Tips for Planning Your Proposal

Since 2014, the Grant Writing Academy has coached more than 400 graduate students and postdocs writing proposals in its award-winning Proposal Bootcamp. The Bootcamp participants have a 34% to 46% success rate at securing funding. Proposal Bootcamps are offered three times per year:

  • Mini Proposal Bootcamp co-sponsored with SBSA (March, BIOS 266)
  • Spring Proposal Bootcamp (April-June, BIOS 263, grad. student only)
  • Autumn Proposal Bootcamp (Sept-Nov, BIOS 242)

If you are unable to attend one of these Bootcamps or want to get a head start on your proposal, here are our top 8 tips for planning your proposal. These tips were adapted from our PLOS Computational Biology publications: Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Postdoctoral Fellowship and Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Career Development Award Proposal. Also learn more by watching: Getting Started Writing Grants (13 minutes).

  1. Start early by gathering critical information about potential funding opportunities
  2. Tailor your proposal to the goals of the funding agency
  3. Use your specific aims document as a road map
  4. Create a Research Plan that bridges the gap between a scientific unknown and an expected payoff
  5. Articulate your prior experiences to highlight your potential
  6. Develop a complete career development training plan
  7. Refine your proposal through an iterative process of writing
  8. Recycle and Resubmit

1. Start early by gathering critical information about potential funding opportunities

Crafting a competitive proposal can take 6-9 months so it is imperative that you start early. Compile a comprehensive list of funding opportunities that you can apply to. This list should include key information, including Sponsor (agency offering the funding opportunity) name; URL for funding information; Sponsor deadlines and any other requirements or critical information.

Finding Funding

To find suitable funding agencies, start by asking your faculty mentor(s), laboratory colleagues and recent alumni about their experiences. Federal agencies, such as NIH and NSF, sponsor fellowships and career development awards. The NIH fellowships are focused on providing training for biomedical, behavioral, and clinical researchers. Other federal agencies, and nonfederal agencies, such as societies, foundations, and associations, also solicit fellowship applications.  Additionally, many institutions offer internally supported fellowships as well as institutional research training grants like NIH’s T32 awards.

At Stanford University, Jeanne Heschele compiles lists of funding opportunities for graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. Email Jeanne (jheschele@stanford.edu, request SMART email list) to subscribe to her emails. You can also view her comprehensive lists of funding opportunities:

Critical Information

Once you have an exhaustive list of opportunities you are eligible for, start gathering critical information that you can use to inform your writing. Read the instructions completely. For NIH fellowships, the funding announcement includes instructions (“Individual Fellowship SF424 R&R Application Guide) as well as review criteria.  NIH’s Center for Scientific Review reviews NIH grant applications for scientific merit and has a worthwhile video about the NIH Peer Review Process (Watch: NIH Peer Review Revealed). Sometimes Sponsors offer notification alerts, e.g. NIH and NSF, about upcoming funding opportunities, deadlines, and updated policies so make sure to sign up for those when offered. Also gather previously submitted applications and reviewers’ comments (pink sheets) from past applicants. Both funded and unfunded applications are useful. Sometimes the abstracts of funding projects are available, like through the NIH’s Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORTER), and these provide critical information about the scope of funded projects.

Internal Policies

Many institutions have internal policies and processes that are required before a proposal can be submitted to a funding agency. These requirements can include waivers to assess eligibility and internal deadlines (5 business day internal deadlines are standard) so make sure you also gather relevant information about any internal policies and processes required by your institution.

At Stanford University, complete and ready to submit fellowship proposals are due at least 5 business days prior to the sponsor’s deadline. In the School of Medicine, the Fellowship Manager is Debra Porzio (learn more: Stanford processes for fellowship proposals). At Stanford University, career development awards in the School of Medicine are submitted by the Research Process Managers (RPMs). Contact your RPM (Identify your RPM) early because a PI waiver (learn more:  PI Waiver Policy) is likely required. If you are applying to a NIH fellowship (i.e., F31, F32) or Career Development Award (i.e., K99/R00, K01, K08), sign up for required F-series grant.gov course or K Award grants.gov course.

Important resources:

Video: Finding Funding – Librarian Grace Baysinger provides tips for finding funding opportunities

2. Tailor your proposal to the goals of the funding agency

The reviewers of your application are likely running laboratories, teaching, mentoring, writing papers and grants, working in the clinic, serving on committees, and/or balancing other personal obligations. Reviewing grants doesn’t replace these responsibilities, but rather gets added on top of them. As a writer, strive to make reviewing your proposal as quick as possible by making it easy to read (see Rule 9) and easy to score.

