How to Write a Proposal

How to Write a Proposal

There are several components to a strong grant application. First, the subject must be creative, exciting, and worthy of funding. Then, the project must be developed through a rigorous, well-defined experimental plan. Finally, you must make sure that the information is presented in clear language and that your application follows the rules and guidelines detailed in the grant application kit.

Eight Basic Questions Reviewers Ask

  • How high are the intellectual quality and merit of the study?
  • What is its potential impact?
  • How novel is the proposal? If not novel, to what extent does potential impact overcome this lack? Is the research likely to produce new data and concepts or confirm existing hypotheses?
  • Is the hypothesis valid and have you presented evidence supporting it?
  • Are the aims logical?
  • Are the procedures appropriate, adequate, and feasible for the research?
  • Are the investigators qualified? Have they shown competence, credentials, and experience?
  • Are the facilities adequate and the environment conducive to the research?

Before You Begin

Before you start writing the application, make sure you have done your homework: know the field, choose an excellent idea to pursue, and equally important, read the entire grant application kit very carefully.

Begin by focusing on the big picture. It is critical that you are intimately familiar with the field in which you are considering applying for funding. You must be aware of the field's directions, knowledge gaps, and research already being done. Your application will be reviewed by your peers, investigators who are knowledgeable about the research area of your proposal.

To succeed, you will have to be at least as knowledgeable as they are. Consider the reviewers to be "informed strangers." You must include enough detail to convince them your hypothesis is sound and important, your aims are logical and feasible, you understand potential problems, and you can properly analyze the data.

Developing the Hypothesis

  • Most reviewers feel that a good grant application is driven by a strong hypothesis. The hypothesis is the foundation of your application. Make sure it's solid. It must be important to the field, and you must have a means of testing it.
  • Provide a rationale for the hypothesis. Make sure it's based on current scientific literature. Consider alternative hypotheses. Your research plan will explain why you chose the one you selected.
  • A good hypothesis should increase understanding of biologic processes, diseases, treatments and/or preventions.
  • Your proposal should be driven by one or more hypotheses, not by advances in technology (i.e., it should not be a method in search of a problem). Also, avoid proposing a "fishing expedition" that lacks solid scientific basis.
  • State your hypothesis in both the specific aims section of the research plan and the abstract.

Application Contents

Before you start writing, read the entire grant application kit very carefully.The grant application kit gives you information and guidance on each section of the application. Listed below are the most common types of sections in a grant application:

  • Cover page
  • Table of contents
  • Abstract
  • Project Narrative
  • Research Plan
  • List of senior or key personnel
  • Detailed budget for entire proposed period of support
  • Detailed budget narrative
  • Biographical sketches for all senior or key personnel
  • Current and pending support for all senior or key personnel
  • Resources
  • Facilities and equipment
  • Performance sites
  • Appendices
  • Letters of collaboration
  • Checklist
  • Personal data
  • Certifications and assurances

Developing Your Research Plan

A top-quality research plan is the most important factor determining your application's success in peer review. As with a scientific publication, developing your ideas is key.

Before proceeding into specific sections of the plan, here are some general tips:

  • Your application should be based on a strong hypothesis.
  • Be sure your project has a coherent direction.
  • Keep the sections of the plan well coordinated and clearly related to the central focus.
  • Emphasize mechanism: A good grant application asks questions about biological mechanisms.
  • Don't be overly ambitious - your plan should be based on a feasible timetable.
  • Specific aims and experiments should relate directly to the hypothesis to be tested.

Specific Aims

  • Your specific aims are the objectives of your research project, what you want to accomplish. The project aims should be driven by the hypothesis you set out to test. Make sure they are highly focused.
  • Begin this section by stating the general purpose or major objectives of your research. Be sure all objectives relate directly to the hypothesis you are setting out to test. If you have more than one hypothesis, state specific aims for each one. Keep in mind your research methods will relate directly to the aims you have described.
  • State alternatives to your hypothesis and explain why you chose the one (or more) you selected.
  • Choose objectives that can be easily assessed by the review committee. Do not confuse specific aims with long-term goals.

Background and Significance

  • Keep the statement of significance brief. State how your research is innovative, how your proposal looks at a topic from a fresh point of view or develops or improves technology.
  • Show how the hypothesis and research will increase knowledge in the field. Relate them to the longer-term, big picture scientific objectives and to the betterment of public health.
  • Justify your proposal with background information about the research field that led to the research you are proposing. The literature section is very important because it shows reviewers you understand the field and have a balanced and adequate knowledge of it.
  • Use this opportunity to reveal that you are aware of gaps or discrepancies in the field. Show familiarity with unpublished work, gained through personal contacts, as well.
  • Identify the next logical stage of research beyond your current application.

Preliminary Studies/Progress Report

By providing preliminary data, this extremely important section helps build reviewers' confidence that you can handle the technologies, understand the methods, and interpret results.

