Writing Successful Grants: Framing Your Research

This blog is part one of a four-part series on grant writing inspired by resources published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and others.

Like so many ambitious scientists before, you are setting out on the most perilous of quests―writing a grant proposal. Between your grant and the promise of riches untold lie a series of important tasks that you must complete to win the funding you need. We begin with the pièce de résistance of any grant proposal: your research.

Your research is the highlight of your application. It is important to summarize your research well and describe how it will make an impact in your field. You must create a focused hypothesis that can be tested through well-developed aims and experiments, and explain to your review committee where you fit into the larger context of your area of study. Your research is the whole point of your proposal, so it’s important to make it count.

Finding a Niche

Before you start framing your research, you should consider the bigger picture. Where do you as a scientist fit within your field and what makes your research unique? You should seek out an area yet unexplored, where you can contribute new information and understanding to the field at large. Explore hot topics, knowledge gaps and under-researched issues. Network with fellow scientists and leaders in your field to brainstorm ideas and delve into new opportunities.

Once you’ve found a few options, think about whether you have the expertise and resources needed to pursue them. Consider areas where you may encounter tough competition or areas that are best left untouched as they aren’t significant enough. This will help you narrow your search down to one area where you can make a big impact.

For more information about choosing a niche, check out this NIH article:
“Writing a Winning Application―Find Your Niche.”

Developing Specific Aims

The Specific Aims are the objectives of your research and are the launch point for designing your projects. These aims should be goals that you can reasonably accomplish within the timeframe of the grant. Be careful not to bite off more than you can chew―you should write aims that appear doable in the time you have, without making you seem overly ambitious or too conservative in your estimate of what you can achieve.  

Your Specific Aims should be innovative, address a salient problem, and reflect the central theme of your research specified in your hypothesis. You may choose to write your Specific Aims before your hypothesis, or vice versa, but they should be compatible and clearly tie into one another.  

Once developed, you’ll want to assess your aims from the perspective of a reviewer. You may solicit help from colleagues both in and outside of your field for this. You’ll want to determine whether your aims are clearly articulated, address an important problem, are unique and innovative and whether they have the potential to strongly impact your area of study. If others seem excited about your project, chances are reviewers will be as well.

For more information about Specific Aims, check out this NIH article:
“Writing a Winning Application―Draft and Evaluate Specific Aims.”

Planning Your Experiments

Your experiments will lay out your path to achieving the objectives identified in your Specific Aims and demonstrate to your reviewers how you will go about testing your hypothesis. Resources that you’ll want to account for in the process of building your experiments include the personnel, methods, materials and technology needed to achieve your goals. This will also be useful to you in the next step of your journey: planning your budget.

You’ll also want to think about how the anticipated outcomes of your experiments will meet your objectives, and whether your experiments lie within the scope of your expertise. It’s important not to propose more than you can reasonably accomplish with the time and support you have.

Should you find your experiments are beyond your skill level, you should seek advice from colleagues or advisors who have experience in the relevant methods and techniques. You may choose to look for opportunities to collaborate with other experts at your institution. If your experiments are too complex, expensive or just unreasonable, you may need to pare them down or go back and re-evaluate your objectives. You can rewrite your Specific Aims in favor of more attainable goals given your skillset and the resources available to you.

To learn more about planning your experiments, read this NIH article:
“Writing a Winning Application―Outline Your Experiments.”

Be sure to explore your options before choosing one path to pursue in your research. You should select an area where you can make a significant impact. Formulate a testable hypothesis and objectives that are achievable given your expertise and the time and resources available to you. Your review committee will want to see a unique and innovative approach to answering a salient question in your field. Persuading them of the significance and feasibility when framing your research will be integral to your success.  


For additional resources including tips on the job search, interviews, conferences and professional development, visit the Professional Skills and Development section of our Student Resource Center.

AnnaKay is a science writer at Promega. She studied Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has written across a variety of fields ranging from limnology to veterinary medicine to natural resource management. In her spare time, AnnaKay enjoys reading and writing creatively.

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