Write Your Research Plan
In this part, we give you detailed information about writing an effective Research Plan. We start with the importance and parameters of significance and innovation.
We then discuss how to focus the Research Plan, relying on the iterative process described in the Iterative Approach to Application Planning Checklist shown at Draft Specific Aims and give you advice for filling out the forms.
You'll also learn the importance of having a well-organized, visually appealing application that avoids common missteps and the importance of preparing your just-in-time information early.
While this document is geared toward the basic research project grant, the R01, much of it is useful for other grant types.
Table of Contents
- Structure of Your Research Plan
- Format of Your Research Plan
- Follow Examples
- Keeping It All In Sync
- First Step: Give It a Title
- Explain Your Aims
- Instructions for the Research Strategy
- Advice on How To Write a Successful Research Strategy
- What Success Looks Like
- The Big Three
- Add Emphasis
- Anticipate Reviewer Questions
- Use Graphics
- Plan Ahead for Video
- Know Your Audience's Perspective
- Be Organized: A B C or 1 2 3?
- Keep Track of Who, What, and How Much
- Preliminary Studies or Progress Report
- Referencing Publications
- Finishing Up the Research Plan
- Hone Your Abstract and Narrative
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, turn it into a PDF file, and upload it into the application form when it's final.
Because NIH may return your application if it doesn't meet all requirements, be sure to follow the rules for font, page limits, and more. Read the instructions at Grants.gov’s Format Attachments.
For an R01, the Research Strategy can be up to 12 pages, plus one page for Specific Aims. Don't pad other sections with information that belongs in the Research Plan. NIH is on the lookout and may return your application to you if you try to evade page limits.
As you read this page, look at our Sample Applications and More to see some of the different strategies successful PIs use to create an outstanding Research Plan.
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.
In that vein, writing in a logical sequence is a good approach that will save you time. We suggest proceeding in the following order:
- Create a provisional title.
- Write a draft of your Specific Aims.
- Write your Research Strategy.
- Start with your Significance and Innovation sections.
- Then draft the Approach section considering the personnel and skills you'll need for each step.
- 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).
- As you design experiments, reevaluate your hypothesis, aims, and title to make sure they still reflect your plans.
- Prepare your Abstract (a summary of your Specific Aims).
- 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 More. There are many ways to create a great application, so explore your options.
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 and More.
After you write a preliminary title, check that
- My title is specific, indicating at least the research area and the goals of my project.
- It is 200 characters or less.
- I use as simple language as possible.
- I state the research problem and, possibly, my approach to studying it.
- I use a different title for each of my applications. (Note: there are exceptions, for example, for a renewal—see Apply for Renewal for details.)
- 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.
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.
For more on crafting your Specific Aims, see Draft Specific Aims.
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. State your hypothesis.
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.
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.
Detail Your Aims
After the narrative, enter your aims as bold bullets, or stand-alone or run-on headers.
- 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.
Read the Specific Aims of Colin Parrish's application "Structural controls of functional receptor and antibody binding to viral capsids."
- I keep to the one-page limit.
- Each of my two or three aims is a narrowly focused, concrete objective I can achieve during the grant.
- 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.
- My text states how my work is innovative.
- I describe the biology to the extent needed for my reviewers.
- I give a rationale for choosing the topic and approach.
- I tie the project to my preliminary data and other new findings in the field.
- I explicitly state my hypothesis and why testing it is important.
- My aims can test my hypothesis and are logical.
- I can design and lead the execution of two or three sets of experiments that will strive to accomplish each aim.
- As much as possible, I use language that an educated person without expertise can understand.
- 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.
Your Research Strategy is the bigger part of your application's Research Plan (the other part is the Specific Aims—discussed above.)
The Research Strategy is the nuts and bolts of your application, describing the rationale for your research and the experiments you will do to accomplish each aim. It is structured as follows:
- Three main sections
- Preliminary Studies (for new applications) or a Progress Report (for renewal and revision applications).
- You can either include this information as a subsection of Approach or integrate it into any or all of the three main sections.
