Ali wrote an excellent proposal but still could not get a Ph.D. scholarship. His profile was also outstanding. So it was hard for me to identify a problem with his application. His proposal also appeared to be sound, especially the introduction part. Then I had a look at the materials and methods section of his proposal. Here it was; a very detailed methods section that included every minor step. A lengthy and detailed methods section gives an impression that he copy/pasted the methods from a research paper. Alternatively, he does not know how to write the methods section in a proposal. In both cases, the reviewers could have frowned upon it.

The aim of the methods-section is to tell the readers that you selected the right techniques and experiment design. From right, I mean the most suitable experiment to test your hypothesis. A big misconception is that every experiment should include modern techniques and equipment. Science is not about equipment or techniques and simple experiment designs are always favored. However, considering state-of-the-art technology could be beneficial and add new perspectives to your study. In our last example of a bulb not working, how would you test the hypothesis that there is no electricity? One option is to use a modern device and check if there is electricity. However, a more straightforward option is to check other devices already connected with the circuit. Alternatively, you may ask your neighbors if they have electricity.

Writing a detailed methods section can have other consequences. Professors could disagree with your techniques and the more you write, the more you risk. For example, if you mention that you would use a computer for the data analyses, you are hard to disagree with. Whereas, if you write that you would use SPSS version 5.0 to do the data analysis or add 5ml of liquid to a solution, the professor might say that no, you are wrong because that is not the right approach. Another problem that comes with writing a detailed methods section is that we do not know the lab’s funding situation. For example, you want to use a PCR machine, but no PCR machine is available in the lab. That’s why I recommend keeping the methods section very short and to the point. Just enough that it provides some idea about what you want to do meanwhile avoiding specifics.

Many proposals have another problem. The methods section is written in the past tense, just as a journal paper. You should know that the methods section should be written in the future tense because you are supposed to do the experiments. For example, instead of writing that the bulb was checked visually, write that the bulb would be checked visually. Past tense should be avoided overall in the proposal unless you are citing previous studies. Because remember, a proposal is a work that will be performed.

The next blog will be about expected results, so stay tuned. See you!

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