Research idea

For about 30% of your problems the reviewer (and you) should be 90% convinced that the proposed solutions will work. For another 45%, the reviewer should be about 60% sure. For the remaining problems, you need to convince the reviewer that these are fascinating problems, and even if you don't succeed in solving them, the effort will serve as a significant contribution to your field.

Make sure to address the following questions:

  • Why is this technique preferable to existing techniques?
  • How do you propose to evaluate your technique against existing ones?
  • What specifics about the application/problem make the new technique a compelling choice? (Just because it hasn't been done yet does not mean it's worth doing...)
  • What will you be able to do that no one else has been able to do so far?

Project summary

Include a self-contained description of the activity that would results if the proposal is funded. Write in the 3rd person and include a statement of objectives and methods to be employed. Clearly address in separate statements intellectual merit and broader impacts. Proposals that do not do so will be returned without review.

Don't forget that the summary page should be in 3rd person (the PI, not I). This can be extremely painful. Write it as I (or we) and try replacing all of the I's/we's with "The PI".

Project description


Provide a basic but thorough introduction to your subject. Don’t expect reviewers to be familiar with your field so you should include clarifying information for your project. Reviewers are an intelligent, yet diverse audience. State your overall vision and motivating rationale. What is lacking? Provide background and need/significance. Do you have preliminary results?

  • What is the issue? For example, psychological impact of globalization, factors that lead to health/education disparity, adjustment to changing technology, etc.
  • Why is it important to study this issue? Why should people care about it? Scientific contribution? Board social impact? Immediate and long-term effects?
  • Place your work in a broader context -- what sort of problems do you expect to be solving 10-30 years from now? Why is the problem you're addressing relevant? This section should also have 1-2 paragraphs summarizing the proposed research contributions (what will you have done after 3-5 years?) Don't make this too broad or make it sound like you're doing something you're not -- you want to convince them that the direction is worth while and will lead to bigger and better things, but you don't want to claim to cure depression when all you've done is make people smile in the lab...
  • You may also want to include 1-2 paragraphs discussing outreach and education, especially if this is a Career award or you have something particularly compelling to say in this area.

Previous work

  • Do your homework. Especially if this is an area that's new to you. References are free, list them all. And, even if you don't have a lot to say about particular papers, make it clear that you've read other research group's work in that area.
  • Show off what you've done in this area. Make sure to distinguish papers that are yours, e.g., we demonstrated in paper X that...
  • Discuss previous work/work you've already completed/existing research. Be very explicit about work that is yours.

Project plan

Include Goals, Objectives and Deliverables. Describe your Activities. Provide enough information as to why you and your team are expert enough to accomplish the goal. What facilities and resources are available? How will you address a diversity component? Goal?

Include for each Objective:

  1. Methods/Activities,
  2. Expected Results/Deliverables,
  3. Limitations & alternatives, and
  4. Timeline/Resources (if needed)

Your project plan should include background on the problems. Stay away from comments like "we plan to investigate..." without any specifics. For every problem you should have your specific approach to it. And, ideally, this shouldn't be the approach that someone in your field would come up with after they sat down and thought about it for 10 minutes. Also stay away from the thesis-as-hammer grant proposal -- I've seen a lot of proposals that take the basic idea from their thesis and just list a set of problems to try it on. You really want something a bit more visionary.

In this section, the breakdown should be:

  • Discuss problems where you have already done some work and have preliminary results. The listed problems are extensions of existing work/address known flaws/application of current techniques to a new, but similar, problem. You should be 90% confident of succeeding in solving these problems. The solutions should be very detailed/explicit -- i.e., this is where you demonstrate that you know the problem area well, you know how to solve the problems, and at the very least, you will definitely accomplish these goals.
  • Discuss longer-range problems, ones where the solutions are not as obvious. These problems might have one or more proposed solutions, and will, of necessity, be a bit more vague. This is where you convince the reviewer to fund your proposal.
  • Discuss long-term we'll-get-to-them-if-we-can type problems. This is, in some sense, a peek at what your follow-up proposal will have in it...
  • One way of organizing the beginning of your proposal is to give a brief introduction followed by the specific aims and then a more detailed background tailored to your specific aims. The first paragraph introduces the general area and then gives the specific question that will be addressed in the proposal. The second paragraph now introduces more background details relevant to the specific aims.
  • Your plan for potential pitfalls (i.e. alternative techniques or directions) of a project. Think in terms of if-then statements. (If experiment 1 shows these results, then I would conclude that hypothesis A is correct, and I will follow up by ... or if my hypothesis is wrong, it could mean that ... and I will follow up with ...)