- If you do the latter, be sure to mark the information clearly, for example, with a bold subhead.
- Possible other sections, for example, human subjects, vertebrate animals, select agents, and others (these do not count toward the page limit).
Though how you organize your application is largely up to you, NIH does want you to follow these guidelines:
- Add bold headers or an outlining or numbering system—or both—that you use consistently throughout.
- Start each of the Research Strategy's sections with a header: Significance, Innovation, and Approach.
- Organize the Approach section around your Specific Aims.
For an R01, the Research Strategy is limited to 12 pages for the three main sections and the preliminary studies only. Other items are not included in the page limit.
Find instructions for R01s in the SF 424 Application Guide—go to NIH's SF 424 (R&R) Application and Electronic Submission Information for the generic SF 424 Application Guide or find it in your funding opportunity announcement (FOA).
For most applications, you need to address Rigor and Reproducibility by describing the experimental design and methods you propose and how they will achieve robust and unbiased results. The requirement applies to research and career development applications and will apply to fellowship and training applications beginning as early as FY 2017.
If you're responding to an institute-specific program announcement (PA) (not a parent program announcement) or a request for applications (RFA), check the NIH Guide notice, which has additional information you need. Should it differ from the FOA, go with the NIH Guide.
Also note that your application must meet the initiative's objectives and special requirements. NIAID program staff will check your application, and if it is not responsive to the announcement, your application will be returned to you without a review.
When writing your Research Strategy, your goal is to present a well-organized, visually appealing, and readable description of your proposed project. That means your writing should be streamlined and organized so your reviewers can readily grasp the information. If writing is not your forte, get help.
There are many ways to create an outstanding Research Plan, so explore your options.
Your application's Research Plan is the map that shows your reviewers how you plan to test your hypothesis.
It not only lays out your experiments and expected outcomes, but must also convince your reviewers of your likely success by allaying any doubts that may cross their minds that you will be able to conduct the research.
Notice in the sample applications how the writing keeps reviewers' eyes on the ball by bringing them back to the main points the PIs want to make. Write yourself an insurance policy against human fallibility: if it's a key point, repeat it, then repeat it again.
So as you write, put the big picture squarely in your sights. When reviewers read your application, they'll look for the answers to three basic questions:
- Can your research move your field forward?
- Is the field important—will progress make a difference to human health?
- Can you and your team carry out the work?
Savvy PIs create opportunities to drive their main points home. They don't stop at the Significance section to emphasize their project's importance, and they look beyond their biosketches to highlight their team's expertise.
Don't take a chance your reviewer will gloss over that one critical sentence buried somewhere in your Research Strategy or elsewhere. Write yourself an insurance policy against human fallibility: if it's a key point, repeat it, then repeat it again.
Add more emphasis by putting the text in bold, or bold italics (in the modern age, we skip underlining—it's for typewriters).
Here are more strategies from our successful PIs:
- While describing a method in the Approach section, they state their or collaborators' experience with it.
- They point out that they have access to a necessary piece of equipment.
- When explaining their field and the status of current research, they weave in their own work and their preliminary data.
- They delve into the biology of the area to make sure reviewers will grasp the importance of their research and understand their field and how their work fits into it.
Spot the Sample
You can see many of these principles at work in the Approach section of Boris Striepen's Application, "Biology of the apicomplexan plastid."
Our applicants not only wrote with their reviewers in mind they seemed to anticipate their questions. You may think: how can I anticipate all the questions people may have? Of course you can't, but there are some basic items (in addition to the "big three" listed above) that will surely be on your reviewers' minds:
- Will the investigators be able to get the work done within the project period, or is the proposed work over ambitious?
- Did the PI describe potential pitfalls and possible alternatives?
- Will the experiments generate meaningful data?
- Could the resulting data prove the hypothesis?
- Are others already doing the work, or has it been already completed?
Address these questions; then spend time thinking about more potential issues specific to you and your research—and address those too.
For applications, a picture can truly be worth a thousand words. Graphics can illustrate complex information in a small space and add visual interest to your application.
