After you review the lengthy proposal instructions (yes, you need to do this), your head will likely be spinning. "How am I going to get all of this done?", you may think, "And where do I begin?" A common mistake made by newer applicants is to begin by drafting the budget. This is actually one of the last pieces you should be worrying about.
To get started on your proposal outline, sit down and write out the specific aims that you hope to accomplish with this project. Use this process to jot down all of your ideas for the project, without regard to budget or other factors. Limit yourself to no more than 2 pages.
Then read the NIH instructions for the Specific Aims section:
- State concisely the goals of the proposed research and summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the results of the proposed research will exert on the research field(s) involved.
- List succinctly the specific objectives of the research proposed, e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology.
- Specific Aims are limited to one page.
Now look at your page again. How many aims have you proposed? Ideally, they should be narrowed down to no more than a handful, depending on the type and duration of project. There is a reason that NIH does not want to see more than a page worth of aims- one major complaint of reviewers is that some proposals attempt to do too much! Look at the ideas you have written down and determine which few are reasonable to expect to complete in your project's time period. Remember to focus on aims that are innovative but achievable.
Once you have completed a draft of your aims, be sure to discuss it with your collaborators and any experienced individuals in your field who may be willing to help. When you have something narrowed down that you are relatively happy with, I highly recommend talking to an NIH program officer. Typically an RFA has a contact person listed, and that may be a good place to start. If you know which institute or center your proposal will be likely to be assigned to, it can be very helpful to talk to someone there. All of the institutes and centers have websites that include contact information.