I am currently writing a PhD grant application, and I completed the first draft. The project is ambitious, but I and my advisors think feasible, but my advisors told me that it is quite dense and could be daunting for the grant reviewers, who may label it as unrealistic (which is a criterion of admission) and thus they may reject it.

I have no problem in working on simplifying my research project's description to make it more concise and readable, but my advisors suggested to strip half of the project, in order to raise the chances for it to be accepted. But they told me that of course, I can do the rest of the project too with the grant I will get, I just shouldn't mention that in the application.

Is it ethical and honest to "sell" a research project based on only half of its description and goals? Not only that, but also the logical reasoning and the bigger goal get totally lost, so are these worth losing against displaying a more realistic target? To me, it seems like reasoning that the end justifies the means...

I should mention that almost all the ideas for the research project are mine (the advisors helped me with naming the methods I will use, but the concepts, bibliography and goals are my own), and I was really motivated by the original whole project.

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    Why would you think this is unethical? Who/what might be wronged by this? You said it seems like "the end justifies the means" but what do you think is wrong about these "means"?
    – ff524
    Feb 11, 2016 at 21:27
  • @ff524 Because I'm going to strip half of the original project, the one which I will be working on. It's true that I will anyway work on the first part, but I wonder if changing the project's goals just to raise the chances of success isn't a bit a lie by omission... In other words, I will work on other stuff than what I will be funded on, is that really ethical?
    – gaborous
    Feb 11, 2016 at 21:33
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    Although there is certainly no ethical problem here, there is something worth following up on. You, as someone who has not yet begun a PhD project, have proposed something that your advisors tell you that veterans in the field will find unrealistically ambitious, and that it would look better if you only proposed to work on the first half. Your confidence -- even worry! -- that you will do much more than the first half is the premise of the question. While you needn't worry, I think this is a discrepancy well worth exploring further. What do you know here that everyone else doesn't? Feb 12, 2016 at 15:09
  • @PeteL.Clark They didn't tell me that the project I had was unrealistic, but that the reviewers may find it unrealistic. They told me they were confident I could do more than just the first two parts.
    – gaborous
    Feb 13, 2016 at 12:57
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    @gaborous: I see that you have edited your question to clarify that your advisors find it realistic. Good! I still wonder why they think a project they view as not prohibitively ambitious will likely be viewed as such by the reviewers, but much more idly: I don't know anything about who the reviewers are -- I was thinking in terms of reviewers for government research grants, who are veterans in the field; for all I know, the reviewers for your PhD application may not be -- and how they behave, and it sounds like your advisors do. (Also good.) Feb 13, 2016 at 15:09

2 Answers 2


Yes, of course this should not be a problem. The funding agencies want to see projects that are on a realistic scale. If it will probably not be possible for you to achieve your main goals, given the time and money allotted to the project, that certainly makes it seem like a poor investment. Conversely, the funders know that if you reach your projected goals early, you are going to use the remainder of your funding to extend the research further. So you should try to set achievable goals in your proposal, but if you manage to exceed them, nobody is going to be unhappy.

Naturally, cutting major tasks out of your proposal is going to require some rethinking of the justification. If the projects you think do have time to complete are less interesting by themselves than the later projects you will need to cut, they you still need to explain why they are important stepping stones toward the ultimately most important work (even if you won't be getting to that work yet). It can be subtle to get this right, but think you would be wise to trust your advisor's judgement about how much to include in your proposal.

  • Do you think I can briefly mention further goals in case I complete the target goals earlier in the application? (is it an accepted practice?)
    – gaborous
    Feb 11, 2016 at 21:36
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    You should certainly mention what future work can follow on from what you are proposing to accomplish. However, in my experience, it may be a bad idea to suggest that you can actually accomplish significantly more than you are proposing. It may come across as an invitation to cut your funding. This probably depends quite a bit on the funding agency and division, though. I would recommend being fairly circumspect about what you might accomplish beyond the explicit goals, and I would try to talk with somebody who has gotten funding from the same source before, to see what they think.
    – Buzz
    Feb 11, 2016 at 21:41
  • Thank you for all your answers, really helpful and dead on the spot.
    – gaborous
    Feb 11, 2016 at 22:03

Consider the inverse situation (exaggerated for the sake of the argument):

You propose a project that you know is unrealistic. The grant agency hypothetically approves your project, and the project runs out of money before any interesting findings are made.

In this case, I can see an ethical issue, since the project was "sold" (as you say) with a larger promise than what could be delivered. By contrast, I see no ethical problem with "underpromising" and "overdelivering".

  • My advisors were quite confident that I will be able do more than the first 2 parts, so the point is not that the project is unrealistic per se, but that it may look like unrealistic to reviewers.
    – gaborous
    Feb 13, 2016 at 12:59
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    @gaborous, if your advisors are so confident you can complete the complete set of tasks with the resources from the grant (time and money), they would be extremely foolish not to insist on proposing the full set for the grant. People evaluating your application will be able to do more or less the same estimate of results possible, and will just reject the application if it seems to fall far short of what is reasonably possible to accomplish.
    – vonbrand
    Feb 14, 2016 at 18:42

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