Look at our sample applications to see how the investigators included schematics, tables, illustrations, graphs, and other types of graphics to enhance their applications.
Consider adding a timetable or flowchart to illustrate your experimental plan, including decision trees with alternative experimental pathways to help your reviewers understand your plans.
If you plan to send one or more videos, you'll need to meet certain standards and include key information in your Research Strategy now.
To present some concepts or demonstrations, video may enhance your application beyond what graphics alone can achieve. However, you can't count on all reviewers being able to see or hear video, so you'll want to be strategic in how you incorporate it into your application.
Be reviewer-friendly. Help your cause by taking the following steps:
- Caption any narration in the video.
- In the Research Strategy:
- Choose evocative still images from your video to accompany your summary.
- Write your summary of the video carefully so the text would make sense even without the video.
In addition to those considerations, create your videos to fit NIH’s technical requirements. Learn more in the SF 424 Form Instructions.
Next, as you write your Research Strategy, include key images from the video and a brief description.
Then, state in your cover letter that you plan to send video later. (Don't attach your files to the application.)
After you apply and get assignment information from the Commons, ask your assigned scientific review officer (SRO) how your business official should send the files. Your video files are due at least one month before the peer review meeting.
The primary audience for your application is your peer review group. Learn how to write for the reviewers who are experts in your field and those who are experts in other fields by reading Know Your Audience.
In the top-notch applications we reviewed, organization ruled but followed few rules. While you want to be organized, how you go about it is up to you.
Nevertheless, here are some principles to follow:
- Add bold headers or an outlining or numbering system—or both—that you use consistently throughout.
- Start each of the Research Strategy's sections with a header: Significance, Innovation, and Approach—this you must do.
- Organize the Approach section around your Specific Aims.
The Research Strategy's page limit—12 for R01s—is for the three main parts: Significance, Innovation, and Approach and your preliminary studies (or a progress report if you're renewing your grant). Other sections, for example, research animals or select agents, do not have a page limit.
Although you will emphasize your project's significance throughout the application, the Significance section should give the most details. Don't skimp—the farther removed your reviewers are from your field, the more information you'll need to provide on basic biology, importance of the area, research opportunities, and new findings.
When you describe your project's significance, put it in the context of 1) the state of your field, 2) your long-term research plans, and 3) your preliminary data.
In our sample applications and summary statements, you can see that both investigators and reviewers made a case for the importance of the research to improving human health as well as to the scientific field.
Spot the Sample
Look at the Significance section of Adam Ratner's Application: "Gardnerella vaginalis: toxin production and pathogenesis" to see how these elements combine to make a strong case for significance.
After conveying the significance of the research in several parts of the application, check that
- In the Significance section, I describe the importance of my hypothesis to the field (especially if my reviewers are not in it) and human disease.
- I also point out the project's significance throughout the application.
- The application shows that I am aware of opportunities, gaps, roadblocks, and research underway in my field.
- I state how my research will advance my field, highlighting knowledge gaps and showing how my project fills one or more of them.
- Based on my scan of the review committee roster, I determine whether I cannot assume my reviewers will know my field and provide some information on basic biology, the importance of the area, knowledge gaps, and new findings.
If you are either a new PI or entering a new area: be cautious about seeming too innovative. Not only is innovation just one of five review criteria, but there might be a paradigm shift in your area of science. A reviewer may take a challenge to the status quo as a challenge to his or her world view.
When you look at our sample applications, you see that both the new and experienced investigators are not generally shifting paradigms. They are using new approaches or models, working in new areas, or testing innovative ideas.
After finishing the draft innovation section, check that
- I show how my proposed research is new and unique, e.g., explores new scientific avenues, has a novel hypothesis, will create new knowledge.
- If I am a new investigator:
- Most likely, I explain how my project's research can refine, improve, or propose a new application of an existing concept or method.
- Less likely, I go for the other option described in NIH's definition: show how my research can shift a current paradigm. If I choose that path, I:
- Make a very strong case for challenging the existing paradigm.
- Have data to support the innovative approach.
- Have strong evidence that I can do the work.
