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Strategy for NIH Funding
Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding. Link to Part 1. Qualify for NIH Funding.Link to Part 2. Pick and Design a Project.Link to Part 3. Write Your Application.Link to Part 4. Submit Your Application.Link to Part 5. Assignment and Review.Link to Part 6. If Not Funded.Link to Part 7. Funding.

Previous page in Strategy.Highlight Significance and Innovation   ·   Write the Research StrategyNext page in Strategy.

Get Started Writing the Research Plan

Learn the most efficient order to write in and how to keep everything in sync as you write. Get detailed advice on creating your Specific Aims and a title.

Before reading the information in this part, you may want to first read about planning the application in Part 2.

While this document is geared toward the basic research project grant, the R01, much of it is useful for other grants.

Table of Contents

Just the Facts

(This section has factual information only; for advice on this topic, go to Our Advice below.)

Your application's Research Plan has two sections:

  • Specific Aims—a one-page statement of your objectives for the project.
  • Research Strategy—a description of the rationale for your research and your experiments in 12 pages for an R01.

In your Specific Aims, you note the significance and innovation of your research; then list your two to three concrete objectives, your aims.

Your Research Strategy is the nuts and bolts of your application, where you describe your research rationale and the experiments you will conduct to accomplish each aim. Though how you organize it is largely up to you, NIH expects you to follow these guidelines.

  • Organize using bold headers or an outline or numbering system—or both—that you use consistently throughout.
  • Start each section with the appropriate header: Significance, Innovation, or Approach.
  • Organize the Approach section around your Specific Aims.

To write the Research Plan, you don't need the application forms. Write the text in your word processor, and upload it into the application form when it's final.

Find details on the structure and content of the Research Strategy at Write the Research Strategy in Part 3.

Our Advice

(This section has advice only; you should also read the factual information above at Just the Facts. For help at the planning stage, go to Part 2. Pick and Design a Project.)

As you read this page, look at our Sample Applications and Summary Statements to see some of the different strategies successful PIs use to create an outstanding Research Plan.

Keeping It All in Sync

Writing in a logical sequence will save you time.

Information you put in the Research Plan affects just about every other application part. You'll need to keep everything in sync as your plans evolve during the writing phase.

It's best to consider your writing as an iterative process. As you develop and finalize your experiments, you will go back and check other parts of the application to make sure everything is in sync: the "who, what, when, where, and how (much money)" as well as look again at the scope of your plans.

Read more under Use an Iterative Process in Design a Project in Part 2.

In that vein, writing in a logical sequence is a good approach that will save you time. We suggest proceeding in the following order.

  1. Create a provisional title.
  2. Write a draft of your Specific Aims.
  3. Write your Research Strategy.
    1. Start with your Significance and Innovation sections.
    2. Then draft the Approach section considering the personnel and skills you'll need for each step.
  4. Evaluate your Specific Aims and methods in light of your expected budget (for a new PI, it should be modest, probably under the $250,000 for NIH's modular budget).
  5. As you design experiments, reevaluate your hypothesis, aims, and title to make sure they still reflect your plans.
  6. Prepare your Abstract (a summary of your Specific Aims).
  7. Complete the other forms.

Even the smaller sections of your application need to be well-organized and readable so reviewers can readily grasp the information. If writing is not your forte, get help.

To view writing strategies for successful applications, see our Sample Applications and Summary Statements . There are many ways to create a great application, so explore your options.

First Step: Give It a Title

Within the character limit, include the important information to distinguish your project within the research area, your project's goals, and the research problem.

Giving your project a title at the outset can help you stay focused and avoid a meandering Research Plan. So you may want to launch your writing by creating a well-defined title.

NIH gives you a 200 character limit, but don’t feel obliged to use all of that allotment. Instead, we advise you to keep the title as succinct as possible while including the important information to distinguish your project within the research area. Make your title reflect your project's goals, the problem your project addresses, and possibly your approach to studying it. Make your title specific: saying you are studying lymphocyte trafficking is not informative enough.

For examples of strong titles, see our Sample Applications.

Checkpoint. After you write a preliminary title, check that:

  1. My title is specific, indicating at least the research area and the goals of my project.
  2. It is 200 characters or less.
  3. I use as simple language as possible.
  4. I state the research problem and, possibly, my approach to studying it.
  5. I use a different title for each of my applications. (Note: there are exceptions, for example, for a renewal—see Apply for Renewal or Start Anew in Part 7 for details.)
  6. My title has appropriate keywords.