To evaluate your application reviewers are provided a set of criteria, which is often available to applicants. For example, NIH lists the scored review criteria, including specific questions for reviewers, in the Program Announcement, Section V (Application Review Information). This section articulates the funding agency’s expectations. It is therefore essential you provide direct, clear answers to these questions in your proposal. You can address these questions at multiple points in your proposal, and emphasize your answers with unique fonts (italics, bold, or underline). Furthermore, you can use the review criteria as a source of content, structure, and language to write your proposal.

EXAMPLE: As an example, if the reviewer is asked the following question (emphases added): “Has the candidate presented strategies to ensure a robust and unbiased approach, as appropriate for the work proposed?” Consider including a sentence in your Research Plan that uses the same content, structure, and language, e.g., “These multiple strategies provide a robust and unbiased approach to answer my research questions.” Italicizing the sentence will make it stand out on the page. This parallel structure (“strategies”, “robust”, “unbiased”) makes it easy for your reviewer to locate and answer that review question. If the reviewer needs to search for or infer the information, it may negatively impact your score.

Important resources:

Video: Considering the Content, Structure, and Language of the Review Criteria when Writing – Grant Coach Joshua Arribere

Video: Thinking Like a Reviewer – Grant Coach Lamia Wahba

Handout: Using the Review Criteria to Inform Your Writing

3. Use your specific aims document as a road map

The Specific Aims document, usually one page, is the most important section of your fellowship application. First, it is perfect for eliciting feedback from your mentor(s) and colleagues because evaluating a one-page document is not an enormous time investment on part of the person giving you feedback. Plus, you don’t want to invest time writing a full proposal without knowing the proposal’s conceptual framework is compelling. Second, the Specific Aims document is the perfect roadmap as you write the rest of your proposal because it must concisely answer the following questions:

  • Is the research question important? Compelling proposals often tackle a particular gap in the knowledge base that when addressed significantly advance the field.
  • What is the overall goal? The overall goal defines the purpose of the proposal and must be attainable regardless of how the hypothesis tests.
  • What specifically will be done? Attract the reviewer’s interest using attention-getting headlines. Describe your working hypothesis and your approach to objectively test the hypothesis.
  • What are the expected outcomes and impact? Describe what the reviewers can expect after the proposal is completed in terms of advancement to the field.

Third, a perfectly crafted Specific Aims document is crucial for a compelling proposal because your reviewers will read it! In fact, it is very likely your Specific Aims will be the first document your reviewers will read so it is vital to fully engage the reviewers’ interest and desire to keep reading.

As you are writing (and rewriting) your Specific Aims document it is essential to also integrate the funding agency’s goals for that funding opportunity. Often goals for a fellowship or career development award application include increasing the awardee’s potential for becoming an independent investigator, so an appropriate expected outcome is that you mature into an independent investigator.

Important resources:

Video: Getting to the Heart of the matter: Crafting Specific Aims – Professor Martha Cyert

Video: Your Research Idea in 1-page – Grant Writing Academy Director Crystal Botham

Video: Writing Your Specific Aims – Grant Writing Academy Director Crystal Botham

Reading: The Grant Application Writer’s Workbook (purchase at www.grantcentral.com; or borrow from Lane Medical Library) has two helpful chapters on how to write a persuasive Specific Aims document, as well as other instructive chapters. Although, a little formulaic the Workbook’s approach ensures the conceptual framework of your Specific Aims document is solid.

Handout: Specific Aims Outline – helps you write a compelling 1-page Specific Aims

Read: The Anatomy of a Specific Aims Page

Join: Grant Writing Academy’s Specific Aims Workshops

Video: Optimizing Your Ideas – Professor Russ Altman

Video: Making Your Idea Worth it – Professor Latha Palaniappan

Video: A Formula for the Big Picture – Professor Russ Altman

4.  Create a Research Plan that bridges the gap between a scientific unknown and an expected payoff

The Research Plan (NIH calls it the Research Strategy) should describe how your project will bridge the gap between something needed and an ultimate payoff. Thus, the need and the payoff should be clearly stated at the onset and reiterated (sparingly) throughout the document. It’s your job to convince your reviewer that your plans (Aims) are bound to successfully bridge that gap you wish to fill. You can use the following questions to help guide your Research Plan and convince a reviewer that your research is important and feasible:

  1. Why is the project needed?
  2. What is innovative about the project?
  3. How will the project be completed?
  4. How long will the project take?
  5. What are the expected payoffs from the project?

Answers to the above questions correspond to the general subsections of the Research Plan: (1) Background & Significance, (2) Innovation, (3) Research Approach, (4) Timeline, and (5) Conclusions & Future Directions.

