Sunday, January 4, 2009

Proposals (etc) outside academia?

If you're working as a geoscientist outside academia - in oil & gas, in mining, as an environmental consultant, for a government agency, for a non-profit organization, or in some other career - do you write proposals? Not NSF grant proposals, like your professors constantly did, but some kind of writing to get permission or funding to start a project?

I'm asking because I'm about to start teaching my department's writing class again, and the class is designed to develop writing skills while writing a proposal for a senior thesis. When I arrived here and took over the class, it was a general education requirement (writing within a discipline). That's changed recently, but after I tried to make it more relevant by using it to prepare students for their research, the department decided that the class was too important to drop from the major. So I'm still teaching it, but I want to make it as valuable as possible to all my students - not just those who plan to go on to graduate school.

Thus my question. I tell students that writing is a skill that they will be able to use regardless of what they do. (My usual line is "If you can write, do math, and think critically, you should be able to do a lot of different jobs, not just the ones you think you're training for.") Part of my argument is that people have to write in all sorts of different careers. Geologists have to write reports discussing what they've found - even recent grads have told me that they spend a lot of their time writing reports. But I also tell students that writing proposals (or maybe bids, in the case of consultants) might also be part of their work. But I don't have direct experience with them, so I don't know much about the details.

So, for those of you who work outside academia: do you write proposals? At what level - are proposals written by people at a certain level of the organization, but not by the underlings? For those of you who have written your own proposals (which would probably include anyone who has been to graduate school), have you been able to translate your experience to the professional world? What kind of advice would you give to undergraduates who are learning this kind of writing for the first time?


Silver Fox said...

Kim, I haven't ever written a proposal as a consultant to the mining industry, but consultants do write proposals that outline a type of exploration they want to do or an area they think should be looked at, and the proposal would include a budget for the proposed project or area of interest. I have written that sort of thing as a company employee - it would usually be for my direct boss, sometimes for the V.P. of Exploration or Chief Geologist. These kinds of proposals can be semi-formal in memo format or can be more formal in a report format. Yearly budgets for each project or reconnaissance area I've worked in were commonly outlined in memo form (that could be several budgets for one year).

Sometimes, I and others at a company have given presentations to all the geos in the company - presentations that are essentially to say, this is why you should prioritize my project rather over that one over there.

Writing is an exceptionally important skill in my opinion. People who don't write well are subject to having their reports revised by other geologists and secretaries, sometimes with loss of information or meaning.

Other company geologists or consultants have probably had other experiences, maybe more proposal writing than I've actually done. I think that consultanting firms often write bids and proposals, but I've not yet been involved in writing any.

BrianR said...

I've only been at my job for a year now, but I can offer a bit of info from my perspective.

I don't write proposals per se, but I do end up writing a lot of shorter bits of text (blurbs, for lack of a better word I guess) discussing how me might expand current projects. And I spend TONS of time writing text that puts research results (whether it's our own, academics we fund/collaborate with, or published literature) into the "language" that our business cares about. Or, to put it another way, write it for managers who don't know a lot of geology but think they do. It seems half of my job is this kind of "translation" of science.

Perhaps some kind of assignment where the students need to take one paper or press release and then write a paragraph (?) translating it for various non-academic entities ... I don't know ... that was off the top of my head.

Silver Fox said...

Maybe a proposal-writing exercise could be geared toward travel into some particular area, with the geologic purpose written up, along with how much everything is going to cost, and having your students put the report into an assigned format - perhaps even for something like a class field trip.

It's surprising how many different formats one can be required to write in for different managers over the years!

Maria said...

I helped write a few bids as a newly-hired consultant monkey. They have some things in common with resumes and cover letters: You must explain why you are the best company for the project, discuss similar projects you've done in the past that have left you uniquely able to do it well and/or quickly, etc.

I never had anything that was like an academic proposal in the sense that you had to explain why the work itself was necessary, though.

BTW: At the interview for that job, they were very, visibly impressed when I told them that I had taken a writing course.

Suvrat Kher said...

Same as Maria. I contribute to writing bids for GIS projects. We had to stress how the client will get the best cost to benefit ratio using our solutions over our competitors.

This was learning on the job for me, but I guess I had developed decent writing skills over my graduate career, so that helped.

Are you planning to showcase successful proposals and bids (if can get hold of any) to your students. Some examples of how it is done might help .

Anonymous said...

I worked for an Environmental company that had a large contract with the Army and we routinely wrote proposals to request funding from the Army either to start up a new investigation or to expand a current one. We also had to write up monthly progress reports in addition to the final report.

Joe Kopera said...

