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Typical Components of a Proposal


The guiding document for the components of a Proposal (Preliminary, Concept/White Paper, or Full) is the agency's Request for Proposals (RFPs), Research Announcement (RA), or Request for Quotes (RFQ). This document should always be reviewed as the first step in developing proposal materials. The format and requirements should be followed specifically in the order and form provided by the agency. It may appear that the proposal requires duplication or replication of information in multiple sections or formats. If this is the case, the redundant information should be built into the documentation as requested. Agencies frequently disassemble proposals, and different sections are reviewed by different reviewers or staff. Therefore, redundant information in the form outlined by the agency document should be followed without exception.

Preliminary Proposals/Concept/White Papers/Letter of Intent

Sponsors often have a requirement for a preliminary proposal, a concept/white paper, or letter of intent to introduce the proposed project in a short format for consideration for an invitation to submit a full proposal. Some agencies do not always require preliminary proposals; however, if they are required, an investigator will not be eligible for consideration of a full proposal if this requirement has not been submitted. Some agencies may accept full proposals only upon invitation. Others may not accept a full proposal if a preliminary proposal has not been submitted, even if they do not restrict full proposals to those by invitation only. The investigator should carefully review the guidelines to determine the specific requirements for a funding opportunity.

Even if a preliminary proposal or concept/white paper is not required, creating either is an excellent way to prepare a document that can be submitted to an agency program officer for review and comment prior to preparation of a full proposal. In general, a preliminary proposal or concept/white paper should be created as follows:

 Key Aspects of a Preliminary Proposal or Concept/White Paper

Key Aspects of a Preliminary Proposal or Concept White Paper
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Be considered an abbreviated version of the full proposal. Focus more on goals, objectives, proposed scope of work, and the anticipated results or outcomes rather than on background data and budgetary information.  Be limited to 3-5 pages or to a specific form such as a matrix that provides for information in an abbreviated form. 

General Guidelines/Formats

While specific requirements regarding content and format differ markedly and change frequently among sponsors or guidelines, the following are general requirements that are routinely part of all submissions in some form. This list should be tailored or edited to follow specific agency guidelines.


Titles should be concise, clear, and precise. Excessive length may result in ambiguities should parts be abbreviated during processing at the agency. News releases often rely on the title to reference research, and precision will help avoid possible misrepresentation of a study. A goal might be to try to limit the first portion of a title to no more than 50 characters and to follow a colon with a more explanatory description if needed. Some agencies require specific wording to be included in the proposal title. Refer to the guidelines for this information.


The abstract is the most important part of the proposal in that it summarizes all the key information and is designed to convince the reader that the project is worthy of funding. You must gain the reader's interest up front to convince him or her to continue reading your proposal. The abstract describes the major objectives of the proposed research and the research strategy to meet these objectives. It serves a variety of purposes and should be prepared with great care.

Agency staff often use the abstract in assigning the proposal to the appropriate study section(s) for review. Reviewers use the abstract to gain an initial perspective of the key concept of the study and its significance, and again later as a reminder when the proposal comes up for discussion. If a proposal is not in a reviewer's area of specialization, the abstract may be the only part read to prepare for the panel discussion. After funding is secured, the abstract may be used for entry in national databases, and its keywords are picked up for quotation indexes.

It is advisable to write the abstract at the end, when all other sections of the proposal have been finalized. A good abstract will strike a balance between simple and technical language and highlight key concepts for which the reviewers should look in the main body of the proposal. Many sponsors limit an abstract to no more than one page of single spaced text in a standard font size with no less than 1-inch margins. Refer to the guidelines on specific format or areas which should be included in the abstract.

Executive Summary/Introduction

Whenever possible, it is advised to include an executive summary of the proposed research. This document reviews the sponsor's goals, objectives, and criteria for use in reviewing the proposal and briefly addresses how the proposal relates to them. When allowed, this summary is another way to identify how a particular proposal, research design, and expected outcomes relate to a sponsor's needs. The summary will be useful for those who are not specialists in the investigator's discipline to understand the linkage between the proposed project and the sponsor's criteria. If a separate executive summary is not allowed, it is useful to think of the abstract in these terms to strengthen the linkage of the proposal to these areas. The project description will address each element outlined below in detail, but the summary is a concise statement that may be easier for a reviewer who is not a specialist or the agency staff to understand.

Description of Project

The investigator is expected to present a description of the proposed project and to explain the general goals and the specific objectives. At the same time, the need for the project must be justified and its significance should emerge clearly and convincingly. The overall goals may be stated in general terms, but specific objectives need to be clearly defined. Objectives must be tangible, specific, measurable, and achievable within the project period. Investigators often use brief statements in numerical ranking of priority to achieve this end.