Significance and Innovations Subsections

To address significance, state both the relevance of the work to the funding agency’s mission as well as the scientific knowledge gap that you propose to fill. State these explicitly, i.e. “This proposal is significant because…” This process often involves providing your reader with necessary background in your field. For innovation, describe the novel aspects of your research, and why they are important. This may include refinements or improvements to methodologies or instrumentation, or application of a well-established technique to a new research question. Unless your proposed work is an exact replication of a previous study, some aspect of your proposal is innovative. Clearly describe how your innovation(s) will advance your field and the funding agency’s mission.

Research Approach Subsection

This is the technical meat of your proposal, and should include sufficient information for both experts and non-experts to evaluate your experimental plan. Describe the rationale behind the chosen experiments, provide meaningful details about the research design, and summarize how the data will be interpreted. In this subsection it is also critical to outline potential problems and provide alternative approaches. This is necessary to convince your reviewer that you can achieve the proposed goals when problems arise. If the feasibility of the proposed experiments may be questioned, preliminary data or evidence of prior experience (publications) should be provided. However, if data (preliminary of published) forms the foundation of your proposal’s central hypothesis, consider including them in the Significance or Innovation subsections.

Timeline and Future Directions Subsections

Provide your reviewers with a timeline of the proposed work so it is clear that you have thoroughly considered the feasibility of the project. A graphical timeline is an effective way to save space and convey this message. The Conclusion & Future Directions subsection should succinctly and explicitly state how the outcome of the research will diminish the knowledge gap outlined in the proposal. End with a strong paragraph that is exciting and highlights how your field and the funding agency’s goals will advance if this proposal is funded.

Important resources

Video: The Research Plan: Developing the Devilish Details – Professor Tim Stearns

Video: Nuts and Bolts of Writing the Research Strategy – Professor John Boothroyd

Video: Communicating Your Research Strategy – Grant Coach Sky Brubaker

Video: A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words – Associate Professor Sarah Heilshorn

Video: The Importance of Collaboration – Associate Professor Jennifer Dionne

Handout: Research Plan Outline

5. Articulate your prior experiences to highlight your potential

Many career development awards require that you describe your background and career goals. Furthermore, you may be required to submit a document like the NIH Biosketch that summarizes your prior training and experiences. Your reviewers will use these documents to determine if you have the potential to become a successful, independent investigator based on what you have done to date and how that relates to what you propose to do. Thus, you must demonstrate your research productivity and the quality of past training.

In these documents, instead of providing a laundry list of publications or research expertise, if possible, use elements of the classic story arc. First, outline the historical background that inspired the work, including the challenge or knowledge gap addressed. Next, detail your contributions as well as the central findings and any expertise you gained. Lastly, describe the impact of your research and why it was significant.

You may also need to write a personal statement. Use this opportunity to tell a story that describes why you made key career choices and provide evidence for your long-standing and continued commitment to research. It is helpful to conclude this subsection by describing how your prior activities in conjunction with your proposed training will enable you to achieve your career goals.

Important resources:

Video: Telling your Story — Stanford Lecturer Jennifer Stonaker

Video: A Formula for Success — Grant Coach Tanya Evans

6. Develop a complete career development training plan

Most fellowships and career development awards support applicants engaged in training to enhance their development into a productive, independent researcher. Training often includes both mentored activities, e.g. regular meetings with your mentor(s), as well as professional activities, e.g. courses, seminars. It is important that you describe a complete training plan and justify the need for each training activity based on your background and career goals.

Create an Individual Development Plan

When developing this plan, it is helpful to think deeply about your training needs.  What skills or experiences are missing from your background but needed for you to proceed to your next career stage? Try to identify 3-5 training goals for your proposal and organize your plan with these goals in mind. Below are sample activities:

  • Regular (weekly) one-on-one meetings with mentor(s)
  • Biannual meeting with advisory committee
  • Externship (few weeks to a few months) in a collaborator’s laboratory to learn a specific technique or approach
  • Courses (include course # and timeline) to study specific topics or methods
  • Seminars focused on specific research areas
  • Conferences to disseminate your research and initiate collaborations
  • Teaching or mentoring
  • Grant writing, scientific writing, oral presentation courses or seminars
  • Opportunities for gaining leadership roles
  • Laboratory management seminars or experiences

Mentors / Sponsors

Fellowship and Career Development applications often support mentored training experiences, therefore, a strong mentoring team is essential. Remember, reviewers will evaluate the qualifications and appropriateness of your mentoring team. The leader of your mentoring team should have a track record of mentoring individuals at similar stages as your own as well as research qualifications appropriate for your interests. Reviewers will also often consider if your mentor can adequately support the proposed research and training because fellowship applications don’t always provide sufficient funds. It is also useful to propose a co-mentor that complements your mentor’s qualifications and experiences.  You should seek out other mentors at your institution and elsewhere to guide and support your training. These mentors could form an advisory committee, which is required for some funding opportunities, to assist in your training and monitor your progress. A first-rate mentoring team will reflect the various features of your fellowship, including mentors that augment your research training by enhancing your technical skills as well as mentors that support your professional development and career planning.

