Writing Social Science Proposals

Writing Social Science Proposals

Proposals in the social sciences and history typically involve research. So, before you even start to write the proposal, you need to know a lot about your project. Why is it interesting? How is it innovative? Why is it intellectually sound? In short, you need to know the research literature and where your idea fits in the field. You need to be able to show how it fills a gap, increases understanding, affects the theoretical framework of the field, or addresses a problem.

The project needs to be feasible

Figure out how you're going to do the work, and prove it.

If you plan to use archives, decide which ones you will likely visit; find out when they'll be open, and whether they have the right kinds of materials. You may want to get a letter or email from an archivist, showing that you've written to the archive and learned that their holdings will be useful for your research. If you're studying a population, be able to tell the funder which population, why you chose it, and how you will recruit subjects. Will you need a control population?

If you're going to a study site, decide where and why, and show that you have arranged access. If you need equipment, what kind do you need? What will you do with it? How much does it cost? Where will you put it? If you plan to write a book, establish that you have researched the subject and developed a plausible outline and timeline.

You need to find the right funders

A funder's mission and guidelines must be compatible with your project. Read each potential funder's objectives and review criteria—and decide whether your project can satisfy them. As you search for funding, develop a list of possibilities that fit well with your project.

Keep in mind, not all of your project needs to be completely compatible with the funder. Focus one proposal on the parts of your project that the funder will be enthusiastic about, and find another funder to support a different aspect. If you are funded, you must do the research that you said you would do, and you cannot misrepresent your goals and objectives. But no one will object if you also gather other archival materials or take note of respondents' views in ways that expand your ideas beyond the stated objectives in the proposals. This is how researchers gather inspiration for new projects, or discover more interesting ways to think about a project they initially thought was cut and dried.

Doing this background research takes time

A canny PI begins planning a proposal at least four to six months ahead of the deadline, and sometimes a year before.

Likely funders for the Social Sciences may include government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH); professional societies and organizations such as the Social Science Research Council or American Council of Learned Societies; and special interest foundations, such as Wenner-Gren, the Spencer Foundation, or the Russell Sage Foundation. Competition for all grants has become fierce in recent years, so applying to any of them takes careful preparation. One way to ensure that your project is a good fit with a funder is to talk with a program officer or at least send a letter of inquiry.

Prepare to approach funders

Before you contact anyone at a government agency or foundation, you should make sure you're well prepared to describe your project. One good way to do that is to prepare a one-page overview that explains why your project is important. It should:
  • Summarize the known background,
  • Identify the gap in knowledge or describe the problem you want to tackle,
  • Present your hypothesis or research question, and
  • Describe its significance for your field and for society.
It's a good idea to run the overview past knowledgeable colleagues, and refine your ideas and presentation in light of their critiques. You might give the overview to a lay reader to make sure he or she understands it. Try your grandmother if you think she can give it an objective reading.

Once you're ready, email a program officer and ask for a telephone conversation. Government agencies almost always list the program officers and their contact information. Professional organizations may, or may not have a program officer; if you can't find one, simply follow the guidelines and write your heart out. You'll be on the same footing as everyone else. Foundations sometimes have evident program officers and sometimes not. Many ask you for a letter of inquiry, which can be a very good way to approach both foundations and government agencies, if you're wary of talking by phone. And ask your colleagues for their experience with these funders. They can be very helpful.

What you want to learn in these conversations is whether the funder is still interested in projects like yours. Programs can change. You also want to know what the funder's top priorities are, and whether some program components that might fit your project have received very few or very many applications. Sometimes program officers will advise you about other programs that might be a better fit; sometimes they'll suggest that you send them a draft or short description. Listen well. They are experienced professionals who can be very helpful.

