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Plan Your Proposal


Getting Started


  • Carefully read the request for proposals (RFP). The RFP contains most of the essential information you will need to write a competitive proposal, fully responsive to the agency’s funding objectives and review criteria. Most agencies publish review criteria on their web pages and/or proposal preparation guides. What are the criteria? How does the agency define them? What is the relative weight of each criteria?
  • Build your intelligence about the sponsor. The RFP represents an invitation by a funding agency for applicants to submit requests for funding in research areas of interest to the funding agency. Knowledge about an agency helps you prepare better agency-specific arguments throughout the proposal. In most cases, this information can be obtained on the agency’s website. Funding agencies often have unique ways of describing their mission and research agenda, e.g., “broader impacts” or “research and education integration” at NSF. Learn the language of the funding agency to frame your argument more clearly and in ways that will communicate to the reviewers.
  • Contact a program officer. Never be timid to make direct contact with a program officer for assistance, guidance, and/or advice. They are an invaluable resource that is essential to writing a competitive proposal. Learn how proposals are reviewed and how decisions are made, as well as budgetary requirements. Here are some of the things you should consider talking to them about.

Review Examples of Successful Grant Proposals

Familiarize yourself with examples of what a successful grant applications look like. IRTL has examples of successful AERA, Fulbright and Spencer proposals on file. Other institutions, such as UC Berkley and Harvard, provide examples of well-written proposals.

Know What Makes a Proposal Competitive

The Art of Writing Proposals is a must-read for anyone writing a grant proposal. It's also worth knowing something about the rubric used to evaluate proposals, such as this example from the Association of Institutional Research (AIR).

“There is no amount of grantsmanship that will turn a bad idea into a good one, but there are many ways to disguise a good one.” William Raub, former Deputy Director, NIH

The National Science Foundation (NSF) defines a good proposal as "a good idea, well expressed, with a clear indication of methods for pursuing the idea, evaluating the findings, making them known to all who need to know, and indicating the broader impacts of the activity."

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers tips to grant applicants:

Make a Timeline

Now that you know about submission deadlines and review timetables you can sketch a timeline for writing your grant proposal.

Count backwards. Factor into your schedule time to write multiple drafts, have your 'grant committee' review of your drafts, gather relevant and permissible materials, and prepare an impartial critique of your proposal for clarity, substance, and form.

Form an Informal 'Grant Committee'

Grant writing involves building meaningful relationships with others throughout the proposal process.

Instead of "getting feedback", try "feed forward" (Source: Tips for New NIH Grant Applicants).

This approach, put forth by Dr. Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, involves asking three senior colleagues to act as your "grant committee" and discussing your ideas for the application with them before starting the writing process. Next, write one page of three to five specific aims and discuss these with the committee before beginning to write the body of the application. Thus, by the time you tackle the bulk of the writing, the organization and content of your proposal have received fairly detailed scrutiny and critical consideration.

Meet with your advisor early in the process.

Make a list of people to support you throughout the process and serve on your 'grant committee':

  • advisor and other relevant faculty members
  • the IRTL staff
  • doctoral student colleagues and friends