Related Studies/Review of the Field

A discussion of previous work in the field demonstrates an investigator's knowledge and provides an evaluation of the "state-of-the-art" in his or her specialization. It also shows the extent of preparation for the proposed study and the novelty and individuality of the approach. For these reasons, this section has to be more than a bibliography. It must demonstrate that the investigator is aware of other work in the discipline. A careful selection of sources must be made and only sources significant to the proposed research should be discussed in detail.

With regard to those who are new to research or academia, reviewers acknowledge the fact that few publications are available on which the strength of an investigator can be assessed. Therefore, the analytical richness of a review of the field is used to gauge the new investigator's sharpness of intellect and potential for success. It should be noted that both National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) Study Section reviews indicate that pilot data (preliminary results) are "a must."

Methodology and Time Frame

The methodology section describes the specific activities that will take place to achieve the objectives and enables the reader to visualize the implementation of the project. This section tells the how, when, and why of your proposal and should describe the proposed research methodology, organizing the material logically according to progressive steps of inquiry. Investigators must make a careful decision about how much detail will be needed to ensure the reviewers' without going to excessive lengths. It is equally important to describe how potential problems will be addressed.

The overall length of time required to conduct the research project must be projected with care to allow for data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Unrealistic projection or omission of a period of performance may lead to reviewer criticism. Investigators need to allow for a reasonable time frame after the application submission date for processing, review, and evaluation of the proposal at the sponsoring agency. For many federal sponsors, this period may be 6 months to a year. The request for proposal may provide this information. If not, the investigator should review the sponsor's general guidelines, policies, and procedures for more detailed information. It is also possible to request this information from the program officer or agency staff person identified in the guidelines. Considering this factor may enable the investigator to propose more accurately which phase of ongoing research the funding should support.

Evaluation Design and Statistical Analysis

Evaluation design is increasingly important. Many projects require an evaluation of results. Evaluation may be planned both at critical points during the project period and/or after its conclusion. It may be designed to be carried out by participant staff or by outside consultants. The description of the evaluation design should be detailed and the applicant should make it clear how it is to be administered and how the resulting data will be analyzed. It is also important to indicate how the evaluation results will be used and/or how they will be disseminated. In biological, behavioral, chemical, and physical sciences, research faculty should state their test evaluation and statistical methods. Many guidelines will specify that a percentage of the budget must be used for evaluation and dissemination of the results. Refer to both the overall criteria for the program and the budget narrative description to determine if use of project funds is encouraged for performance of this function.


If possible, all professional, technical and academic personnel who will participate in the research should be identified by name, title, and role in the project. Roles may include the following:

  • Project Director and Co-Director(s), PI and Co-PI(s), Program Director
  • Faculty Associates (generally members of the faculty holding academic rank of Assistant Professor and above)
  • Postdoctoral Associates
  • Research Associates/Assistants (i.e., graduate students engaged in research or research training under the proposed grant)
  • Professional Associates/Assistants (e.g., computer programmers, design engineers, laboratory assistants, technicians)
  • Other (e.g., secretarial, clerical, shop, undergraduate students)
  • Consultants (generally, these are from outside the university)

A curriculum vitae (CV, resume, or biographical sketch) is usually required for each of the key personnel (major investigators or specialized personnel who have been substantially influential in developing or delivering the objectives and whose participation could not be easily duplicated or replaced). However, it is advisable to highlight specific research experience, related publications, and other important biographical information with regard to professional personnel. Reviewers have indicated that it is helpful to have specific research capabilities of the major researchers stated in the text, although these qualifications may also be listed on the CV. Many agencies limit the size and scope of a CV. Common limitations are no more than 2-3 pages or to publications and presentations within the last 3-5 years. Other items to consider including are collaborations with internal and external faculty which have not been solidified as published research and instructional experience in the form of courses developed and taught and in graduate theses and/or dissertations supervised for students within and outside of UWF. Names, affiliation, and the role they play in carrying out the project of such collaborators/students are often required to provide a list of persons who may have a conflict of interest if considered as a potential reviewer of the proposal.

Facilities and Special Resources

Applicants will need to describe the facilities and resources that will be used in the proposed research. If unique facilities exist with regard to the proposed research, it is important to emphasize this in the proposal. The application may require data on the size of the university, a profile of faculty and students, or details on university-wide facilities such as the library, computer centers, or specialized centers. In addition to their own college resource personnel, applicants may look up current information on the UWF web site or contact their RAE Grants Specialist for assistance.

Dissemination of Information

In order to assure wide impact of funds invested in research, demonstration or development projects, many agencies emphasize the need for well-planned dissemination of results. Most investigators hope to publish research findings in refereed journals. If other strategies seem useful, they should be listed in the dissemination section of the proposal. Examples of dissemination are conferences, training workshops, special newsletters, manuals, production of audio-visual material, or any other means of sharing research data with the scientific and technological community.