Develop the proposal

Most proposals have the same basic format:
  • Descriptive title
  • Abstract or summary
  • Budget
  • Applicant's credentials (CV & publications)
  • Narrative
    • Background
    • Goals & Objectives
    • Methods/Timetable/Work plan
    • Discussion/Significance
    • Bibliography


An abstract is simply a concise summary of your proposal's research question and, often, results. For a professional paper, the abstract is typically a paragraph; it gives little information on methods or interpretation. For a proposal, the summary is typically a one-page self-contained description of your proposal. The project summary, as federal agencies call it, should contain four elements:
  • A short paragraph that reviews the background for the idea or the problem that your proposal addresses.
  • A paragraph that describes the objectives and methods you will employ.
  • A paragraph that addresses the significance of your project: what the outcome of your project will do for your field.
  • A final paragraph that summarizes the broader impacts that your completed project will have for education and for the academic community beyond your field, for underserved communities, and/or for society at large.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) requires applicants to specifically address the review criteria—intellectual merit and broader impacts—in the project summary, as well as reviewing the background, objectives, and methods for your project. Label these review criteria.


The budget needs to be as persuasive as the narrative. In asking for a funder's money, you want to persuade the reviewers and program officers that the funds you request are sufficient to do the work you propose—no more, no less. An unrealistically low or high budget signals inexperience or lack of understanding.

You need to research the costs of each major budget item. Travel costs should reflect typical current airfares or ground transportation prices, and typical lodging, meals, and per diem costs for the places you will visit. Field or laboratory equipment should reflect current prices and, if necessary, maintenance or start-up costs. Information of this kind belongs in the budget justification, with enough detail to persuade reviewers that you've done the groundwork. The summary costs go in the budget.

Check with your chair to see if you can reduce your course load during the academic year if you get a grant. Not all departments allow this. Check with the funder to see whether it allows you to reduce your course load during the academic year. Some funders, such as NSF, normally do not fund faculty in research universities during the academic year, but they will fund graduate research assistants (RAs) who can do some of the legwork for you. Other funders, such as fellowships, require you to take the time to write your book or do your fieldwork. They expect your institution to help support you by giving you the time and salary supplement to allow you to do the work.

Use the University's Electronic Grants Management System (EGMS) to calculate the budget. EGMS will automatically calculate inflation rates, fringe benefits, and indirect costs. Fringe benefits for RAs are not included in the indirect cost calculations.

Writing a Bio or CV

Check the funder's directions for writing your bio or CV. Some funders want one, some want the other. And NSF has a specific 2-page format called the biosketch. Follow it slavishly.

The narrative is your place to shine

Use the introduction to generate excitement. The introduction should highlight your research question and tell why it meets a need, fills a gap in understanding in the field, or addresses a societal problem. You can even overstate its importance, as long as you add the caveats in your later discussion. The background section reviews what's known about the research question or problem. It sets up the rest of the narrative

The goals and objectives section should highlight your hypotheses or research question and the steps you will take to test the hypothesis or gather the information that will answer your research question. This section sets the scene for the methods section. Here is where you describe your methods with enough detail that the reviewers both understand how you plan to proceed and are convinced that you know how to do the work.

In the discussion or significance section, you show why your project is significant in light of what is currently known about your project. Call it intellectual merit or significance, but make sure you show why it matters. If you're doing empirical work, put the alternative hypotheses here. Finally, you have a conclusion, in which you tell the reviewers (again) what you'll do and why it matters. NSF's broader impacts can fit in here, along with a short statement about intellectual merit.

Please note: Each funder has a slightly different format. Follow it faithfully. Reviewers want to compare apples with apples. They want to find the parts of the proposal in the same order in each proposal; they want to see the review criteria called out in boldface or headings, so they don't have to hunt them down.

Be kind

Make reading your proposal easy. It should be clear of jargon and clear in presentation (lucid prose, active voice, headings, white space, readable font, logical order). Finally, it should propose a sound contribution to your field. How do you find that out? Ask a couple of colleagues in your field to read, comment on, and critique your semi-final drafts. Weigh their advice and revise your proposal in response.