Later you may want to change your initial title. That's fine—at this point, it's just an aid to keep your plans focused.

Explain Your Aims

Since all your reviewers read your Specific Aims, you want to excite them about your project.

If testing your hypothesis is the destination for your research, your Research Plan is the map that takes you there.

You'll start by writing the smaller part, the Specific Aims. Think of the one-page Specific Aims as a capsule of your Research Plan. Since all your reviewers read your Specific Aims, you want to excite them about your project.

Write a narrative. Use at least half the page to provide the rationale and significance of your planned research. A good way to start is with a sentence that states your project's goals. For the rest of the narrative, you will:

Describe the significance of your research, and give your rationale for choosing the project. In some cases, you may want to explain why you did not take an alternative route.

Then, briefly describe your aims, and show how they build on your preliminary studies and your previous research.

If it is likely your application will be reviewed by a study section with broad expertise, summarize the status of research in your field and explain how your project fits in. Read more in these resources:

In the narrative part of the Specific Aims of many outstanding applications, people also used their aims to:

  • State the technologies they plan to use.
  • Note their expertise to do a specific task or that of collaborators.
  • Describe past accomplishments related to the project.
  • Describe preliminary studies and new and highly relevant findings in the field.
  • Explain their area's biology.
  • Show how the aims relate to one another.
  • Describe expected outcomes for each aim.
  • Explain how they plan to interpret data from the aim’s efforts.
  • Describe how to address potential pitfalls with contingency plans.

Depending on your situation, decide which items are important for you. For example, a new investigator would likely want to highlight preliminary data and qualifications to do the work.

Many people use bold or italics to emphasize items they want to bring to the reviewers' attention, such as the hypothesis or rationale.

List your aims. After the narrative, enter your aims as bold bullets, or stand-alone or run-on headers (as in List your aims above).

  • State your plans using strong verbs like identify, define, quantify, establish, determine.
  • Describe each aim in one to three sentences.
  • Consider adding bullets under each aim to refine your objectives.

How focused should your aims be? Look at the example below.

Spot the Sample

Read the Specific Aims of Colin Parrish's application "Structural controls of functional receptor and antibody binding to viral capsids."

  • Aim 1. To define the structural variation in parvovirus capsids, and to determine the effects on capsid functions and DNA release.
  • Aim 2. To define the structural interactions between various parvovirus capsids and variants of the transferrin receptor or artificial receptors.
  • Aim 3. Use antibodies to probe the capsid structure, and also to determine how binding to overlapping sites leads to variable neutralization.

Checkpoint. After finishing the draft Specific Aims, check that:

  1. I keep to the one-page limit.
  2. Each of my two or three aims is a narrowly focused, concrete objective I can achieve during the grant.
  3. My aims highlight the significance of the research to science and health.
    • They give a clear picture of how my project can generate knowledge that may improve human health.
    • They show my project's importance to science, how it addresses a critical research opportunity that can move my field forward.
  4. My text states how my work is innovative.
  5. I describe the biology to the extent needed for my reviewers.
  6. I give a rationale for choosing the topic and approach.
  7. I tie the project to my preliminary data and other new findings in the field.
  8. I explicitly state my hypothesis and why testing it is important.
  9. My aims can test my hypothesis and are logical.
  10. I can design and lead the execution of two or three sets of experiments that will strive to accomplish each aim.
  11. I use language that an educated nonexpert can understand, to the extent possible.
  12. My text has bullets, bolding, or headers so reviewers can easily spot my aims (and other key items).

For each element listed above, analyze your text and revise it until your Specific Aims hit all the key points you'd like to make.

After the list of aims, some people add a closing paragraph, emphasizing the significance of the work, their collaborators, or whatever else they want to focus reviewers' attention on.

More Resources

Strategy for NIH Funding
Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding.

Previous page in Strategy.Highlight Significance and Innovation   ·   Write the Research StrategyNext page in Strategy.

See the other sections of
Part 3. Write Your Application

Table of Contents for the Strategy

We welcome your comments, questions, or suggestions. Email

Last Updated March 25, 2015

Last Reviewed April 18, 2014