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Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant Guidelines

Proposals for Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grants submitted to the Law and Social Science Program must comply with the following criteria:

  • Target Date: January 15 and August 15. Decisions about support are made within six months of each target date.
  • Project Duration: Maximum 12 Months.
  • Project Budget: $6,000-$12,000 for one year. Funds are for expenses associated with conducting the dissertation research (e.g., field work, data collection, payment to subjects, survey expenses, software, microfilm, data transcription, travel, and expenses incurred at sites away from the home institution). Stipend, salary, and tuition reimbursement are not supported.
  • Proposal Title should read, "Doctoral Dissertation Research: ....."
  • Project Summary must not exceed one single-spaced page.
  • Project Description must not exceed 10 single-spaced pages.
  • Principal Investigator: The dissertation advisor or another qualified home-institution faculty member should be listed as the Principal Investigator; the dissertation student should be listed as the Co-Principal Investigator.
  • Human Subjects: For proposals involving human subjects, please be sure to specify the date on which the university’s IRB approved or exempted the project. If the certification is pending, please state this on the cover page. Please do not wait until you have been notified of funding to start the certification process.
  • Submission: All proposals must be submitted electronically via Fastlane.
  • Proposals that violate these requirements in an attempt to "pack in" additional information beyond the 10-page limit are likely to antagonize reviewers and may be returned without consideration.

If you have questions, please contact the Program Director: Chris Zorn,

Dissertation Advice to Students

Outstanding proposals specify how the knowledge to be created advances our theoretical understanding of the study situation, so that people interested in similar situations in different contexts will learn from the project's outcome. The key is to be explicit in showing how the general theory explains the local situation, and in showing how the new knowledge from the local situation will advance the theory.

Follow the proposal preparation guidelines in the Doctoral Dissertation Program Announcement, especially the instructions for spacing (single-spaced), length (10 pages for the project description), font size (12 point is best, no smaller than 15 characters per inch), CVs (2 page maximum biographical sketch), and proposal summary (1 page maximum). The summary must address, in separate paragraphs, the "intellectual merit" and the "broader impacts" of the proposed research (see the Grants Program Guide).

Use a clear and concise writing style. Reviewers will include legal scholars and social scientists from a wide range of fields, and it is possible that no specialist from your particular area of research will be among the reviewers. Defining key terms and keeping your proposal free of jargon will ensure that all reviewers will be able to understand your proposal and evaluate it fairly.

One of the areas in which the proposal will be evaluated is the "Research Competence of the Investigator." You can provide information to reviewers in the body of the proposal as well as in your biographical sketch. Be sure to include any other information that will help reviewers evaluate how well prepared you are to conduct the research.

At the end of the proposal, include only the references cited rather than a complete or general bibliography for your problem area.

Examples of interview schedules, questionnaires or task protocols, etc. should be included wherever possible in appendices, but do not attach any appendices unless you have received permission from the NSF program director. Proposals without explicit permission for appendices may be delayed or returned. Remember that reviewers are not obligated to read appendices, so critically important information should be in the body of the proposal. Letters testifying to local institutional sponsorship should be included in the "Supplementary Documents" section in Fastlane.

The following are suggested page limits for the Project Description. These are not hard-and-fast rules, but indicate reviewers' interests:

  • Statement of the research problem, specific aims, expectations, propositions or hypotheses: 2 pages.
  • Review of the literature and significance: 1 page.
  • Preliminary studies by the student, if any: 1 page.
  • Research Plan: 5 pages, Including:
    • Research Design
    • Case Selection
    • Research Site or Data Source(s)
    • Operationalization of Key Concepts
    • Data Analysis Plans
  • Research Schedule: 1 page.

The research plan should begin with an overview of the research design, relating it to the theory. This should be followed by a brief description of the research site. Data collection and analysis methods follow. Theories, setting and methods should be tightly linked: Readers should learn what the researcher is going to do and how the specific activities to be engaged in relate to both theory and setting. Note that a mere listing of a method is not enough to tell a reader what the researcher plans and why. The term "participant observation", for example, is extraordinarily general and should be unpacked into its specific components, each related to the information outcome that is then related to the research design and theory.

Sampling should be explicitly justified by discussing how data will generalize to a relevant population or theory. Each method, whether it generates qualitative or quantitative data, should be justified in terms of the research aims. The key issue is to impress reviewers that the new knowledge from your project will generalize to significant populations and theories.

Proposals also should include an analysis plan, although readers recognize that plans change in the process of fieldwork. Describe how you will use your data to answer your research questions and test your hypotheses. A mere listing of software programs will not demonstrate to reviewers that you have seriously considered all phases of the research process in designing your proposal. It should be possible for a reviewer to look back to your specific aims and understand why each kind of data is being collected, and why a particular analytic technique is planned.

Reviewers are well aware that there are no perfect strategies for conducting research, but will be looking for evidence that you understand the strengths and weaknesses of the approach selected. In a competitive review process where only a subset of excellent proposals can be funded, reviewers need to be told how the new knowledge to be gained from your particular study will yield generalizations that advance our theoretical understanding of the problem.

* Note: Students doing international research, having a formal affiliation with a foreign research institution, may be eligible for additional funding. Please contact the appropriate program in the NSF's Office of International Science (