Tips and Advice: Science and Social Science Proposals

General Advice

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On the Art of Writing Proposals, advice from the Social Sciences Research Council

Groundwork: Developing Ideas and Contacts

Become familiar with the current literature. What are others doing in your field? What's unique about your work? Make contacts; get to know the major players and those with interests closest to yours. Attend topical conferences in your area. Establish collaborations with "experts."

Funding Preliminaries

Identify potential funding sources. Talk with the program officers—and listen! Does your project match what the donor wants to fund? Are there budget limits? What is the typical award? The optimum timing to submit? Be sure that you're clear on what the proposal guidelines require. One of the main things that sets apart successful grantees is the time they spend building a relationship with the program officer.


Start early! Expect to spend two to three months writing and honing. Develop a draft budget early, because the budget may influence everything else. Discuss your budget with us. Seek commitment of institutional support (for example, matching funds or released time). Establish the context: What is the big picture? Show that you know prior related work. Where does your proposed project fit? Provide an overview of what you seek to accomplish. Why is it important? Provide enough project details to establish your project's feasibility. Note the resources available. Detail your track record and expertise—why are you the one who should do this work? Construct a realistic budget (no $hoestrings or Cadillac$). Describe existing institutional support. Consider how your project will affect College infrastructure. Describe the direct and indirect influences on students; don't simply ask for stipends. What role will students play in the project? Include attachments as allowed (for example, letters from collaborators and other sources of support that speak to your ability to perform the proposed project, recent preprints, or photos.


Check the guidelines and the criteria for reviewers. Match your subheadings to these criteria—don't let a busy reviewer miss the point. Recruit others to review and critique—both specialists in your field and general readers.

After Submission

Wait. Patience is a virtue. Expect success; be prepared for failure. Listen to any comments from your program officer. Ask for comments from reviewers—and pay attention, whether or not your proposal is funded. If it is denied, remember that most others were, too. Keep working on the project anyway and compile more data. REWRITE and RESUBMIT—your chances will improve. If your proposal is funded, celebrate (briefly) but get cracking! Report results promptly: future funding may depend on timely reporting, so don't forego the good to achieve the perfect. Think about the next grant, the next project. Serve on review panels yourself to learn how the process works and what makes proposals stand out.

You, and your students, should ENJOY it: "If it's not fun, why do it?"

(from presentation by Frank Winkler at CUR's National Conference, 6/96)


Get to Know Program Officers
  • Seek out program officers at professional meetings or at CUR meetings.
  • Email program officers. To find email addresses, start here and click on the appropriate Program Area OR start start with the NSF Staff Directory and choose the Directorate, then the Division.
  • Arrange to send a summary of your research to a program officer and follow up with a telephone appointment.
  • Call the program officers for the NSF programs you're interested in. The Sponsored Programs staff can help you identify which person to call.
Find Out What NSF is Funding
  • Talk with program officers in your field.
  • Check journal articles to see what type of research NSF has funded.
  • Search the NSF A-Z index (look for Abstracts of Recent Awards within program listings) and ask PIs for copies of their successful proposals.
Plan Your Proposal
  • Organize folders and notes by required proposal elements.
  • Allow enough time to draft proposal and rewrite.
  • Address all Review Criteria detailed in the guidelines.
  • Justify your budget request in detail—NSF allows three pages.
  • State the significance of your research questions and defend your research design.
  • Use clear prose (comprehensible to anyone who is scientifically literate).
  • Use the Facilities & Other Resources section to your advantage - described institutional resources available to you (access to travel funds, leave program, student travel funds, etc) as well as the equipment, space, LIS facilities, and administrative support you rely on.
  • Ask colleagues to serve as "reviewers" for your draft proposal and incorporate their advice. Students can also serve as great copy-editors.
Follow the Guidelines
  • Comply with formatting requirements (margins, type size, pagination, etc.).
  • Do not exceed page limits; do not include any appendices unless specifically allowed by the guidelines.
  • Use a checklist to make sure you've included everything.
  • RUI proposals: Include the RUI certification, signed by an appropriate college official (Sponsored Programs staff can provide an updated copy) , and a RUI Impact Statement (think of the Impact Statement as an additional opportunity to justify your project).

Call the FastLane Helpdesk (1-800-673-6188, 7 AM to 9 PM Eastern Time, M-F) for assistance with FastLane.

How Not To Get Funded


Get to Know Program Officers
  • A key responsibility of an NIH Program Officer is to speak with prospective grantees. They can help choose the optimal institute and best funding mechanism, and may tell you about upcoming FOAs that might be an ideal fit. Because they often sit in on study sections, they can help you choose one and provide valuable insight into the current roster and biases. Many will provide substantive feedback on draft Specific Aims, commenting on study design, preliminary data, and programmatic relevance. If your project scores in the ‘gray zone’ around the funding line, they may be instrumental in funding decisions during secondary review. For resubmissions, they can shed light on summary statements and help you strategize.

  • Email program officers. To find email addresses, start here and click on the appropriate Institute/Center.
  • Arrange to send a summary of your research to a program officer and follow up with a telephone appointment.
  • The Sponsored Programs staff can help you identify program officers to contact.

Tutorials and other grant advice from NIH: