Strong proposals contain a competitive research idea (as discussed in my previous post), clearly communicate the idea, and concisely propose a plan to pursue it. The plan being the materials, measurements, expected results, and potential complications you may run into while attempting to turn the never-before-implemented idea into something real. Finally, strong proposals sell the idea by explaining why it’s unique, scientifically significant, and attractive to funding agencies.
A large majority of job openings do not specify a page limit for the proposal component, but I followed the advice of several friends and Professors to keep it at or under 10 pages. In these ten pages I included a cover page, three proposals (at three pages each), and one page of references. Below I break down each of these sections in greater detail.
The Cover Page
The search committee members will be bombarded with hundreds of applications. They simply will not have time to read through a three, let alone ten, page proposals from every applicant. I’ve heard from a few professors that they do not look at CVs or recommendation letters until the candidate list is whittled down based on the first page of the proposal alone. The cover page may be the deciding factor between making it through the first round or being cut. This is why it’s very important to spend a lot of time making a clear and compelling cover page.
The general format I used for my cover page can be seen in the image below. Forgive me for not sharing my actual proposal cover page. I haven’t had the opportunity to pursue the ideas yet.
As shown in the image, my cover page included:
- My name and contact information at the top of the page.
- A Research Overview, explaining my flavor of research and what I’ll be known for in five years if given the chance to pursue my proposals.
- A subsection for each proposal that included:
- A title
- Page numbers
- A brief summary, which was structured similar to an abstract. It introduced a problem to be solved, how I intend to solve it, and the potential implications.
- A pretty image depicting the research idea.
The images accompanying each proposal might be the most important part of the cover page. They should be descriptive, aesthetically pleasing, and eye catching. The goal is to get the search committee curious enough about the ideas so they will look through the proposals and other application materials.
Each proposal should be three pages or less. Since the faculty search committee may include a broad range of chemists, you should try to limit the use of jargon and not assume too much prior knowledge about your research area. Compressing this information into three pages or less sounds like a monumental task and, to be perfectly honest, it is. It will take a lot of time and effort to put a short but solid proposal together. In an effort to help, below is a generic form of my proposal format.
As shown in the image, each of my proposals were organized into the following three sections:
Section one: Background and Significance
- Introduce a problem that needs to be solved.
- Describe how others are trying to solve it.
- Describe how I am going to try to solve it.
- Discuss how my method is better.
In this section, I included one bold sentence that clearly summarized the nature of my proposal and an italicized sentence outlining a few specific goals.
Section Two: Plan of Work
- Explain the logistics of how you’ll pursue your idea (i.e. the materials, measurements, expected results, and potential complications).
Section Three: Impact and Funding
- Remark on the potential implications of the proposed work.
- List a few potential funding agencies.
When mentioning funding agencies be very explicit. Include the agencies (NSF, NIF, DOE, ARO, etc.) as well as the divisions and sub-divisions within the agencies. An easy way to find possible funding agencies is to look at the acknowledgements section of the papers cited in your proposal. Chances are you will be applying to the same funding opportunities.
Example: "The importance of solar energy conversion research in our current economic and political climate leads me to believe my research program will appeal to both students and funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (CHE/MSN, DMR/SSMC) and Department of Energy (BES/MSE, CSGB)."
I made sure to fit all of my citations on one final page to keep the total page count at 10. As far as citation format, I went with ACS standard formatting but others might work just as well.
Other Formatting Notes
Although some people choose a one-column format, I decided to go with two columns because it is more analogous to many journal articles and, for me, feels easier to digest. I also made sure to include at least one pretty picture per page. It breaks up the wall of text.
I started drafting my proposals early (June or July) so I had time to play around with and re-write the text many times. Maybe more importantly, the time also allowed others to proofread what I’d written. Our aspiring professor support group (described in “Get a job, Ken!” Part 2) was particularly useful for proofreading. We set up an editing rotation: I shared each of my proposals with three different people for feedback. I also read nine proposals from six different people.
After the aspiring professor support group’s initial screening and revisions, I also asked for comments/suggestions from several professors who had either been on a hiring committee before or just went through the job application process. This included my previous advisors and several Profs. at UNC. They were a big help because they let me know what they found compelling and memorable as well as where I could improve. Finally, I turned outside of the chemistry world to people like my wife to proofread for language and spelling errors.
In the next blog post I’ll share a similar breakdown for the other application materials.