Writing the objectives: the overall objective

My view is that the objectives are the most important part of the proposal, I think it is as clear and as simple as that and their importance is difficult to overstate in discussion of the ERC programmes.  Other aspects are covered in discussions of writing backwards, thinking SMARTly and FINER, and making sure that we are making promises about something new in a very strong sense. In my experience the difference between proposals that are funded and those that are not is most often the precision and clarity of the objectives that the project is going to deliver at the end of the project: winners tend to have few objectives stated as clear and beneficial differences to the research field concerned which are also measurable and feasible.  In contrast, unfunded proposals often have a long list of ‘objectives’ (mostly a confusion of objectives and other parts of the project, normally the results and the activities) which are too general for the evaluator actually to get to grips with what the proposal is promising to achieve.

Objectives are quite complicated things and difficult to get right but drive the whole of the rest of a well designed project.  They are worthy of a number of blog posts as there are a number of facets to them.  But once they are well put together the rest of the project will drop into place much more quickly as everything then either flows from their being reached i.e., the project overall objective and the longer term impacts or flow into their being reached i.e., the methods, the results and the resources.

To begin thinking about objectives and how to write them I will start with one of the important ideas separation and classification exercises that the writer needs to do right at the start as part of the preparation for writing.  A good way to think about writing about objectives and to help to set up the proposal text for quick and easy reading is to break the objectives out into ‘overall objective’ and ‘project purpose’ or ‘project objectives’.

The first paragraph of the work is the right place to set out the overall objective or high level objective of the project as it helps to give the reader a quick orientation checkpoint and a brief summary to the major problem that you’ll be addressing in this work.  The key characteristic of this very first phase of the presentation is that you are writing about the contribution that you’ll make to knowledge while at the same time drawing the reader into the field of science you’ll be working in and also drawing them into the rhetorical and logical flow of the text. You start at the highest and most general level so as not to alienate any readers, all interested and well-read evaluators should be able to follow the flow and appreciate the importance of what you are trying to do here in a general way.  The overall objective is the kind of high-level problem that is well acknowledged in the field, often considered to be intractable, often close to the heart of the current discourse in the field, often the unspoken missing bit at the centre, in fact, and the thing which you and many other of your colleagues are working busily away at to solve from all different angles and perspectives.

It is not the problem that you’ll solve in this project as it is too large but explains quickly why the work is important before you move down into the details of the particular and focused project objectives. So, in my view, the overall objective paragraph is the opening orientation paragraph that more or less every evaluator is going to understand and doesn’t contain any detailed promises.  The overall objective plays a vital role in the rhetorical development of the proposal as it is the place where you grab the reader’s attention and begin to make the case for how important this area of the field you are working in is and how the problem that you have identified is in fact the key barrier to progress inside the important field.

In earlier posts (e.g., ‘Articulating the different logics flowing through the proposal’) I have gone into some more detail about how important it is in the first phases of the work to create a persuasive argument that draws together an attractive and interesting set of facts and marshals them in such a way that the likely impact of the work is highlighted – we are dealing here with probabilities, that it will likely be true at the end of the work that a major contribution to this hard-to-solve problem will have been made.  It is the job of the following sections on the project objectives to specify exactly what form these benefits and changes will take, what effects the project will deliver for the research community i.e., what the project level objectives actually are: but at the start the brush strokes are a bit broader.  We are dealing with the all-important ‘why’ set of questions about why this work is important rather than exactly what will be done which can all be set out later; but we are dealing with what is often called the ‘greater why’ i.e., high level issues and contributions to resolving some problems there.

And as always in these tightly crafted and well-wrought pieces of work (good proposals have a very high level of polish, an easy flow and integration between all conceptual levels and phases) all the parts fit together and link up.  Therefore, the impacts of the work which are the effects of having done the research on the target audience after the project has ended will link back up to the issues identified in the overall objective paragraph which makes them very easy to deal with.  All the writer needs to do is to show how the impacts of the project will be the big contributions to the research field that were discussed in the opening sections and the whole job will hang together very well and quickly.  Like the overall objective, impacts are also strong probabilities rather than specific promises for which the researcher will ever be held account.  In fact, as an aside, as far as I know, no one has ever been held to account for anything in ERC projects, but it is probably very wise to act as if this is possible where the project objectives are concerned.  So, a good clear overall objective section where problems in the field are identified will also quite simply take care of the discussion of impacts of reaching the specific project objectives as they are substantially the same thing i.e., the impacts are the contribution made.