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April 1998
(c) P2C2 Group, Inc.

How to Prepare a Research Proposal

Book Review. Winning a government research grant or contract is an arduous undertaking, as is the case for most proposal competitions. Fortunately, we have a coach in the form of David R. Krathwohl, who has written HOW TO PREPARE A RESEARCH PROPOSAL, distributed by Syracuse University Press. He provides a roadmap for the journey. The third edition of the paperback was published in 1988, and Krathwohl tells me that there will soon be an updated edition of the paperback. For ordering, the ISBN is 0-8156-8112-7/KRHTP.

The book is directly applicable to research in education, the social sciences, program evaluation, and the behavior of individuals and organizations. This is understandable because Krathwohl is past president of the American Educational Research Association and of the Educational Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association, and he uses examples that are applicable to his field. However, with only a modicum of inference, the issues of research design, the tight logic required, and the procedures for proposal preparation are generic to the sciences.

The book also has sections that will be useful to government contractors and grantees that are not primarily interested in research projects. For operational information technology (IT) projects, many government agencies are expecting contractors to capture and report "metrics" about performance--data necessary for operational management and documentation of "past performance" in future proposals. In addition, proposals for service delivery (education, training, technical assistance) must also include a project evaluation component, and some of the methodological issues in Krathwohl's book are relevant.

Why Proposals Fail. Midway through the book is an attention-getting Chapter 10, Why Proposals Fail: Studies of Disapproved Proposals. Rather than rely on his own opinions, Krathwohl cites three studies that investigated why grant proposals failed to be funded for projects related to health, handicapped children, and educational research. The studies are quite old (1960s), but interesting nonetheless: Despite the proposal developer's typical trepidation about budgets, the cost proposal was the least frequent cause of disapprovals (though some were rejected for this reason). On the other hand, the proposal section that was most commonly an Achilles' heel of disapproved proposals was that dealing with the Procedure or Approach. That is, the proposal failed to give a convincing and logical explanation of how the researcher would carry out the project. Other proposal deficiencies encountered included "little likelihood that the research would produce new or useful information," nebulous statements of the research problem, lack of training or experience on the part of the investigator, poor prior research record, and heavy reliance on inexperienced associates.

The heart of the book is the first major section, Preparing and Submitting the Proposal. A chapter is devoted to each element: defining and stating the research problem, describing the procedure (methodology or technical approach), resources such as personnel and facilities, and the submission/negotiation process. The chapters provide a roadmap through the entire process, and the author clearly describes how each step must be constructed to achieve fit with the previous step.

Pointers on Research Design. Given that I took my last formal academic course in research methodology during the time of Copernicus, I particularly enjoyed reviewing the research design issues in the section on procedures. Things like sampling design, control groups, and double-blind studies are etched in my brain, but several issues were freshly re-introduced. One of the most fascinating was the "regression effect," a subtle but very serious error that may occur when one selects the top or bottom individuals (such as the first or fifth quintiles) as the focus of the study. An explanation of this problem is given, but the "bottom line" problem is that re-testing my produce change, but the differences may be spurious. The cause is that tests are an approximation of reality, and scores in retesting may tend to gravitate slightly toward the mean of the entire population.

 In addition to design issues, the procedure section includes management-oriented "methods" like the use of PERT and GANTT charts, as well as workload analysis tables. The samples of proposal page layouts expose the fact that the currently-available edition of the book has been in circulation for nearly 10 years. Character-oriented, 1980s-style layouts are the mode, rather than formats that take advantage of the desktop publishing capabilities of today's computers.

 Useful Aids. A section on Aids to Proposal Preparation can be quite handy to developers of research proposals. One chapter addresses how to adapt material to specialized research--such as evaluations, longitudinal studies, case studies, etc. Helpful to all are sections about how to critique your proposal, a checklist for complex proposals, and how to analyze your unsuccessful proposals. Of interest to academic institutions will be the sections on Finding Funding and Sections, and Insights for Beginners and Doctoral Students. The appendices contain useful bibliographies and information sources, though these are somewhat dated.

 I found this book worth adding to my proposal development reference library. I look forward to reading Krathwohl's updated edition.


The P2C2 Group provides enterprise-level management consulting services for federal agencies and the contractors who support them. We focus on program and information technology management. Our areas of specialization are Capital Planning and Investment Control, acquisition, strategic planning, and performance evaluation. Please visit our Web site for more information..

Best wishes,

Jim Kendrick
4101 Denfeld Avenue
Kensington, MD 20895


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