In your Approach, you spell out a few sets of experiments to address each aim. As we noted above, it's a good idea to restate the key points you've made about your project's significance, its place in your field, and your long-term goals.
You're probably wondering how much detail to include.
If you look at our sample applications as a guide, you can see very different approaches. Though people generally used less detail than you'd see in a scientific paper, they do include some experimental detail.
Expect your assigned reviewers to scrutinize your approach: they will want to know what you plan to do and how you plan to do it.
NIH data show that of the peer review criteria, approach has the highest correlation with the overall impact score.
Spot the Sample
Look at the Application from Adam Ratner cited above and the Application from Carolina Wählby "Image analysis for high-throughput C. elegans infection and metabolism assays" to see how two new investigators handled the Approach section—and got a perfect score!
Especially if you are a new investigator, you need enough detail to convince reviewers that you understand what you are undertaking and can handle the method.
- Cite a publication that shows you can handle the method where you can, but give more details if you and your team don't have a proven record using the method—and state explicitly why you think you will succeed.
- If space is short, you could also focus on experiments that highlight your expertise or are especially interesting. For experiments that are pedestrian or contracted out, just list the method.
Be sure to lay out a plan for alternative experiments and approaches in case you get negative or surprising results. Show reviewers you have a plan for spending the four or five years you will be funded no matter where the experiments lead.
Spot the Sample
See Colin Parrish's application, "Structural controls of functional receptor and antibody binding to viral capsids" for strong sections on potential problems and difficulties and alternative approaches, for example, on page 37.
Here are some pointers for organizing your Approach:
- Enter a bold header for each Specific Aim.
- Under each aim, describe the first set of experiments.
- Outline the branching of next steps (omit detail if you don't have the space):
- If you get result X, you will follow pathway X; if you get result Y, you will follow pathway Y.
- Consider illustrating this with a flowchart.
Trim the fat—omit all information not needed to make your case. If you try to wow reviewers with your knowledge, they'll find flaws and penalize you heavily. Don't give them ammunition by including anything you don't need.
As you design your experiments, keep a running tab of the following essential data on a separate piece of paper:
- Who. A list of people who will help you for your Key Personnel section later.
- What. A list of equipment and supplies for the experiments you plan.
- Time. Notes on how long each step takes. Timing directly affects your budget as well as how many Specific Aims you can realistically achieve.
Jotting this information down will help you Create a Budget and complete other sections later.
After finishing a draft Approach section, check that
- I include enough background and preliminary data to give reviewers the context and significance of my plans.
- Each of my Specific Aims results in a set of experiments.
- They can test the hypothesis (or hypotheses).
- I show alternative experiments and approaches in case I get negative or surprising results.
- My experiments can yield meaningful data to test my hypothesis (or hypotheses).
- As a new investigator, I include enough detail to convince reviewers I understand and can handle a method. I reviewed the sample applications to see how much detail to use.
- It is clear what I do well and what unique skills I and my team bring to the research. If I think reviewers may have doubts, I explicitly state my team's resources and expertise.
- If I or my team has experience with a method, I cite it; otherwise I include enough details to convince reviewers we can handle it.
- I describe the results I anticipate and their implications.
- I omit all information not needed to state my case.
- I keep track of and explain who will do what, what they will do, when and where they will do it, how long it will take, and how much money it will cost.
- My timeline shows when I expect to complete my aims.
If you are applying for a new application, include preliminary studies; for a renewal or a revision (a competing supplement to an existing grant), prepare a progress report instead.
Describing Preliminary Studies
Your preliminary studies show that you can handle the methods and interpret results. Here's where you build reviewer confidence that you are headed in the right direction by pursuing research that builds on your accomplishments.
Reviewers use your preliminary studies together with the biosketches to assess the investigator review criterion, which reflects the competence of the research team.
Give alternative interpretations to your data to show reviewers you've thought through problems in-depth and are prepared to meet future challenges. If you don't do this, the reviewers will!
Though you may include other people's publications, focus on your preliminary data or unpublished data from your lab and the labs of your team members as much as you can.
