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Make your proposal stand out: Tips on how to make an interesting, innovative and impactful application

By Logeswari Ponnusamy | Nov. 15, 2021  | None  | Proposal writing Research skills

In this blog post we asked successful researcher Dr. Logeswari Ponnusamy a few questions on how you can make your application and your CV stand out. She also explains how to cultivate and approach your references, and how to deal with requests for documentation in your proposals.

Many young researchers struggle with making their CVs stand out. What knowledge can you offer from your experience of applying for opportunities; how do you decide which qualifications, experiences, and skills are most important to highlight and what opportunities are relevant to you?

Submitting a well-crafted CV is key to any application, including for jobs. The foremost step is tailoring the CV to meet the requirements of the category that you are applying for. A CV for a job would be very different from one for a grant and even within a job category, it depends on the specific roles and responsibilities. The CV contents and some sections should be tailored or reorganized to communicate the relevance and catch the attention of the reviewers.

Explore and understand the goals of different CV formats (academic needs vs jobs; within jobs, again academic job vs corporate or government jobs) and start building your CV (using a detailed stock CV template). One of the best ways to tailor your CV is to work from a copy of the stock CV and trim down or tailor it to your specific needs.

Unsure what is relevant for a purposeful CV? Don’t look any further than the description and responsibilities of the job/grant/award and the goals and mission of the funding agency or granting organization you are applying to. Most CV formats have common sections that are seen as important to assess the applicant’s achievements and fit. The major sections would be your professional experience and list of publications (and or grants). Try to be as detailed as possible in describing the professional/research experience section. Instead of simply stating "investigated so and so research", state what was done and what were the outcomes and the impact [e.g., Investigated “xxx” mechanism of cancer chemoresistance using “yyy models” and discovered “zzz”. This research resulted in “2 publications” and “led to method development” that can be applied to other research].

In addition to stating what you did for your research or job, communicate what other skills you gained or experienced in developing yourself or others. For instance, was there any new area of research you pulled off from the existing research project, did you troubleshoot any issue in an ongoing project, are you experienced in literature search, scientific writing, publication, grant or proposal writing, presentation, and/or research software, were you training others, transferable /soft-skills, leadership skills or management roles within the lab, etc.

If any of the sections are inadequate or have nothing yet to report, look for possible ways to demonstrate those. For instance, if there are no publications yet but you are working on a project that is anticipated to produce a manuscript within a specific time, then state it in the publication section. Do not add too many such early-stage manuscripts but be cognizant of what is realistic and include only those with specifics. The title can be changed later, but at least the entry should state when the research may potentially be published. Have no grants and fellowships yet? Change the section heading to what you do have (maybe a scholarship or recognition?) and if none, it is OK to drop the section completely.

Have one area that is stronger than the others? Based on how relevant it is to the purpose of the CV, you can reorganize the order to highlight the stronger area first. However, the general order I personally found meaningful is education details; professional or research experience with measurable details; skills (can be broken down into subcategories); publications; grants/ fellowships/awards; abstracts presented; leadership; professional membership; other professional services (journal services, other teaching, mentoring, judging events, etc.); community services and references. The CV I had when I started as a Ph.D. student vs a graduating student applying for a job vs now as a professional are very different and have been polished even better.

Since your CV is a living document, it needs to be updated regularly. I still maintain a few different stock CVs that are updated each time I gain something worth going into the CV (e.g. winning a scholarship, grant/award, publication, abstract presented, leadership activities, journal reviews, volunteer activities, professional membership, etc.). This way I don’t have to go back and search later on what I did and when I did it. Periodically updating the CV also serves as a reminder of your weaker areas and remind you as to what can be done to strengthen those sections. Thus, my CV is mostly in “ready to submit format” and has taken the burden off me going back to dig out emails or files at the last moment.

Other factors that can make a good CV include avoiding mentioning personal identifiers such as your picture, age, gender, race, marital, pregnancy, or family status, date of birth, etc. unless asked for specific reasons; maintaining a legible format and fonts, consistency throughout (no typos!), etc.

What have you done to make your applications compelling, innovative and demonstrating potential impact?:

  • interesting or compelling? A compelling proposal is essential. Lay out the proposal in a required format and sufficiently detailed (if no word limit). Clearly organize your action plans, anticipated outcomes, identified limitations, what can be done to mitigate risks, and the broader impact, etc. When applicable, draw an interesting analogy to communicate your research to grab the non-field-specific reviewers' attention. Have the proposal reviewed by colleagues and advisors for feedback and rework it until you find it is in a great shape. You can also ask some non-field-specific colleagues to review your work to temperature check if you are communicating your story effectively.
  • innovative? Presentation style can make the content of the proposal either good or poor. When the application doesn’t require a specific format, use your creativity to present the proposal in a better yet simple way to allow the target audience to understand it in detail (both to the reviewer as well as the end-user: impact). Use graphical abstracts, flow charts for methodology, lists or tables of endpoints assessed, etc. Even better is when the proposal being submitted is part or an extension or a legacy project of your published research, citing that graphical abstract or the image of the front-page title with citation and abstract will be valuable. If the application necessitates a prescribed format, organize the contents accordingly. Directness and relevance are key.  
  • demonstrate potential ‘impact’? This is very crucial. When we give away money, we want to see what it is going to be used for and what impact it creates. The same applies to research funding. The impact statement should clearly demonstrate how the findings will be employed for practical use or used to base a new concept or ideation on. Either it should add value to an existing discovery or initiate a new path for discovery, or it should be used to develop remedies, or policies, or action plans, etc. that would positively impact in different settings. Unsure if you assess the impact effectively? Use your advisor’s and other experienced colleagues' expertise to have it assessed.

