Proposal Development

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Research Services is here to provide support as you prepare your proposal submissions. Contact Research Services as soon as you plan on starting a proposal.

We can help you to:

  • Review sponsor requirements
  • Determine budget requirements and limitations
  • Establish proper F&A rate
  • Identify collaborators
  • Edit and organize the proposal
  • Coordinate scientific peer review
  • Coordinate submission

To ensure that Research Services has sufficient time to review your proposal, including the budget calculations, please complete all paperwork and send a completed draft of your proposal at least 5 business days before the submission deadline.

Suggestions for proposal writers

The information below is intended to assist faculty who are relatively inexperienced in the art of preparing proposals for external funding of research or other projects.

Before you begin writing:

  • Develop a novel idea for funding that addresses an important problem. Research previous work on this subject, and become an expert with the literature. Determine the need for preliminary data.
  • If applicable, assemble a high quality team that has the background, experience, interest and ability to successfully accomplish project goals.
  • Enlist the support of organizations that have similar or complementary interests.
  • Identify potential sponsors:
  1. Search for potential sponsors using databases such as Community of Science. Read sponsors' guidelines thoroughly. What are the submission deadlines, eligibility requirements, and requirements for university support? 
  2. Look at the proposed project from the sponsor’s point of view. How will your work accomplish the goals of the sponsor? How do they evaluate proposals? Review the work of successful applicants.
  3. Prepare an outline or summary of the proposed work. Explain the importance of the project, i.e., who will benefit.
  4. Consider talking to a sponsor’s program officer about whether your project fits their goals. Be prepared to explain the goals of the proposed project. Ask how your proposal fits the objectives of the sponsor. Be enthusiastic, but do not try to sell the project. Their representatives may be an important part of your future, so try to develop a rapport with them. Listen carefully to their response. If the sponsor does not support the type of project you propose, ask if they know of other sponsors who might be interested.
  5. Adjust your thought process and proposal, as necessary.

Prepare an application

  • Establish a realistic timeline for writing your proposal.
  • Follow sponsor requirements regarding the outline of the proposal.
  • Follow the format requirements of the sponsor. Research Services can assist in checking that formatting requirements are met.
  1. Use the margins and fonts specified
  2. Do not exceed page limits
  • Include supplementary documents, such as a formal signed letter from a collaborator stating the resources they will provide and their level of participation.
  • Research Services has general information that may be needed, such as Employer Identification Number, Duns Number, Congressional Districts.
  • Write the abstract last. It is a very important part of the proposal. It should grab your readers and make them want to know more.

Develop a realistic budget

Your budget should enable you to meet the project goals within the context of the sponsor’s target grant amount.

  • If you need help with the budget, contact Research Services at least two weeks in advance of the deadline.
  • Think of the resources needed for the proposed project:
  1. Salaries
  2. Fringe benefits
  3. Equipment
  4. Supplies
  5. Travel and conferences
  6. Consultants
  7. Tuition
  8. F&A rate
  • Request only allowable costs. The work scope should be consistent with the budget and may need to be revised if an award is made.
  • Check the math.
  • Include a budget narrative justifying the costs in detail.

Additional considerations

  • Ask an experienced colleague, with no stake in the project, to review the application
  • Avoid common mistakes.

Common proposal problems - as noted by NIH reviewers

  1. Title: Too long, confusing, cute but distracting, not program related.
  2. Cover Page: Does not follow format precisely, does not include all necessary information.
  3. Abstract: Not comprehensive, omits significant elements, poor grammar or spelling, too long (more than 1 page).
  4. Table of Contents: Not included, inaccurate pagination.
  5. Institution Description and Statement of Need: Irrelevant information, does not lead reader to proposal objectives, good history-so what?, too long, deals with wants rather than needs, no documentation, unrelated to objectives/outcomes, desires, problem already solved, not supported by current research.
  6. Objectives/Outcomes: Not clear, too ambitious, omitted, procedures rather than objectives.
  7. Innovation: Not new or innovative, attempt to justify new equipment, materials. not clearly described.
  8. Review of the Literature: Unrelated to needs, objectives, innovations, does not lead reader, dated materials.
  9. Task/Activity Plan: Insufficient time, tasks not related to objectives, task not justified by needs, time and task charts not included, responsibilities not clear.
  10. Collaborative Efforts: Names and responsibilities of all involved in proposal not identified, no identification of institutions involved.
  11. Evaluation: Unrelated to objectives, unrelated to innovation, not usable in assessing program, uses outmoded or inaccurate methods.
  12. Budget: Unrelated to activities, little or no institutional contribution, amounts not supported by reasonable data, budget justification missing, categories not those of funding source, budget cannot be sustained after project ends.
  13. Project Staff: No identification of responsibilities and roles, no documentation of competence, no indication of time each staff member will contribute to project.

In summary:

  • Be innovative, and know the literature
  • Focus on key questions
  • Be convincing and thorough
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the subject
  • State the expected contribution to the field of work
  • Follow sponsor instructions
  • Price the project competitively
  • Proofread
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