Generating Your Idea

Before you write an application, you first need to have an idea. This step consists of collecting ideas and translating those ideas into a project or program, which will form the foundation of a winning proposal application.

Multiple sources of inspiration are often necessary in order to create a viable research topic. A well-written project should highlight your strengths and interests. It may be helpful at this stage to reach out to colleagues (internally and externally) in a similar or the same field. It's possible your potential project will transform and enhance an existing piece of research.

Once you have identified a topic that looks feasible, make sure you are aware of all the literature in that area. While reading and listening, keep distinct in your mind what is different between your work and others.

  • The subject should be timely
  • Your work should lead to a well-defined set of results
  • Demonstrate a high level of creativity
  • You should enjoy the subject and want to spend the next several years working on it
  • Establish your own research niche. Often the one that you find yourself in after your Ph.D. is identified with your advisor(s). Think about what natural tangents you could take from that and try to put that in the context of existing research.

Your idea should also be one that aligns with the mission and purpose of funding agencies. We encourage you to review the types of projects that sponsors have funded using the search option in Pivot


Consider talking to a potential Program Director prior to writing your proposal. This can often be the most valuable investment when seeking funding. They can give you ideas about the sponsor's funding priorities, whether your project is viable for funding, and a lot of other helpful advice. A related article on this topic is Can We Talk? Contacting Grant Program Officers by Robert Porter (PDF).


Guidance for Contacting your Program Officer or Equivalent


The program director (also referred to as program manager or program officer) is an excellent resource to understand various places you might be able to submit your work, if similar or related work has been funded by the agency (that you might then leverage), and to be sure you thoroughly understand the key points of the program. It is generally good practice to contact program manager(s) at the agencies you are likely to submit proposals early in your career, and generally also before each submission. You can usually find contact for the program managers on the agency website and/or the call for proposals.

New faculty or faculty working in areas new to them are advised to contact the program manager(s) in the agencies and divisions where they might apply for funding. It is generally easiest to send a brief introductory email and ask if there is a good time you could call (provide days and times that you would be available within the next 10 days) to discuss your research goals and which of their programs might be applicable.

When you have identified a specific program to which you are planning to apply, review the application guidelines for the grant program first and then prepare a short overview or summary of your project idea. If possible, send the overview to the program manager in advance so he/she can have a chance to read about your ideas before you meet or discuss over the phone. The phone conversation provides you an excellent opportunity to get substantial feedback on your ideas from the program director.

For example, you can:

  • Briefly describe your project (and, if NSF, your broader impact) idea; then ask the program manager if it sounds like the sort of project the agency funds and where it best fits within the agency. Ask about each specific aim and its relevance to the mission. Discuss the level of your pilot data for feedback.
  • Ask about shortcomings/problems the program manager has seen in proposals. What sorts of problems keep proposals from being funded? How can you avoid those problems?
  • Ask the program manager if there are particular things you should make sure to include or address in a proposal to help it get funded (i.e., traits of successful proposals). Are there any areas/activities the agency would like to see represented in projects but which have been overlooked by other grantees?
  • Read proposal guidelines, sample funded proposals, etc., before your conversations and ask about any matters that were unclear or puzzling. Confirm the funding priorities and check for any changes.
  • Ask the program manager to describe the review and funding cycle for this solicitation/program announcement.
    • What role does the program manager play in the review process?
  • Ask about the review process:
    • Who reviews the proposals?
    • How many people review the proposals?
    • How are reviewers chosen?
    • Can I suggest reviewers?

These are ideas of question you might ask but do your homework first. Read the solicitation, check out the website, and answer as many of these yourself as you can so that you can have a productive conversation. Few program managers will have the time to discuss off of this with a potential applicant.

They also cannot tell you how to write your proposal, or what your specific chances of funding are but it is appropriate to discuss what you are planning to submit, and any specific questions you might have about what does and does not fit in their program. Near the end of the conversation, ask them if there is anything I didn't ask that I should have?

This provides an opportunity for the program director/manager to provide unsolicited advice. For instance, if your project involves medical application, and you are interested in a National Science Foundation (NSF) project, making sure that the activities you are planning align with the funder is a good question for the program manager. It can also be very useful to discuss the relative weights of various parts of your research and how that fits with the goals of the overall program. For NSF CAREER proposals, for instance, the relative weights of time and funding for the research and education pieces can vary from discipline to discipline.

In general, contacting the program manager or funder gives you a chance to introduce yourself and establish a rapport. Making this connection in advance will often give you a very competitive edge, especially if the competition is close. Scientific conference and workshops, especially national meetings, are an excellent opportunity to meet and talk with your program manager.  Make an effort to set up a time prior to travel to get together at the meeting.

If you are preparing a Department of Defense (DOD) proposal, it is extremely important to talk with the program manager, as they have significant influence in what projects are funded under their programs. Most DOE programs have a window of dates in which you can contact the program manager with questions, during which they can be very candid and forthcoming, and after which they will answer only the most basic of questions.

Grant Space (The Foundation Center) is a great resource with information on proposal development and writing. The page includes online tutorials, webinars, info on in-person sessions, sample documents, frequently asked questions and much more. Grant Space is now called Candid Learning.