 

What should young researchers keep in mind when approaching references for applications and writing reference letters?

Reference letters for grants and fellowships are to be submitted according to the application requirement and are mostly straightforward. In my experience, I have seen applications mostly requiring 3–4 letters; one letter from the Principal investigator/research advisor; one letter from the department or institution where the research will be carried out; a third could be from the same or an outside organization or from collaborators, and the fourth could be a letter from a previous research group or anyone who can attest to the applicant's candidature.

The important thing to keep in mind is to check with potential reference providers if they are willing to serve as references. Do not cite references, names/contact details in the CV unless verifying with them first. As you progress into your career, you can state “references will be provided upon request” in the CV when applying for jobs (especially for corporate jobs). For outside reference providers, it is important to find referees who know your research well before asking for their references. I have experienced practices where, at times, some referees just provide letters based on the applicant’s face value while others, although they may know the candidate well personally, may not be willing to provide a letter as they are unsure of your professional experiences. It is good to build a professional network and rapport with collaborators before asking for references. Note that this rapport builds gradually over time, so cultivating ongoing rapport is key. Still having trouble finding a good referee, then discuss with your mentor who can perhaps guide or direct you toward someone who can help. Some referees may write a letter purely based on your CV (with a note indicating that) as well.

Some referees may ask for a fully written draft letter, while some may ask for a list of relevant activities only; some may ask for your CV and a link to the application or details of the grant description, etc. It's always advisable to check with referees if they need either a CV or a draft or any documents that can help them draft their letter. Do not send a fully written draft unless asked. Always send a CV with your request, especially to external collaborators as they may know your research but no other aspect of your experience. Moreover, consider including a breakdown list of points you want each referee to focus on and request them to do so. That way you don’t end up sending 3 different letters that look the same.

My last point is that you should give ample time for the referee to write their letter. Don’t ask at the last moment or with short notice which they may not appreciate, or they may write it urgently, without fully reflecting upon your needs. It is better to give a heads up to the referees even before you start working on your application. In some cases, you need to submit the application and the contact details of referees online and the letters must be received by the application due date. So, unless you plan ahead and submit the application timely, the referees may not receive the reference submission link timely (with enough notice) so chances are that they would miss submitting it.

It's always good to figure out these details when the application is opened and communicate with referees early on as to how the letters are to be submitted. I have had a couple of instances where I found out about an opportunity close to the deadline and it also happened to be around the holiday seasons (December and summer) when the referees were out of the office or on vacation, so they missed the due date and therefore ruined my chances. So, be proactive and plan ahead.

Often there might be tricky questions or requests for documentation that you have to answer in proposals. Can you think of any examples and how you've overcome them? (sometimes questions about risk, sustainability, diversity can confuse young scholars)

Some examples I can think of are when documentation is needed for activities that you claim you did but did not record or it happened a decade ago or so when documenting was not retained, etc.; documentation on confidential data or activities completed which you cannot disclose; in some instances the question will be directly about personal identifiers that cannot be ignored.

When there is a lack of documentation supporting the claim you make in the proposal, the best you can do is write clearly to communicate why it is not available, ask the referees to verify your information in their letter (if they are willing to or know), or provide an additional letter from someone who can vouch for your claim (from your old institution or some such). When documentation about confidential data is requested, clarify explicitly why it can’t be provided, support it with a letter from a major advisor/institution/collaborators or by submitting available published research. When personal identifiers are asked for, it depends on the need of the question whether it can be described as required. Sometimes they require it for a specific purpose and still, your honest response can backfire, but this is not within our control how they might use it to make biased decisions. Questions on debatable or controversial topics such as sustainability, climate change, GMO products, organic farming, and so on could indeed be tricky to answer and hard, and they may go one way or the other. As an individual what stand we take and if it aligns with our ethics matters most. This may be approached in a formal manner upon discussing with the research mentor or institution to ensure it doesn’t violate institutional policy or stand.

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Dr. Ponnusamy is a Veterinary Scientist trained in Toxicology and currently working as a Toxicologist within Veterinary medicine R&D at Zoetis Animal Health, Michigan, USA. Her professional and research background include degrees in Veterinary Medicine, MS (Pharmacology & Toxicology), and Ph.D. (Toxicology). Her previous research experiences include epigenetics of acquired chemoresistance and a pediatric oncology summer traineeship focused on the epigenetics of Wilms’ tumors. She has obtained several grants, fellowships, and awards from the Society of Toxicology (SOT) and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), as well as at university level. Dr. Ponnusamy has authored/co-authored 11 publications/book chapters and contributes to the toxicology community as a peer reviewer for several scientific journals, including Toxicology Research and Application, Food and Chemical Toxicology, Reproductive Toxicology, etc. In addition, she has been engaged dynamically in science/toxicology outreach and diversity initiatives with several organizations since 2010 and also serves on the Society of Toxicology's Awards Committee and the American College of Toxicology's (ACT) Outreach committee, and on the Social Media Subcommittee focused on toxicology outreach

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