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Grant Writing in the Sciences: Planning


This resource provides general guidelines for grant writing in general and in the scientific disciplines. While grant proposals are almost always overseen by a faculty member serving as the primary investigator (PI), this resource is intended primarily for graduate students and junior faculty seeking to learn more about grant writing in their fields. It is organized according to the following stages of the writing process: I) project planning; II) researching funding opportunities; and III) writing and submitting the grant proposal. Note that the specific requirements of funding agencies vary significantly, and should always be consulted carefully before a grant proposal is begun. It also discusses a number of language considerations regarding grant writing. 

Contributors:Dennis Koyama, Stacy Nall
Last Edited: 2015-04-08 10:09:56

Plan Your Project

Before writing, plan your project timeline and objectives. Questions to ask include: 1) What do you seek to achieve through your research?; 2) What are the unique contributions this project is making to your field?;  3) What are the major steps to project completion?; and 4) Who will be involved in the project?

It is common to conduct a preliminary, or pilot, study to establish the feasibility of their project. A preliminary study is generally a smaller-scale version of the experiment that 1) provides the opportunity to test methods, equipment, and other aspects of a project before beginning it officially, 2) allows researchers to address errors and adjust research methods in a lower-stakes environment, and 3) provides a basis from which to extrapolate logistical and financial estimates.  Importantly, these preliminary results can persuade funders of the viability of the project, as they demonstrate that the researcher can conduct the study and has already identified and addressed possible shortcomings of the proposed research. 

Locate Funding Opportunities

Research grants come from a range of organizations, including universities, private foundations, corporations, and, especially common in the sciences, government agencies. In this last category, common sources of funding are the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) (for detailed suggestions on the application processes for NIH and NSF, see pp. 49-281 of Writing Successful Grant Proposals from the Top down and Bottom Up). Meanwhile, universities often provide funds for their own faculty members, especially early-career researchers (Sternberg 6).

To locate additional funding opportunities, consult with an experienced colleague for suggestions, as well as refer to www.grants.gov and its searchable database of government grants.

As you research grant opportunities, consider the following:

Determine Funder’s Requirements

Read and follow the instructions closely and create a checklist of the funder’s requirements. These may include the following; however, funding agency requirements vary widely so always follow the agency’s instructions carefully, as violations of instructions can lead funders to reject applications without reviewing them further (Levenson 38).

Cover Letter

Some agencies ask for a cover letter in which the investigator can request that reviewers with specific expertise evaluate the application. These letters can help the agency board or distribution committee know how your application would be best evaluated. The cover letter should be concise and professional. Note: Some granting agencies first require a Letter of Inquiry (LOI) before inviting a full proposal. Others welcome phone calls or e-mails.


The biosketch should describe the investigator(s)’ relevant credentials, including training and recent publications. This section provides evidence of the qualifications needed to successfully complete the proposed research and publish on the results.  

Specific Aims

The Specific Aims section covers the major points of the project. It also can serve as a framework for developing the rest of the proposal, and as a project summary that will refresh the reviewers’ memory before they score the proposal. Specific Aims are sometimes organized in four parts: (1) general goal/significance, (2) theoretical framework/model, (3) hypotheses and (4) tests of the hypotheses.

A common weakness of grant proposals is the failure to identify a hypothesis, a new idea that can be tested experimentally and results in a rigorous and focused project. As Ogden and Goldberg explain, “to set a goal of ‘understanding the function of the vitronectin receptor on a retinal pigment epithelial cell” is much weaker than to hypothesize specific functions for the receptor (mechanisms) and then to suggest experiments to test the hypotheses” (26). The latter example states a specific goal and shows that the investigator has a clear concept of what he or she is looking for in their data, which the former, according to Ogden and Goldberg, sounds like a “fishing expedition” (26).

Research Design and Methods

In short, the research design is the “what” of the study, while the methods are the “how.” In other words, the research design describes the logical sequence of procedures and the methods section describes those procedures with as much detail as possible. The research design and methods sections should be carefully separated so that the reviewer has the option of scanning the research design without having to read through the more minute details of the experiment. 

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