Getting Started

The Concept Paper

Proposal writing is a difficult exercise. It requires organization of thought, clear communication, and a logical sequence of ideas. Under the pressure of meeting a deadline it is especially difficult to produce a coherent, precise, and concise application which represents one’s work in the most favorable manner possible.

The concept paper is an especially useful aid in helping researchers develop their ideas, and to prepare for proposal deadlines. The concept paper is a brief sketch of a project idea, which serves as an advance organizer for the full proposal and provides a medium to assess that idea in a number of contexts. This brief paper of 2-4 pages helps potential applicants organize, think through, and refine their idea so that it can be shaped into a fundable proposal.

Once written, concept papers can be used in a variety of ways:

  • obtain feedback from colleagues;
  • identify resources needed;
  • bring collaborators on board;
  • determine boilerplate which will be needed;
  • identify potential sponsors; and
  • pre-proposal contact with sponsor.

By reducing proposal writing to an intermediate, smaller, more manageable task, a concept paper can prepare applicants to develop full proposals with more assurance, self-confidence, logic, and timelines. Conceiving the proposal in miniature, researchers can better inform its evolution. They can take advantage of critical debate, sponsor perspectives, and design expertise. As they map out the foundation for their project they can anticipate problems, weaknesses, needs, and evaluate the relationship between the problem statement and solution. Before committing themselves completely to a project idea they can in effect test out its feasibility and significance.

While deadlines often govern the proposal writing process, they are generally cyclical. Therefore, researchers can work toward a deadline instead of being driven by it, if they were prepared with a concept paper. Since writing and research productivity are derived from personal commitments, the concept paper is a means of establishing priorities and building upon background, training, and experience. They are an aid in through fully arriving at the type of commitment, which advances their own interests and contributes to knowledge.

Some ideas are not fundable, either because they are truly not important, because the timing is not yet right, or there is no support available. The concept paper can help forecast the viability of an idea and suggest strategies for redefining it, re-modeling it, aggressively pursuing it, or abandoning it. Since the effort invested in writing a concept paper is less demanding, it is a practical exercise, which can serve as an early success indicator.

Research funds are highly competitive. The quality of applications is critical to their acceptance for award. By generating the proposal on a smaller scale and systematically iterating it, you can considerably enhance its chances for success.

Concept Paper Checklist

There are four key questions which your concept paper should answer:

  • What is the problem? (What are you going to work on?)
  • Why is the project needed?
  • How are you going to conduct the project?
  • What resources will be required to do the study? (Include an estimate of cost).

These points form the basis for organizing your thinking and providing you a structure for your narrative. They also represent the primary concern of sponsor agencies.

  • Have others tried to solve the problems? If not, why not?
  • Who else is working on the problem; how do their approaches differ from yours? Are yours preferable? Why?
  • Is the problem sufficiently important to be worth funding at the level required?
  • What are the methods that will be sued and what is the plan of study? Is an evaluation plan needed?
  • Are you likely to encounter any particular problems? If so, how would you approach solving them?
  • What results do you expect (hope) to achieve? What are they likely to mean?
  • What skills or knowledge does the investigator need to have? Does the investigator have them?
  • Are the facilities adequate?
  • Is the presentation clear? (i.e., does the presentation demonstrate that the investigator have them?)
  • Are the facilities adequate?
  • Is the presentation clear? (i.e., does the presentation demonstrate that the investigator thinks clearly?)
  • Can the investigation be completed in the time proposed? (If you weren’t sure until you had thought the problem through very carefully, explain why you feel it can be done in the time proposed).
  • Are your plans for the subject selection and protection clear?
  • What are the dissemination plans for publicizing the results? How likely is the study to be fruitful? (i.e., have an impact beyond the started goals?)
  • Has the work been planned to gain the maximum benefit from the effort to be expended?
  • Can the study be recast or redefined in a way that will increase its usefulness to investigators of related topics for substantially the same cost?