In recent months I've been enamoured by the idea of being a citizen-scientist and have been getting involved in various environmental initiatives in my town. I'm also an soft-money-funded employee of an unfunded State Geologic Survey housed at a University. In both of these situations, I'm spending an ever increasing amount of time with critiquing and writing grant proposals, fact-sheets, briefs, etc..., mostly to non-scientific organizations and/or legislators with the goal of asking for money to do scientific research, in addition to getting stable base funding, period.

Not only that, as our survey (in theory) grows and I progress to a more senior position, I will be expected to write proposals to fund part of my own salary and the salaries of people I hire to do work. The kicker is that since I don't have a PhD, nor since I am faculty, I cannot apply to NSF for grants... so I have to get creative with who I apply to and what I apply for. Good writing skills are essential to say the least, but they fall under the umbrella of the inherently more important skill set of good communication-- written, oral, visual, and interpersonal (having production conversations, conflict resolution, etc...). If we can't effectively communicate to non-geologists why geologic maps are important, we won't survive as a survey.

That being said, we're in a very similar position to NGOs and nonprofit organizations who have paid grant-writers on staff. I have learned much by writing a few measly grant proposals to GSA while a graduate student, however, the most valuable grant-writing / communication advice I've ever been given has been from non-scientist friends who write grants for said NGO's and non-profit organizations, who have to bring in grant money to financially survive. These folks are experts at communication, and would strongly suggest contacting a few nonprofits in Durango and talking to their grant-writers.

Also, now emeritus Dr. John Hubert had taught a rather excellent technical writing course here at U-Mass Amherst, for a number of years. I had an opportunity to TA for it while in graduate school, and still refer to my notes and handouts from that class as a professional. Try getting in touch with him.

My own advice for writing (though I don't know how best to teach it to undergraduates): Develop a good eye for superfluous text / words / images in your writing. When reviewing documents written by scientists for legislators, I come across a lot of unnecessary data. To grossly and perhaps inaccurately generalize: I've noticed that scientists like to communicate the entire story of their research beginning with building a case up from data. Non-scientists generally don't think this way. In general, they are not data driven. When writing for non-scientists I find that one usually has to start with the conclusion / interpretation. If a scientist starts going into details about the "how we do it" when asking for money, eyes glaze over...

My 2 cents...

Joe Kopera said...

Another tip:

Proofread for grammatical errors... unlike the previous comment made by myself. ;)

kurt said...

I've read a few proposals in the mining industry. The proposals tended to be very map/visual oriented - typically using 3-D imaging generated with specialty software (e.g., Vulcan -- ). The proposals were not eloquent, rather they were very concise explanations of the background geology and concept for exploratory drilling projects, along with a budget and proposed project timeline.

Proposals were not necessary for individual holes drilled as part of an existing exploration program. Proposals were only for big, new projects.
The proposals were written by mine geologists (not consultants) and were usually accompanied by an oral presentation with slides or PowerPoint. They were proprietary info with limited distribution.

Cindy M. said...

Weighing in from the non-profit world, we write a lot of proposals to a wide variety of sources... including government agencies, private foundations, professional societies, etc. I will clear it with the higher-ups to share some successful proposals with you for a differnt perspective. They are mostly for programs materials and operating costs rather than pure research, but they're interesting none the less.

Chuck said...

No, I pitched all of my proposals face to face.

Joe Kopera said...


Coincidentally, a short article was just published in The Professional Geologist regarding effective communication as an essential skill that students need to invest in improving while in school, before they get to the workplace. The link to this month's issue is

The article is on page 23.

Anonymous said...

I work for a environmental consulting/water resources firm, and we try for a fair amount of local municipal work and foreign aid work as well (US Aid, among others), which both involve submitting proposals. I'm about 1 year out of grad school, in a very small office (~5 people), so I'm involved with it, but I would say that my boss does the majority of the writing. The biggest thing that gets tossed around is remembering to get a lot said in a concise way.

geosjt said...

I work for a large Canadian oil & natural gas company in the US, and have had to request funding for "science" projects. Most of the managers in my company are reservoir engineers, meaning they are penny-pinchers for things that don't directly make the company money, like say, wellhead equipment. Anyway, the process I typically go through is to make a PowerPoint presentation outlining the idea with this logic flow: 1) we need to know {insert geologic thing} in order to better understand what controls reservoir production behavior, 2) this is the analysis needed, 3) this is the data needed for the analysis, 4) this is the cost of the data, 5) this is the economic benefit to the company for the money spent to acquire the data. #5 is always the toughest part, because it's not always easy to communicate to an engineer why it's important to know how, for example, the mineralogic content of a silty shale affects the geomechanical properties and relative permeability of a nanodarcy type rock. How do you tie that back to production, and how do you demonstrate that this knowledge has a quantitative positive net effect on rate of return BEFORE THE WORK HAS EVEN BEEN DONE. I like to call it the endless-loop-of-engineering-logic.