Important resources:

Read: Nature — Forge Your Own Path

Video: A Formula for Success – Grant Coach Tanya Evans

Stanford Individual Development Plans (IDPs): Graduate Students or Postdocs

Video: Letters of Reference – Grant Coach Shiva Abbaszadeh

Video: Bolstering your Mentor’s Statement – Grant Coach Rebecca Albright

Video: Team Science: Creating a Successful Mentoring Team – Grant Coach Kevin Mann

Video: Tips for Personalizing your Training Plan – Grant Coach Trisha Stankiewicz

Handout: Training Plan Worksheet

Find Stanford Activities: Use VPGE GPD Framework

7. Refine your proposal through an iterative process of writing

Seek Feedback

Feedback is critical to developing a first-class proposal. You need a wide audience providing feedback because your reviewers will likely come from diverse backgrounds. Be proactive in asking for feedback from your mentor, colleagues, and peers. Even non-scientists can provide critical advice about the clarity of your writing. When eliciting feedback inform your reviewer of your specific needs, i.e. you desire broader feedback on overall concepts and feasibility or want advice on grammar and spelling. You may also consider hiring a professional editing and proofreading service to polish your writing. Some fellowships have program staff, such as the NIH Program Officers, who can advise prospective applicants. These individuals can provide essential information and feedback about the programmatic relevance of your proposal to the Sponsor’s goals for that specific fellowship application.

Effective Writing

Clear, concise writing creates stronger and more memorable arguments. While there is a temptation to write up to the page limit of a document, a structured argument supported by only the necessary information will be more compelling. First, break down each required document into its most essential components (see Rule 2 for how to use the review criteria as your guide). Consider making bullet sentences for each point or using just a few words to state your argument. If this is not sufficiently simple, it needs to be refined. This is a great opportunity to discuss your ideas in their simplest form with mentors and colleagues.Next, connect the bullets with appropriate transitions so that each point flows logically to the next. ­­­Think of it as holding your reviewer’s hand as he/she reviews your documents. You must lead him/her to what needs to be done next. Lastly, polish your writing using sentence structures that are clear and concise. These strategies include:

 

Instead of: Write this:
Limit use of the verb “to be” X is an indication that Y X indicates Y
Limit prepositional phrases The instrument in the lab is necessary The lab instrument is necessary
Use direct, active-voice sentences Provides justification for Justifies
Avoid noun forms of verbs (nominalizations) The application of these techniques can Applying these techniques can

Important resources:

Video: Writing in the Sciences – Professor Kristin Sainani

Video: Keeping Your Reviewer Engaged – Professor Kristin Sainani

Video: Clarity in Scientific Writing – Grant Coach Kevin Beier

Video: How to Approach a Program Officer – Grant Coach Jason Reuter

Video: Strategies for Success – Professor John Dabiri

Reading: What to Say – and Not Say – to Program Officers

8. Recycle and Resubmit

Fellowships applications frequently have similar requirements so it is fairly easy to recycle your application, or submit it to several different funding announcements. This can significantly increase your odds for success, especially if you are able to improve your application with each submission by tackling reviewers’ comments from a prior submission. However, some funding agencies limit concurrent applications to different funding opportunities so read the instructions carefully.

Resubmitted applications generally have a better success rate than original applications so it is often worthwhile resubmitting. Resubmitting an application does require careful consideration of the reviewers’ comments and suggestions. If available, speak to your Program Officers because s/he may have listened to the reviewers’ discussion and can provide a unique prospective or crucial information not included in the reviewers’ written comments. Resubmitted fellowships are many times allowed an additional 1-2 page document to describe how you addressed the reviewers’ comments in the revised application and this document needs to be clear and persuasive.

Tips Adapted from:

Yuan K, Cai L, Ngok SP, Ma L, Botham CM (2016) Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Postdoctoral Fellowship. PLoSComputBiol 12(7): e1004934. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004934

Botham CM, Arribere JA, Brubaker SW, Beier KT (2017) Ten simple rules for writing a career development award proposal. PLoSComputBiol 13(12): e1005863. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005863