Alright, let’s talk scholarships.

There’s not a lot in a scholarship application form that you have control over.  Your previous awards, publications and work experience are immutable, and the name of your supervisor and university stems from decisions made months or years ago.  Without inventing a time machine, you’re limited to improving the few free-form sections of the application, with the research proposal section by far the most important.  Make a good impression there and your application will stand out from the next ten on the pile [1].

Kyle Finchsigmate pointed out a while back that most introductions in synthetic research papers are formed from a few basic templates.  This isn’t from the majority of authors copying from previous papers, but from the literary equivalent of convergent evolution.  There’s only a limited number of layouts comprehensive enough to introduce the field but short enough to hold the reader’s attention.

Research proposals work similarly, but it’s difficult to get access to a large pool of examples—at least without serving on the review panel.  As an undergraduate I got advice from the postdocs in the lab, and as a graduate student I turned to my advisor.  In the event that these options aren’t available to you, below is my current format.  This is just one style, so don’t be concerned if you’re working with something entirely different [2].


The proposal is divided into six roughly equal parts: Background, Design, Synthesis, Characterization, Aims and Significance.  Applications vary in length, so a shorter application may abbreviate or omit some sections.  Thematically, everything revolves around solving a single real world problem.


The first paragraph introduces the target/field.  If I’m trying to make an antimicrobial here is where I talk about other members of the class, bringing a non-expert up to speed on their properties.  (Mode of action, important structural features, etc.)

The second paragraph goes negative.  What threats are on the horizon, or why are current approaches inadequate?  For an antimicrobial the threat of bacterial resistance will take centre stage, and for a solar cell I’d probably talk about efficiency, manufacturing difficulties, or the rising cost of oil.  Whatever your field, determine the specific problem your project is going to solve, and let everyone know why it needs to be solved now.


How is the previously mentioned problem solvable, and if funded how will you solve it?  Unveil your compound or synthetic scheme half way through this section, and explain in detail how it is an improvement over the status quo.  For me this is usually the longest section, with an extended setup and a big reveal.


Now it’s time to show how you will make your target.  If this is a total synthesis proposal I would put the key reaction(s) in the design section, with the more established chemistry explained in detail here.  For my work this section is heavily referenced, as it provides evidence that the new antimicrobial outlined in the design section can actually be made.


Now that you’ve made your compound, how will you demonstrate that it solves the problem outlined in the background section?  If you’re making an enzymatic inhibitor, it’s time to talk about where you’ll get the enzymes from, and explain the inhibition assay in detail.  If this is an analytical project, talk about your controls, and your access to a MALDI/GC/etc.  This is also the place to mention your collaborators, explaining who they are and exactly what parts of the project will be their responsibility.  Like the synthesis section, this is all about showing that not only are you capable of finding an innovative solution to the real world problem, you’re capable of following that idea all the way to its conclusion.


Pick three key steps in your project and write them here as goals you’ll accomplish, as a quick reference for the evaluation committee to turn to during discussions.


Aim 1: To synthesize key precursor Alpha.

Aim 2: To use the John-Jacob-Jingleheimer-Schmidt reaction to transform precursor Alpha into product Beta, only three easy steps from natural product Complexitoxin.

Aim 3: To compare the optical rotation of synthesized and naturally produced Complexitoxin, confirming the stereochemistry of its third quaternary centre once and for all.


After the previous sections this is a cakewalk.  State how your compound will solve the specific problem outlined in the background, then reverse your most gloom-filled statement.  Problem solved!


[1] The research proposal is especially important for new professors.  In that period between hiring and the first few research papers there’s little else to put in the funding application.

[2] But please, share your format.  I’m by no means perfect.