Fulbright IIE Research Proposal Writing Guide

Anyone who has received a Fulbright award to study and/or teach in a foreign country would agree that it is a life altering experience. On one level the status of this achievement adds significantly to a resume and the chances for a successful career. The experience demonstrates the candidate's ability to develop an idea for a project and carry it out successfully. That ability to conceptualize, write, and follow through is invaluable in any future career. However, the changes in a person's identity go much deeper. Besides showing initiative, a Fulbright experience demonstrates the ability to collaborate in ventures that require cooperation with other cultures. Whatever the future results, at the time a Fulbright fellowship offers an exciting challenge, an opportunity to achieve something important for others as well as oneself.

Proposal Writing Preparation

Each year, the IIE Fulbright U.S. Student Program and Fulbright-Hays DDRA Program receive and evaluate many excellent applications. Therefore, the process is very competitive. Candidates can greatly improve the quality of their applications, not to mention reducing their stress levels, by beginning the process as early as possible.

Deadlines for most IIE competitions occurs early in the Fall Semester when seniors, graduate students, and professors are busiest with the beginning of classes and teaching; therefore, starting the application process Spring Semester, allows more time to obtain constructive consultations. Consult the MSU Fulbright Adviser or the ISP Dean's Office for national and MSU deadlines for the various IIE and other Fulbright programs.

Step 1-Understanding the Purpose and Evaluation Criteria of the Program

Consider the Fulbright mission in light of what you propose to do overseas. From its inception in 1946, the Fulbright Program has fostered bilateral relationships in which citizens and governments of other countries work with the U.S. to set joint priorities and shape the program to meet shared needs. The world has been transformed in ensuing decades, but the fundamental principle of international partnership remains at the core of the Fulbright mission.

Then read the specific conditions and requirements listed in the Individual Country Summaries for the intended host country. This will ensure that the project complies with those requirements and will directly promote and enhance the host country's objectives and priorities.

Next, read the application guidelines for the IIE Fulbright Student Awards and/or the Fulbright-Hays DDRA Awards with particular emphasis on:

1) the program objectives and priorities

2) the proposal evaluation criteria and processes.

Step 2-Selecting the Host Country

Besides an applicant's credentials, a successful proposal depends on the host country selected. Competition is most intense for English-speaking and Western European countries. Accordingly, the applicant needs to:

  • Identify the country most likely to host the project. Then review the information presented on-line in the Individual Country Summaries. They list the types of Fulbright grants offered, time period, applicant's qualifications, fields of study, affiliation requirements, living conditions, language, and more.
  • Establish whether a letter of affiliation with a host country organization, university, or government agency is required. If so, initiate the affiliation process as soon as possible. If a letter of affiliation is required but not submitted, the grant application will not be considered. The letter must be typed/printed on the organization's letterhead stationery. For additional information see Developing a Host Country Affiliation.
  • If the project requires special overseas resources and/or assistance, address these needs in correspondence with the host country institution and request that their answer be included in the letter of affiliation.
  • Conduct a literature search on-line and in the library to access information about the country and help establish the validity of the proposal. Include sufficient information to demonstrate knowledge and respect for the political and cultural sensitivities of the host country. For example, citizens of some cultures are very hesitant to discuss intimate subjects and/or contacts. Therefore, questionnaires and/or surveys on such topics may not be practical or even possible. Also, be careful about proposing a project that requires access to structures and/or places of religious or historical significance which may be denied.
  • Avoid additional pitfalls by consulting knowledgeable faculty and/or other professionals familiar with the intended host country. They can offer advice on what is possible and feasible. For additional information see:

Step 3-Define the Research Topic

A successful project requires that the applicant have the expertise and training to implement it. The most creative idea brings something innovative that will not only benefit the missions of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and the host country but also enhance the applicant's opportunity to learn. After the proposal subject has been identified, the next tasks in the grant writing process are to: 1) define the project, 2) clarify the purpose/rationale and write a proposal statement, 3) define the scope of the work, and 4) determine the broad project goals. Then identify the specific methods that will accomplish these goals e.g. who will benefit (a group or institution in the host country) and the expected project outcomes in measurable terms.