  • Preliminary data should support the hypothesis to be tested and the feasibility of the project.
  • Explain how the preliminary results are valid and how early studies will be expanded in scope or size.
  • Make sure you interpret results critically. Showing alternative meanings indicates that you've thought the problem through and will be able to meet future challenges.
  • Preliminary data may consist of your own publications, publications of others, unpublished data from your own laboratory or from others, or some combination of these.
  • Include manuscripts submitted for publication. Make sure it's clear which data are yours and which others reported.

Research Design and Methods

Describe the experimental design and procedures in detail and give a rationale for their use. Organize this section so each experiment or set of experiments corresponds to one of your specific aims and is stated in the same order. Even holding to this structure, the experiments still must follow a logical sequence. They must have a clear direction or priority, i.e., the experiments should follow from one another and have a clear starting or finishing point.

Convince reviewers that the methods you chose are appropriate to your specific aims, that you are familiar with them, and that, unless innovative, they are well established. If your methods are innovative, show how you have changed existing, proven methods while avoiding technical problems. Also, describe why the new methods are advantageous to the research you propose to do.

More and more applicants are including colored charts, graphs, and photographs in their applications. If you must use color to get your point across, it is wise to also place a copy of the item in an appendix, noting this in the body of the text. (However, do not put important figures only in the appendix, or overly-reduced figures in the body of the application with enlargements in the appendix. The Research Plan must be self-contained. The appendix should not be used to circumvent the Research Plan page limits.) Many applicants are not aware that most of the study section members receive only black and white photocopies of their original application. However, assigned reviewers do receive originals of the appendices (which is why five copies are requested) and usually receive original copies of the application as well.


  • State why you chose your approach(es) as opposed to others.
  • If you are choosing a nonstandard approach, explain why it is more advantageous than a conventional one. Ask yourself whether the innovative procedures are feasible and within your competence.
  • Call attention to potential difficulties you may encounter with each approach. Reviewers will be aware of possible problems; convince them you can handle such circumstances. Propose alternatives that would circumvent potential limitations.
  • Consider the limitations of each approach and how it may affect your results and the data generated.
  • Spell it out in detail. While you may assume reviewers are experts in the field and familiar with current methodology, they will not make the same assumption about you. It is not sufficient to state, "We will grow a variety of viruses in cells using standard in vitro tissue culture techniques." Reviewers want to know which viruses, cells, and techniques; the rationale for using the particular system; and exactly how the techniques will be used. Details show you understand and can handle the research.
  • Make sure any proposed model systems are appropriate to address the research questions and are highly relevant to the medical problem being modeled.


  • Show you are aware of the limits to - and value of - the kinds of results you can expect based on current knowledge of the subject. State the conditions under which the data would support or contradict the hypothesis and the limits you will observe in interpreting the results.
  • Show reviewers you will be able to interpret your results by revealing your understanding of the complexities of the subject.
  • Many applications benefit from statistical analysis. The early involvement of a statistician to determine the amount of data to collect and the methods for analyses will favorably impress reviewers.
  • Describe your proposed statistical methods for analyzing the data you plan to collect. Define the criteria for evaluating the success or failure of a specific test.

Other pointers

  • Read the application guidelines for specific requirements, especially those involving human subjects.
  • Estimate how much you expect to accomplish each year of the grant and state any potential delays you can anticipate.
  • Describe sources of reagents, animals or equipment not generally available. If collaborators will provide them, include letters from the sources in your application.
  • Describe any procedures, situations, or materials that may be hazardous and precautions you will take.
  • Include supporting data. Where appropriate, include well-designed tables and figures. Use titles that are accurate and informative. Label the axes and include legends. Reviewers will look for discrepancies between your data and text.
  • Include relevant publications. If you (or your collaborators) have publications showing your use of the proposed methods, put them in the appendix.

Human Subjects

Assuring that human subjects are protected is a key responsibility of the applicant, in concert with the applicant's institution. Awards cannot be made until assurances are on file here.

Include enough information so reviewers have no questions about what you propose to do. In addition, your research plan must be certified by your institution's institutional review board (IRB) prior to funding (unless exempt). Though IRB approval is not required at the time of application, you should start the process early because revisions and final approval can take time.

Before an application can be funded, Institutional Review Board protocol must be on file and approved. Contact the Office of Research Integrity for details and help.

Vertebrate Animals

If applicable, your application should include:

  • A detailed description of the proposed use of animals.
  • A justification for the choice of species and number of animals to be used (describe any statistical methodology used for this determination).
  • Information on the veterinary care of the animals.
  • An explanation of procedures to ensure that the animals will not experience unnecessary discomfort, distress, pain, or injury.
  • Justification for any euthanasia method to be used.

If the proposed research involves vertebrate animals, your project must be reviewed and approved by the institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC) prior to review. Contact the Office of Research Integrity for details and help.

Literature Cited

Refer to the literature thoroughly and thoughtfully but not to excess. The publications you cite need not be exhaustive but should include those most relevant to your proposed research.

