I'm applying for graduate fellowships right now (I am a first-year graduate student in a STEM field), and am preparing to submit the application. My advisor has been helping me out with it for a while, and at one point, he took my draft of my research proposal and made some somewhat significant edits to it. He added several paragraphs, deleted some of my wording, added some sources, and so on. Altogether, at least half of the text in the proposal—a lot of it is figures—has been written or edited by him, while half the text is still mine (and I made the figures and the general outline of the proposal).

For obvious reasons, I'm uncomfortable asking him whether or not his contributions are too substantial (I don't want to say "I think you did too much of it, so I'm going to change it back" or to do so behind his back), but at the same time, I'm cautious about whether or not it's unethical to receive that kind of help on the proposal for my fellowship application, because I'm not sure how these things typically work.

So, is this something that typically happens with these kinds of applications, and is it unethical/immoral on my part to use such a proposal (i.e. something that gives me any kind of unfair advantage)? Or, am I thinking of this too much like a competition that requires solely my efforts for my submission?

Edit I just want to stress that when I say about half the text was written by my advisor, I mean that I initially wrote the paragraphs in question, but they were substantially edited to get the idea across in a better way.

On that note, would it be appropriate for me to further edit his edits? At that point, though, I feel as though I'd be editing it just to avoid acting unethically, not to improve the proposal. Basically, what action would I take in order to ensure I'm not acting unethically here?

3 Answers 3


You apply for money and your adviser will profit from getting you granted the money, too. He will get some research he is interested. Why shouldn't every adviser support his student in that way?

You should also learn how to write proposals. Not just by writing it, but also to give it the finishing touches and fixing the issues you could not yet identify yourself. That's why its good to get the feedback and support you received from your adviser.

I don't see it unethical at all. It would be problematic if you could not perform the research you describe in your proposal or know it will not work or know someone already did it.

  • 8
    I think you hit the nail n the head with your second paragraph - that is, usually, why parts get re-written...
    – Solar Mike
    Dec 31, 2017 at 8:39

Your main goals with the research proposal are i) to convey the message (in this case the aims of your research, contributions and likely future impact) in as clear a manner as possible and ii) to get funded. I see absolutely no issue with your advisor or any other person that you would like to provide feedback to your application, suggesting revisions and changes to your drafts. For me that includes both editing the written text as well as recommendations for the proposed work, expanding scope etc.

Having said that, the application is yours and you are the one who has the final word into what goes and what not. So treat the contributions from your advisor positively but critically and accept the ones that you find improve your funding proposal.

  • If Person A has an idea and Person B does half of the writeup, that's not feedback, that's co-authorship. Dec 31, 2017 at 7:51
  • @ElizabethHenning if person B didn't come up with anything new or novel, and instead only edited for grammar and clarity (and, indeed, added new sources), i wouldn't call it co-authorship.
    – user78960
    Dec 31, 2017 at 20:32
  • @AytAyt Ghostwriters by definition don't come up with anything novel, but they are often credited as co-writers. Dec 31, 2017 at 20:40
  • @ElizabethHenning ghost authors are not credited, usually by contractual obligation. That's the whole point of ghostwriting (which i do for music, and have never been credited for). Further, ghost authors DO create the new novel content.. the CREDITED author is the one who did not create the content, they just hired the writer. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghostwriter
    – user78960
    Dec 31, 2017 at 20:42
  • @AytAyt Which means that they should be credited but they sign that right away. Dec 31, 2017 at 20:46

If this is for an individual fellowship like an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, your advisor's reworking of your proposal sounds over the line. If he had discussed the specifics of the proposal with you at length, you wrote the proposal on your own, and then he made a few followup edits, that would be kosher. But if he actually wrote half the proposal himself, then it seems to me that it would be at the very least misrepresentation to submit it as your own proposal.

Even if this is common in your field, it's not good practice on the part of your advisor. Part of the point of applying for graduate fellowships is to train students to write proposals on their own. Try asking him if you can use his "suggestions" to rewrite the proposal in your own words.

Response to OP edit: Since you say the ideas were yours, that's better that what you initially wrote. But I still believe that your advisor should not be putting pen to paper on your proposal for substantial edits. Your writing is part of your proposal, so it should be yours. This isn't the same thing as applying for a grant--it's more like applying to a program. Your advisor should have discussed his suggestions with you and then you could either take them or not.

Edit: Although I seem to have gotten an equal number of upvotes and downvotes, the downvoters are simply wrong. A GRF (along with the other federal fellowships) is not the same thing as a grant.

In a presentation by the program director, Dr. Gisele Muller-Parker, she said "the GRFP program funds people, not projects." (source)

Submitting an application which has been extensively rewriten by someone else is misrepresentation.

  • 3
    "Part of the point of applying for graduate fellowships is to train students to write proposals on their own": But the main part is to do research, isn't it? Dec 31, 2017 at 8:58
  • 7
    Training requires feedback, corrections from the adviser is direct feedback in a tight loop. You won't get detailed feedback from funding agencies beside a decision money granted or not.
    – usr1234567
    Dec 31, 2017 at 12:11
  • @usr1234567 That's not actually true about funding agencies, and what the advisor did wasn't feedback, it was substantially rewriting half the proposal. Dec 31, 2017 at 18:53
  • @MassimoOrtolano The main point is to compete honestly for the fellowship. Dec 31, 2017 at 18:54
  • The US fellowships the OP mentioned are not "funding" in the sense that the application represents the student and not just the research project. Submitting documents which are substantially someone else's work is unethical, which was the OP's question. I have no doubt that it goes on a lot anyway, but it's still unethical. Dec 31, 2017 at 18:58

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