Instructor Insights

Supporting Students Writing Research Proposals

In 20.416J Topics in Biophysics and Physical Biology, students write a two-page research proposal modeled after the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program proposal. In this section, Professors Mark Bathe and Jeff Gore identify a challenge students face in developing their proposals and how they support students throughout the proposal-writing process.

The Challenge: Identifying a Topic

Students typically find it challenging to identify a research proposal topic. Because they are undergraduates or first-year graduate students, they tend to have limited research experience. Developing a proposal can seem very daunting, especially when you consider that the assignment is high stakes: there’s an actual National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship on the line.

It’s Not Only about the Topic, It’s about Communication and Enthusiasm

"We … communicate to students that it’s not so much about coming up with a Nobel Prize-winning idea, as it is about how well they can communicate their idea to a broad audience and how well they can articulate the scholarly literature that’s motivating their current and future work."
— Mark Bathe and Jeff Gore

To support students with limited research experience, we discuss with them potential proposal ideas. We also communicate to students that it’s not so much about coming up with a Nobel Prize-winning idea, as it is about how well they can communicate their idea to a broad audience and how well they can articulate the scholarly literature that’s motivating their current and future work.

To support both students who have longstanding research experiences with faculty members, as well as students who have limited research experience, we try to equally ignite their excitement and interest in the research they are proposing. This is of major importance because their level of enthusiasm will come through to the reviewers. It’s vital that they communicate excitement for their work and their proposed research agenda, while communicating their research plans in a highly organized, structured, and scholarly manner. 

Providing Feedback

Students have the opportunity to receive feedback from three sources: the instructors, the Fellows in the Biological Engineering Communication Lab, and peers in the course. As the instructors, we give our straight-forward general impressions of their proposals, just as reviewers would. The Fellows in the Communication Lab are graduate students who have either received NSF Fellowships or have applied for one; they’re trained in how to provide feedback on and critique proposals. Their feedback is quite detailed. Students also receive feedback from peers during the course. To help students engage in peer-review, we’ve developed a module about how to referee a paper. We also provide them with several resources about how to critique papers. We hope that providing students with these opportunities to receive feedback prior to submitting their proposals to the National Science Foundation, or other agency, will help strengthen their chances of receiving a fellowship.

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