Research proposals typically do not fare well when applicants fail to reference relevant published research, particularly if it indicates that the proposed approach has already been attempted or the methods found to be inappropriate for answering the questions posed.

Each citation must include the names of all authors (not et al.), name of the book or journal, volume number, page numbers (not first page only), and year of publication.

Consortium/Subaward/Contractual Arrangements

This section should briefly describe any consortium and contractual arrangements you have made with regard to the proposed research plan. The roles of individuals or organizations with whom you have made such arrangements should be noted and reference made to any letters from them that are included in the application. Letters should describe the individual's or organization's understanding of the consortium or contractual arrangements.


Careful selection and addition of consultants can add credibility to your application and greatly improve its quality. A letter describing the willingness of an investigator to participate as a consultant to your project should be included in your application.


Application Contents Other Than the Research Plan

Congratulations, you have completed the hardest part of your application, the research plan. Now, you're ready to work on the other parts. Keep in mind some required information is always changing. Check with the sponsor for the latest changes.


  • Make your title specific and detailed. If your application is a revision, do NOT change the title.
  • Follow the application guidelines and adhere to any character limitations.


  • Write this carefully because the sponsor depends heavily on the abstract and title to assign your application to a peer review panel. Clarity will also help direct your application to the most appropriate primary reviewers and may encourage other reviewers to read it.
  • Write your abstract after you have finished your research plan. Make it a clear, succinct summary of your project within the word limit. It should state your hypothesis, objectives, why the objectives are important and innovative, and plans and methods for accomplishing your goals.
  • Be sure to include any review criteria required by the sponsor in your abstract (i.e. intellectual merit, broader impacts, transformative research concepts).

Biographical Sketches

This section is your chance to showcase the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the key staff and consultants involved in your project. Reviewers are concerned that the investigators and proposed staff have the proper experience with the proposed techniques. They look carefully at the biosketches. Carefully follow the sponsor's guidelines and include all the requested information in each biosketch.

Current and Pending/Other Support

This section is only required for certain applications. Provide this section only if instructed to do so.


Reviewers evaluate a requested budget for whether it is realistic and justified by the aims and methods of the project. Complete the budget section after you have written your research plan and have a good idea of costs.

Request only enough money to do the work. Significant over or underestimating suggests that you may not understand the scope of the proposed work. Avoid requesting expensive equipment unless you absolutely need it, and justify it well. Don't request funds for equipment already listed in the resources section, unless you can provide an adequate explanation. Reviewers look for any "discrepancies" and will delete funds for equipment that should be available to you. Also, make sure you calculate the salary in accordance with any salary caps.

Modular grants

NIH's adoption of the modular approach for most grant types involves changes to the application's budget section. Prepare a modular grant application if you are requesting $250,000 a year or less for direct costs (more expensive applications are non-modular) for R01, R03 (not supported by NINDS), R15 and R21 applications. Request monies in $25,000 modules. Generally, you request the same number of modules each year except for special needs, such as equipment.

Be sure to build any funding increases you foresee into the request. Under the modular system, there is no routine funding escalation for future years. You must plan for the cost of the entire project when applying. This is a major departure from the traditional process, in which grantees received inflation-based annual budget increases.


Writing and Formatting

Read the application guidelines and follow its guidelines to the letter. Formatting is strictly enforced. Don't risk having your application returned because you exceeded the page limits or used an improper font or font size

Edit thoroughly. Make sure your work is letter perfect. If you cannot meet the application deadline comfortably, consider delaying to the next receipt date.

Follow the format in the instructions. Reviewers expect the research plan to be organized exactly as described in the instructions - you do not want to upset these expectations! Label sections exactly as in the instructions.

Conduct your own peer review - get outside opinions. Find colleagues in your field who are experienced and successful grant writers and preferably reviewers. The more critical they are, the better. It's better to know the problems before you send in your application than learn about them after the review when your grant gets an unfundable score.

Page Limits and Format Specification

  • Observe the page limitations for your type of application; further, reviewers appreciate comprehensive but succinct proposals. Type setting (font size and spacing) requirements are strictly enforced. Avoid alienating reviewers with hard-to-read type and formatting.
  • Refer to the application guidelines for detailed instructions and guidance on formatting and page limits.

Writing Tips

  • Prefer the active rather to the passive voice. For example, write "We will develop a cell line," not "A cell line will be developed."
  • Keep related ideas and information together, e.g., put clauses and phrases as close as possible to - preferably right after the words they modify.
  • Simplify and breakup long, involved sentences and paragraphs. In general, use short simple sentences; they are much easier on the reader. Your goal is communication, not literature.
  • Edit out redundant words and phrases. Edit and proofread thoroughly. Look carefully for typographical and grammatical mistakes, omitted information, and errors in figures and tables. Sloppy work will definitely suffer in review. Reviewers feel that if the application is sloppy or disorganized, the applicant's research may be as well.