Evaluation/assessment plan

This is an area that is receiving more emphasis from NSF. Be sure to include details about how your project and objectives will be evaluated and how results will be analyzed. Project evaluation should be reflected in the budget as well.

  • How will you demonstrate that your research succeeded?
  • It's becoming more and more important to outline evaluation strategies for your research, especially if you're working in a well-mined area. Quantifiable measures are great things. Give some serious thought to this - how will you demonstrate that your research succeeded?
  • This can also make for a great outreach component -- a test suite and a set of evaluation metrics.


How will results be broadly conveyed? Professional conferences, papers, special seminars, etc.


Summarize project goals and expected outcomes, including how they pertain to broader impacts.

A timeline, or some other bulleted summary, can be very handy for the reviewers. I've seen reviewers complain about not knowing who's going to do what (i.e., what's work that will be parceled out to graduate students, undergraduates, you'll do yourself). The reviewers will (typically) have read 8-15 of these things to read, and it's hard to keep track of it all. A summary at the end they can flip to to remind themselves of what you were talking about is very helpful.

Explicitly mark the intellectual merit and broader impact paragraphs in the proposal summary. i.e., there should be a paragraph that starts Intellectual merit: and similarly for Broader impact.

Broader impact

Refers to the broader impacts of funding an individual who will have a long and productive career, in addition to the broader impacts of the research in the proposal

  • Reviewers will be assessing both your academic merit and your potential for broad impact. Keep in mind that everyone applying for the fellowship is either already in or applying for graduate school. As a result, broad impact is often what separates the honorable mentions from the winners. The NSF website suggests the kind of activities in which they are most interested, such as communicating scientific findings broadly and mentoring minority students. Highlight previous relevant experiences, mention what you would like to do in the future, and, if at all possible, propose a research project that includes broad-impact goals, such as exploring how memory research can enhance classroom education.
  • If you did community service as an undergrad, you could bring that in to the essay and talk about how that will translate into a desire to use your scientific career to help others, etc.
  • The broader impacts criterion (mostly stated in Personal Statements essay…?) includes contributions that:
    • effectively integrate research and education at all levels, infuse learning with the excitement of discovery, and assure that the findings and methods of research are communicated in a broad context and to a large audience
      • Enthusiastic about sharing knowledge with others; TAing, tutoring, mentoring
    • encourage diversity, broaden opportunities, and enable the participation of all citizens-women and men, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities-in science and research
      • If you are a woman, part of an underrepresented minority—now is the time and place to mention it somehow (always tastefully and sparingly, of course)
    • enhance scientific and technical understanding
    • benefit society
  • Applicants may provide characteristics of their background, including personal, professional, and educational experiences, to indicate their potential to fulfill the broader impacts criterion.

Similarly, the conclusion at the end of the proposal should summarize the proposed research, the proposed outreach, why this will benefit humanity, and why you're the one to do this. Be as specific as you can - if a sentence could be cut & pasted into another proposal in another area without change, then that sentence is too vague.

Summarize your proposed experiment briefly and then point out the wider implications of your work—first in the scope of the field of study, and then, if applicable, in the wider arena. Show that you can think about the broader implications and even applications of your work.

  • Discuss education/broader impact. It's rare to have anything unique here - it's usually "I'll run this course which will attract these minority students for some reason, and will integrate my research with the curriculum". If you can link into programs on your campus that do education for kids/high school, that's a good thing. If you have any industry contacts who are interested in your work, this is the place to mention them (include a letter of support in this case).
  • (Optional) Results from prior funding (if any) or anything unique you want to say about yourself that makes you particularly suited to this research/outreach.
  • Summarize the proposed research and who's going to do it (e.g., graduate students) and how. Make this easy to find so the reviewers can quickly flip to it and not dig this information out of the body of the proposal. Anyone who has a substantial role in the project should have commensurate funding

A conclusion summarizing why this research needs to be done, how it will help the community, why you're excited to do this... i.e., end on a high note. This is your chance to remind the reviewer about why they should be so keen on your proposal...

Writing style

It's okay to interleave background information/previous work with proposed work, but you have to be very clear to distinguish the two. Pick one tense/phrasing for previous work, a second for the proposed work. Separating these out with some flavor of to-do or I propose at the beginning of the new work paragraph can help. Be very careful of accidentally "burying" your to-do's in the middle of a paragraph.