As we noted above, you can put your preliminary data anywhere in the Research Strategy that you feel is appropriate, but just make sure your reviewers will be able to distinguish it. Alternatively, you can create a separate section with its own header.
Including a Progress Report
If you are applying for a renewal or a revision (a competing supplement to an existing grant), prepare a progress report instead of preliminary studies.
Create a header so your program officer can easily find it and include the following information:
- Project period beginning and end dates.
- Summary of the importance of your findings in relation to your Specific Aims.
- Account of published and unpublished results, highlighting your progress toward achieving your Specific Aims.
Note: if you submit a renewal application before the due date of your progress report, you do not need to submit a separate progress report for your grant. However, you will need to submit it, if your renewal is not funded.
After finishing the draft, check that
- I interpret my preliminary results critically.
- There is enough information to show I know what I'm talking about.
- If my project is complex, I give more preliminary studies.
- I show how my previous experience prepared me for the new project.
- It's clear which data are mine and which are not.
References show your breadth of knowledge of the field. If you leave out an important work, reviewers may assume you're not aware of it.
Throughout your application, you will reference all relevant publications for the concepts underlying your research and your methods.
Read more about your Bibliography and References Cited at Add a Bibliography and Appendix.
After finishing the draft, check that
- Throughout my application I cite the literature thoroughly but not excessively, adding citations for all references important to my work.
- I cite all papers important to my field, including those from potential reviewers.
- I include fewer than 100 citations (if possible).
- My Bibliography and References Cited form lists all my references.
- I refer to unpublished work, including information I learned through personal contacts.
- If I do not describe a method, I add a reference to the literature.
Look over what you've written with a critical eye of a reviewer to identify potential questions or weak spots.
Enlist others to do that too—they can look at your application with a fresh eye. Include people who aren't familiar with your research to make sure you can get your point across to someone outside your field.
As you finalize the details of your Research Strategy, you will also need to return to your Specific Aims to see if you must revise. See Draft Specific Aims.
After you finish your Research Plan, you are ready to write your Abstract (called Project Summary/Abstract) and Project Narrative, which are attachments to the Other Project Information form.
These sections may be small, but they're important.
- All your peer reviewers read your Abstract and narrative.
- Staff and automated systems in NIH's Center for Scientific Review use them to decide where to assign your application, even if you requested an institute and study section.
- They show the importance and health relevance of your research to members of the public and Congress who are interested in what NIH is funding with taxpayer dollars.
Be sure to omit confidential or proprietary information in these sections! When your application is funded, NIH enters your title and Abstract in the public RePORTER database.
Think brief and simple: to the extent that you can, write these sections in lay language, and include appropriate keywords, e.g., immunotherapy, genetic risk factors.
As NIH referral officers use these parts to direct your application to an institute for possible funding, your description can influence the choice they make.
Write a succinct summary of your project that both a scientist and a lay person can understand (to the extent that you can).
- Use your Specific Aims as a template—shorten it and simplify the language.
- In the first sentence, state the significance of your research to your field and relevance to NIAID's mission: to better understand, treat, and prevent infectious, immunologic, and allergic diseases.
- Next state your hypothesis and the innovative potential of your research.
- Then list and briefly describe your Specific Aims and long-term objectives.
In your Project Narrative, you have only a few sentences to drive home your project's potential to improve public health.
Spot the Sample
Check out these effective Abstracts and Narratives from our sample applications on Sample Applications and More:
- My Project Summary/Abstract and Project Narrative (and title) are accessible to a broad audience.
- They describe the significance of my research to my field and state my hypothesis, my aims, and the innovative potential of my research.
- My narrative describes my project's potential to improve public health.
- I do not include any confidential or proprietary information.
- I do not use graphs or images.
- My Abstract has keywords that are appropriate and distinct enough to avoid confusion with other terms.
- My title is specific and informative.
A program officer in your area of science can give you application advice, NIAID's perspective on your research, and confirmation that NIAID will accept your application.
Find contacts and instructions at When to Contact a NIAID Program Officer.