Developing a competitive research design
Applying for grant funding is very competitive, especially when submitting research proposals. The research design section of the proposal narrative is central to a successful grant application. The research design and methods are the core of any research project and therefore have the largest impact score during the reviews. So, what are important things to consider when developing a competitive research design?
First and foremost, make sure that your research design is significant and achievable. You want to develop a great scientific idea and a research study that will contribute new scientific knowledge to your field. However, the research design has to be realistic and viable given the institutional resources available to you and the amount of funding you receive. In addition, the research design has to align with the expertise of the principal investigators who are named in the proposal.
Start by defining your research topic. In general, a good research topic should: (a) advance existing research, (b) fill a gap in the existing research, or (c) develop a new line of research. You should choose a topic that is significant to the field, has a reasonable probability of success, and for which you can develop a viable research plan. For competitive proposals this topic should add new knowledge to the field and also be repeatable and verifiable. So, think about the key research issues that are current in your area. Investigate what research studies top scholars in your field are currently researching. Read the research that is out there and look for any gaps that need to be filled.
Make sure that your research topic is aligned with the funding priorities of the grant program to which you are applying. In addition, make sure you understand any preferences or biases that the funding agency may have regarding different research methodologies. For example, some funders are more in favor of quantitative studies over qualitative research studies. Also, ask yourself how your research topic stands out from other research that has been conducted. Look at proposals that have been funded by the organization to which you are applying and bear in mind what reviewers will be looking for. In general, reviewers will look to answer the following questions when reading your proposal.
✓ What is the research objective?
✓ Is this research objective significant?
✓ How will scientific knowledge be advanced as a result of this research?
✓ How will the research be carried out?
✓ How will the data be collected?
✓ How will the data be analyzed?
✓ Does the proposed data analysis align with the research questions posed?
✓ Are any limitations or problems clearly articulated?
✓ Do the principal investigators have the expertise to conduct the research?
✓ Do the principal investigators have the institutional resources needed to conduct the research?
The research design section be as detailed as possible. You want to be sure that the reviewer can visualize how your research project will unfold from beginning to end. Think carefully through your entire research plan, step-by-step, and submit this research plan as part of your proposal. Make sure to include a project design section that outlines activities needed to carry out the research methodology, a timeline for these activities, and a bulleted list of deliverables expected.
The research methodology section is of utmost importance and reviewers will pay close attention to this section. The elements of the research methodology section include:
✦ Research Design Type.
In this section you should describe your chosen research design. Connect this choice to the aims of the research project to describe why you choose this design and how it will facilitate meeting the objectives of your study.
✦ Sample Population.
State the target population of interest and how are you sampling. The target population is the overall group being studied. Are you choosing a random sample, a selected sample, or a sample of convenience? State why the sampling technique you are using is appropriate for the study and how it fits with the research questions you have posed.
Intervention study designs are those that investigate the outcomes of a specific intervention. Examples of interventions are studies that involve a new drug, therapy, or educational approach. You should describe the intervention in enough detail so that readers can understand it.
✦ Data Collection Methods and Procedures.
Describe the methods you will use for collecting data. Also describe any measures will you use. You should include reliability and validity information for all your research instruments. Identify the type of data you need to support your research study and answer your research questions.
✦ Data Analysis.
This should include an explanation of methods used for decoding and cleaning data. Describe in detail how you will analyze the data. Include all statistical tests you will use. Include details of the main analyses that will be used in addition to any planned and potshot comparisons. When possible and appropriate, provide a power analysis. The description of data analysis provided in a grant application is generally much more detailed than the data analysis section of a research paper. Articulate any procedures that will deal with missing or unused data. Address what you will do to ensure quality control for the analysis of data.
✦ Significance and Dissemination.
This is the last part of the research methodology section. Again, you should emphasize the significance of your research study. Describe how your study will benefit the field. Provide a brief description of how the findings of the study will be disseminated.
There are a number of common issues with the research design section of grant proposals that will lower the score from reviewers. It is important to consider these when writing your proposal, so you can think about what not to do. These include:
✦ The idea is not original
✦ The scientific rationale for the study is weak
✦ The principal investigator and/or other key personnel do not have the expertise for the chosen methodology
✦ The research plan is lacking in detail or unfocused
✦ The analysis plan does not include sufficient technical detail
✦ The scope of the research project is too ambitious and not realistic
✦ The measures and instruments chosen do not include reliability and validity information.
In conclusion, the research design section of your proposal is central to a successful application. Dedicate the time needed to make this section as strong as it can be. Seek input from those who have expertise in your chosen methodology. Ask for feedback about the amount of technical information included in this section, as well as on the coherence and flow of the section. Read other proposals that have been funded and see how the research design sections were written. Don’t hesitate to talk to the program officer and ask specific questions about any expectations for what should be included in your research design section. Finally, if at first you don’t succeed, read carefully through any reviewer comments and start again.
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