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Clarifying Your Message: Hypothesis Writing

The cornerstone of the scientific method is the hypothesis, the predictive statement upon which a researcher builds an experiment. You make a claim, then you design the tests that will collect evidence to either support or refute your claim. We learn this in our high school science classrooms, but that doesn’t always mean it sticks. In a culture of relentless marketing, information overload, and hyper-competitive drive, I’ve often found hypothesis writing akin to swimming upstream. We are tasked with generating a succinct and testable statement that does not rise beyond what we can and will examine, but we’ve been living in a world that trains us to oversell.

Perhaps this in part explains why too many applications score poorly in review because of an inappropriate or badly crafted hypothesis. This is the first hurdle in peer review, and it trips even seasoned investigators. I believe there are a few reasons this occurs:

  1. PIs are focused on meeting the call of the RFP. While it’s certainly encouraged to include language in your proposal that matches what the grantor is looking to fund, the hypothesis is not the best place for this. For example, if the request for proposals (RFP) document states that the funders hope to support R&D that helps develop technologies to support combat casualty care on the battlefield, your application SHOULD discuss how your work will lead to this, but your hypothesis will not include this language…unless your experiments are actually being conducted on the battlefield!

  2. PIs are more accustomed to making elevator pitches than writing journal articles. If you’re an industry applicant, it makes sense that writing hypotheses might not be a common practice, and (again) the culture you’re immersed in is one of raising capital. You’ve got your pitch deck ready, and it’s full of hype (as it should be). But this presents a challenge when you need to shift into careful hypothesis writing. Avoiding the use of superlatives, such as “top” or “best”, is critical in hypotheses, as your statement must be refutable–and such pronouncements are not.

  3. PIs are trying to do too much. You’ve got a lot you want to do with that money, so you’ve listed 4, 5…even 6 aims! It’s hard to craft a coherent hypothesis that encompasses all you’ve proposed to accomplish. Yes, you can write individual hypotheses for each aim, but in my experience reviewers are looking for the story: here’s what we’ve done so far, here’s what we don’t yet know, I want to test this ONE thing and I’ve crafted 3 solid, independent aims to find the answer. Overpromising on what you can deliver in the stated time frame (too many aims) is also a red flag for reviewers, and focusing on a tight and testable hypothesis can help you avoid this. Your application doesn’t have to be specifically one hypothesis and 3 aims; the numbers don’t matter as much as the coherent and cohesive story with a logical progression and a clear, testable hypothesis.

As I mentioned, it has been my experience that even experienced, senior PIs sometimes struggle to write a good hypothesis. If you’d like a gut check on your hypothesis and aims, I’m offering a discounted feedback session that focuses on hypothesis and aim composition and alignment. Please contact me for details!

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