Step 4-Getting Help Writing the Proposal

Expand your idea into the best draft proposal possible. Then share it with professors, academic advisers, and professional colleagues expert in the appropriate project area. Leave copies with them and ask that they read and critique the draft critically. Next, revise the proposal based on their suggestions. After a reasonable amount of time, make a second appointment with all appropriate advisers/professors, and provide them with a revised copy in advance of the meeting to facilitate discussion.

Writing the Proposal

The critical component of any proposal narrative connects the project with the mission, objectives, and goals of both the IIE Fulbright U.S. Student Program and the host country. The successful proposal answers the following questions:

  • Why are you applying for a Fulbright grant?
  • What do you want to accomplish and how will you do it?
  • What issue and/or concern will you address and why?
  • Who will benefit and how?
  • What are the specific objectives and how will they be met?
  • How will the results be measured?
  • How will you know if the research/study is successful?
  • What are your qualifications to plan and execute the project?
  • Where and how will the results be disseminated?

Writing a successful grant application begins with an idea that is developed into an objective and/or goal. The narrative should describe a vital and compelling project that can lead to and/or contribute to a creative and innovative solution. A strong proposal is well organized, logical, understandable, grammatically correct, and easily readable. It also requires research, multiple revisions of the description, and meetings with resource people, which can be both time-consuming and frustrating but ultimately very rewarding.

The narrative must clearly explain how the concept will improve some aspect of the host culture. It must contain enough details to demonstrate the substantial planning and attention necessary to gain the reviewers' confidence that the proposal can be implemented successfully. In other words, the narrative must present a logical, persuasive argument as to why this project is feasible and deserves to be supported. Feasibility is demonstrated by 1) academic credentials, including relevant course work and research, 2) support made available in the host country, and 3) being able to successfully complete the project within the proposed time period. The reviewer must be convinced that the project will :

  • Produce results that will benefit and/or be a significant improvement on the current situation or practices relevant to the needs of the host country, and/or
  • Expand the cultural horizons of the applicant and contribute to fulfilling the mission of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

A strong Fulbright proposal narrative addresses the following:

  • Statement of need: The rationale for the proposal should be presented as a persuasive, logical argument for why the proposal should be supported.
  • Description/approach: State the purpose, objectives and goals of the project and why they are valid and relevant. Identify the expected results in measurable terms. Also, whenever possible, include a clear and concise statement of the research problem and/or a testable hypothesis. Describe the specific experiments (e.g., designing and conducting surveys) that will be used to test it. Identify the target audience and explain how they will be served.
  • Research Methods and Evaluation: Describe the specific methods/activities and explain why they are appropriate, adequate, and feasible to accomplish the stated objectives and goals. Indicate whether the methods are qualitative, quantitative or both, and whether the project requires clinical and/or experimental research. Also, whenever possible, identify anticipated results or preliminary work completed in preparation for this application. Envision the expected results and describe precisely the procedures to insure their validity.
  • Host Country Justification: The U.S. and host country reviewers must be convinced that the project can only be completed in the host country. Therefore, the proposal should address: 1) how the project will advance knowledge and understanding in the host country, 2) why it could not just as easily be conducted in a university and/or library in the United States or online, and 3) how the project would foster greater understanding between the United States and the host country. For example, one section might describe plans to meet and interact with host country citizens apart from and in addition to the project, e.g., as a form of community outreach.
  • Dissemination of Results: Explain in detail how the results and special aspects of the project will be disseminated to appropriate scientists, educators, government agencies or others both in the host country and in the United States. Be sure to include plans to publish any findings including, if possible, likely names of the professional journals and/or newspapers. Include the names of organizations to be contacted to present lectures and/or seminars on results and experiences abroad.
  • The applicant's credentials: Describe your expertise/formal training in the areas relevant to the project. It is important to demonstrate as broad a base of knowledge as possible with respect to the current scholarship and how it is relevant to the design of this project. Include, whenever appropriate, the relationship between this project and the published work of others in the field. Be sure to point out how the project and selection of a host country are compatible with your formal and informal training. The reviewers will carefully scrutinize your university transcript(s) to establish whether your academic training is sufficient. In cases where your formal training does not include courses/classes in your transcript(s) that would normally be required to support the proposal, show how this training/knowledge was included as part of other classes/courses or experiences.
  • Timeliness: Include an estimated but realistic timeline for the following activities: the starting and ending dates, data collection and evaluation, reporting, publication, and dissemination. A clear timeline shows the reviewer that the planning phase was given careful consideration. This can demonstrate that the implementation plan is reasonable.
  • Project affiliation: If the program requires the applicant to be affiliated with an agency, university, or other organization in the host country, state that an affiliation has been established and upload the invitation letter as documentation. Whether or not a project affiliation is required, an association with host country individuals, educational institutions, NGOs or government agencies, demonstrated by an affiliation letter, will strengthen the application.

