypothesis? Is it innovative? Is it feasible? What are the broader implications of this research?)

Section 1: __ pass       ___ fail


2. Approach (Do the proposed experiments address the hypothesis, knowledge gap, and larger goal? Are they the right experiments to address this hypothesis? If one aim fails, will others still be possible? Are potential pitfalls and alternate approaches considered?)

Section 2: __ pass       ___ fail


3. Readability (appropriate referencing, use of figures/schematics, and grammar)

Section 3: __ pass       ___ fail


Final Ranking

  • Pass (passing grade in all three sections)
  • Conditional pass (one area needs major revisions)
  • Fail (two or more areas need major revisions)

Additional Feedback:


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