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Top 7 Tips for Writing a Successful Grant Proposal

By January 13, 2020February 1st, 2020No Comments
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Funding has never been easy to obtain. Each year, the National Institute of Health (NIH) receives thousands of applications for competing and non-competing Research Project Grants (RPGs). The NIH is part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that supports over 25000 organizations worldwide. In 2017, the NIH received over 50,000 RPG applications, of which only about 640, involving 11,000 principal investigators, secured funding (Lauer, 2018).

What happened to the rest?


Thousands of applications do not qualify for funding due to formatting and structural errors that can easily be avoided with guidance and preparation.

Grant applications are a window of opportunity for the researcher; these present your work to people who matter and decide whether they want to invest in the project. The manner in which you present your application is absolutely crucial. There are steps a potential grant writer can take to ensure their proposals do not end up in the bin, but in fact, make it to the top of the stack.

1.     Always Follow Instructions

Before you start typing your grant application, read instructions – all of them. This may seem like a daunting task since NIH grants booklets comprise 200+ pages. It may be tempting to skim through them; however, it is critical for a grant application to follow specifics such as file names, font size, citations, and data limit, etc. Your application can be returned if the format does not follow instructions. Inouye and Fiellin (2005) reported that of all the grants submitted to the NIH; more than 20% of the rejected applications had avoidable formatting errors for which instructions were clearly given.

The NIH provides clear guidelines of what should and should not be included in the grant proposal. It may take a little while to read, but it is worth the time.

2.     Start Small but Early

Grant writing is an arduous process; writing a proposal is much harder than conducting the research per se. It is therefore imperative to start early; particularly because there is a hyper-competition among the biomedical researchers. In the last 20 years, applications to the NIH have increased quadruple (Couzin & Miller, 2007). However, graduate students and early-career scientists have an inherent edge over the senior investigators and seasoned veterans in terms of grant mechanisms. The NIH early-career awards require little or no preliminary data which puts the young workforce, lacking ample experience, into a fortuitous position. Funding mechanisms for early-career awards depend on the potential of the candidate which in turn depends on:

  • Education and credentials
  • Mentors, sponsors, consultants, and collaborators
  • Public health value of the proposal

While crafting a winning grant proposal, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Make a checklist of all the material and documents that need to be submitted, including forms to be filled by the institution’s research office and letters of support, etc.
  • Construct a plan and course of action, and find alternative solutions for unobtainable items and documents.

The average time for grant proposal writing is between 3-months to 1-year (Inouye and Fiellin, 2005). For early-career scientists, starting early is additionally beneficial because, in the absence of preliminary data, 3 months would be more than sufficient for the grant proposal. With preliminary work, the process becomes lengthier than a year. Experts advise keeping at least a one-month gap between the completion and submission of the application so that you will always have time to revisit, re-touch and perfect the application. A detailed grant has a pleasant and professional appeal to it.

3.     Familiarize Yourself with the Grant Structure

In order to write a grant proposal of high quality, it is important to acclimate yourself to the structure. A grant has the following structure:

  • Specific Aims: The first section of the grant is the statement of specific aims of the project. This is the cornerstone of the application that focuses on the 5-NIH Review Criteria. Here, you should mention the purpose and method of the proposed research subject. All specified aims should be interrelated, focused and achievable within the proposed time and budget. If aims are not correlated, odds are your application will be rejected (Davidson, 2005).
  • Background & Significance: This section deals with the literature search and provides an in-depth analysis of the history and current status of the literature. As a researcher, you will highlight the deficiencies and discrepancies in the existing body of evidence and show how your research will fill the literary gaps.
  • Preliminary Studies: Here, you will include previous research and studies that are directly related to your project. This section serves to support and promote your investigation. This is your opportunity to impress the reviewers by demonstrating your expertise in the research field. The data you provide here will show that your hypothesis has merit. Market yourself here. Avoid using redundant and irrelevant paragraphs though. Use charts, graphs, tables, and figures to present and enhance the study.
  • Research Design & Methods: This is the most extensive section of the grant that contains approximately 50% of the content. You will describe proposal and data collection methods here, e.g., study design, demographics, population recruitment, and study analysis. Use algorithms to add clarity and visual appeal to the study.
  • Limitations & Conclusions: This section comprises half the page but is important nonetheless. Here, you will acknowledge the potential problems, confounders, and biases. Finally, conclude the section with a definitive statement highlighting the impact of the study on public health.
  • Abstract: This is the summation of the proposal. This is your chance of impressing the reviewers by concisely and eloquently summarizing the study. Spend sufficient time on it. This section should be comprehensive, dense and different from the introduct