  • The use of "I propose to" will get a little tedious; let it. Alternate equivalent statements "I will examine, I will experiment with, I will test", but don't get so carried away with avoiding multiple uses that you don't highlight your proposed work.
  • Use declaratives to discuss your existing/previous work whenever possible. Especially for women (and self-effacing folks) it is important to make it extremely clear what your accomplishments are, what your ideas are, etc. This may make your proposal feel a bit aggressive or pushy -- try to walk the line between sounding confident and arrogant. As an example:
  • Format appropriately; underline your hypothesis, italicize key points, put big ideas in boldface type, use bullets.

Make your application visually appealing: Avoid the temptation to cram as many words as possible into your two pages (e.g., single-spacing lines, tightening the kerning and tracking, narrowing the margins). Your application is only one among thousands. Reviewers will be tired and reading quickly, so do everything in your power to make it easier for them. Use elegant figures on each page. Leave white space on the page with healthy margins and an extra line break between paragraphs. Choose your font wisely. The application has loose formatting requirements, so enjoy the chance to break away from APA style.


Every figure should have text explaining:

  • What's in the figure.
  • What concept/problem the figure is illustrating. I.e., why did you include this figure?
  • How the figure was created (if it's an image of something).
  • Explanation of any artifacts in the figure. Especially if this is a preliminary figure that isn't "perfect" yet. Don't leave the reviewer guessing why there was a big purple splotch in the middle of the image...

Tables and graphs

If you're going to show tables or comparison charts from experiments, please make sure you explain whether a low number is good, or a high number, and why. Label all axes (in legible text) and include error bars where appropriate.

References may be 10-point font. Times New Roman.

The reviewers

The reviewer will remember, at best, your research area, a basic idea of your proposed research plan, and any unusual collaborative efforts. But that's only if you make a concerted effort to clearly lay out those points in the first two pages.

  • They will definitely remember if:
    • The writing was bad/confusing/full of errors.
    • You didn't do what you said you were going to do in the first two pages.
    • You missed out someone else's research you should have been aware of.
  • You should do your best to make sure they remember:
    • That you did an excellent job describing the current state of research in your area, and what the open problems are.
    • That you clearly laid out a list of problems and potential solutions.
    • Moreover, you included a summary of those problems in an easy-to-find place so the reviewer can find it again when needed.
    • You thought about the broader impact and education components.
    • (If applicable) That you have thought out how to evaluate your research, and/or apply it to real problems.
  • If you've got demonstrable results, include them and, more importantly, make sure they're easy to find/stand out from the body of the text.
  • Make sure your "why this research is important" and "why this approach will succeed" sections are clearly understandable to someone who is (presumably) reasonably intelligent, but not versed in your area.
  • Include enough detail to convince someone in your area that you know this material cold, and that your solutions will work. The real reason for this section is so that the semi-knowledgeable reviewer (who likes your proposal) can point to that section and say "this looks really convincing - explain to me why this isn't convincing you".

People outside of your area will primarily judge your project plan, outreach section, and how well the proposal is written (does it flow, are the non-technical arguments convincing).

If your proposal is dense and lacks compelling, easily understood arguments, it will get lower marks. If you're working in an area where the problems are not so obvious (e.g., if you work with robots, you know it is stunningly difficult to get a robot to roll down a corridor, but the average computer science researcher doesn't think this is a hard problem because they walk down corridors all the time, so how hard can it be...) then you're going to have to spend some time convincing the reviewer that this is actually a problem, and the current solutions are not good enough.

Why proposals aren't funded

The following are the most common rejections I've seen. They come in pairs, more or less, with a good proposal balancing between the two.

  • It's already been done
    • This usually happens with a proposal where the PI is new to the field, and just plain missed an entire body of research (possibly because it came under a different name in another field). Usually the review will be a kindly one, and simply say "go look at this work".
    • It also happens (sadly enough) to new proposal writers because they didn't do a literature search. Please, do your homework.
    • Sometimes this arises because of a misunderstanding of the proposed research, and a misremembering of what's been done. The best way to combat this is to make sure you've touched on all related and are explicit about what you're doing that they didn't.
  • Not enough detail/vagueness
  • There's not enough research/nothing new
  • Too ambitious
  • Lack of evaluation/no application
  • Poorly written

Please note that some of these points were not originally my own; they were picked piecemeal from dozens and dozens of websites, ranging from informal forums to graduate student-specific online communities. I'm grateful to each of the individuals who contributed their thoughts and advice during this process. The remainder of this page is my own.