These are my notes from week 1 of Harvard’s BBS 330: Proposal Writing course, taught by Dr. Monica P. Colaiacovo and Dr. Doris Lui on September 9, 2015.

Administrative matters

Proposal outlines are due to the BBS office by mid-October. 1st and 2nd drafts of the proposals will be produced by the end of the semester. PQEs can occur anytime between January and May.

Proposals produced in this course will be:

  • Title - gets its own page
  • Abstract - ½ page
  • Specific aims - ½ page
  • Background and significance + preliminary data - 6-8 pages
  • Experimental design - 7-10 pages
  • Literature cited - doesn’t count towards page limit
  • Figures should be embedded in text, but do not count towards the page limit

Proposal should not exceed 4,000 words including figure legends but not title page or references. Everything should be ≥11 point Arial with ½” margins. Note that for the final PQE proposal, which includes a third aim, you get 5,000 words.

Pro-tips for proposal writing


  • Title. In general, shorter is better. Should be a “succinct and comprehensive statement of proposal’s subject”. In-field terminology can be eliminated except where specific keywords may help you in getting a relevant reviewer assigned.
  • Abstract. Keywords in it determine the study section and committee composition. Should include the central hypothesis, background, significance, and specific aims. (Though tailored for papers rather than proposals, I also like this guide). Though they may seem trite, turns of phrase such “remains unknown” and “potential” are useful for framing what is known versus what are unanswered questions you plan to address. The “significance” section should give a friendly reviewer a basis to advocate on your behalf to other study section members. You may also include (possibly integrated with the specific aims) a modicum of detail about your experimental plan. Vague statements are unhelpful (e.g. “molecular and genetic approaches”) and gritty details are unnecessary (e.g. “I will use co-immunoprecipitation”) but you might include at least a hint as to what model systems will be used or what specific scenarios will be tested.
  • Background and significance. The background should be targeted to the most relevant stuff for understanding the proposal; do not attempt to be comprehensive. Context should be broad. Lead the reader to your perspective by citing literature that supports your plans. Cite precedents from other model systems to support the reasonableness of your hypothesis or the feasibility of your plans. The “significance” can be brief but should come after the background and state the motivation for undertaking this work.
  • Specific aims. Should be cohesive and synergistic yet not absolutely interdependent. For our PQE proposals, we are required to have 3 aims, but for some funding agencies 2 aims can be acceptable. The sentence structure for each aim can be like:
    • To determine if __ functions to ___
    • To characterize the critical domains of _____
  • Experimental design and interpretation of data. Have a section explicitly titled “Alternative approaches” and have it in bold so that no-one can accuse you of not having considered alternatives. For each experiment, discuss anticipated results and how you would interpret them. This section can play up the cohesion and integration between the different aims. Make sure to establish feasibility of each experiment, possibly by citing precedents. Each experiment should have two layers of rationale: the reason to do the experiment, and the logic behind the specific experimental design. Summary statements, even tired-sounding ones like “In sum, …” are important to include to tell the reader what you’ve told them. You shouldn’t expect the reader to make any logical inferences, and the text should be robust to the reader getting distracted and forgetting what they just read a moment ago.
  • Future directions. Optionally, at the end of the proposal, include a brief paragraph stating how the results of your experiments will move the field forward, open up new areas of investigation, etc.


  • You can emphasize key points by repeating them more than once in the text.
  • By convention, Aim 3 is allowed to be more risk-taking than the first two aims.

NIH grant review criteria

Here is NIH’s exact wording of what reviewers are asked to rate on, taken from here:

  • SIGNIFICANCE: Does this study address an important problem? If the aims of the application are achieved, how will scientific knowledge be advanced? What will be the effect of these studies on the concepts or methods that drive this field?
  • APPROACH: Are the conceptual framework, design, methods, and analyses adequately developed, well integrated, and appropriate to the aims of the project? Does the applicant acknowledge potential problem areas and consider alternative tactics?
  • INNOVATION: Does the project employ novel concepts, approaches or methods? Are the aims original and innovative? Does the project challenge existing paradigms or develop new methodologies or technologies?
  • INVESTIGATOR: Is the investigator appropriately trained and well suited to carry out this work? Is the work proposed appropriate to the experience level of the principal investigator and other researchers (if any)?
  • ENVIRONMENT: Does the scientific environment in which the work will be done contribute to the probability of success? Do the proposed experiments take advantage of unique features of the scientific environment or employ useful collaborative arrangements? Is there evidence of institutional support?

Reviewers are asked to provide:

  • A neutral summary of the proposal
  • A critical evaluation of significance / impact
  • General comments