Avoid Discipline-Specific and Technical Terminology

The application must be written in a clear and concise style. In most cases, the reviewers will have at least some knowledge of the discipline. However, they may not be familiar with the details and specific terminology. Your application is less likely to succeed if the proposal contains undefined, discipline-specific, technical terminology that only experts are likely to understand. If discipline-specific terminology is necessary, include examples to define the terms. In addition, it is a good idea to ask individuals outside your area of study to read the proposal. They should be able not only to understand but also be able to explain it intelligently based solely on what was written.

A useful reference is Writing for the Outside World by Andrea D. Sims, a Fulbright Fellow to Croatia. Ms. Sims describes how she struggled to reduce the discipline specific technical terminology to Standard English so non-specialists on the IIE Fulbright National Screening Committee could understand it.

Avoid Overused and/or Inappropriate Language

Over the years, a number of words have lost their original meaning because of excessive or inappropriate use. Exclude such words unless they are truly appropriate in the proposal and/or curriculum vitae. For example, avoid:

  • Fascinate/fascinating--to command interest and to hold spellbound by an irresistible power.
  • Captivate/captivating--to influence and dominate by some special charm/art/trait with an irresistible appeal.
  • Awe/awesome--an emotion combining admiration, veneration, and/or wonder e.g. something terrific and/or wonderful.
  • Unique--being only one, being without like or equal.
  • Intrigue/intriguing--to arouse interest, desire, or curiosity.
  • Infinite-endless, immeasurable, or inconceivable
  • Endless--being or seeming to be without end.
  • Novel--new and not resembling something formerly known or used, original or striking, especially in conception or style.
  • Paradigm--a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them.

All of these words are legitimate. However, review committees often interpret their over/inappropriate uses as hype, puffery, and/or exaggeration.

Useful Web-Based Proposal Writing Resources

An excellent resource for proposal writing has been created by The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. At least 90 on-line handouts are available.

Here are some other useful guides for proposal writing:

Proposal Writing Tips That Can Make a Difference

  • Begin early. At least one, preferably two semesters before you plan to apply is best.
  • Scrupulously follow the directions in the application instructions. These guidelines provide information about:
    • Submission deadlines
    • Proposal format: margins, spacing, page and font limitations
    • Evaluation process and criteria
    • Dissemination of project results
    • Required timetable
    • Reference citation requirements
    • Eligibility
  • Answer all questions.
  • Be realistic in designing the project and make specific and explicit connections between:
    • Problems and objectives
    • Objectives and methods
    • Methods and results
    • Results and dissemination
  • Before using an acronym, write out the full title followed by the acronym in parentheses.
  • Use active rather than passive voice wherever possible
  • Generally avoid abbreviations. For example, use "laboratory," not "lab," "mathematics," not "math," she/he not s/he
  • Be sure all footnotes/references are written correctly in a consistent and acceptable form.
  • Use a spell checker but don't rely totally on it. The spell checker will not identify words that are spelled correctly but have inappropriate meanings. Examples are: dear for deer, to for too, you're for your, from for form, that for than and vice versa.
  • Proofread carefully. Check for split infinitives, incorrect subject-verb agreement, etc.

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