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Writing a Research Proposal @ Pitt: Getting Started

This guide is designed to assist students or those with limited experience in writing a research proposal for scientific research.

Start early !

It takes time to . . .

  • become familiar with the funding agency's procedures and requirements 
  • receive University review and approval
  • make agreements with collaborating investigators
  • conduct a literature review
  • prepare a budget
  • write and review your document

The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer

Planning & Preparation

Writing your proposal will take time and effort, but the writing comes only after a significant amount of preliminary work has been done.


Questions and issues you should consider include the following, although not necessarily in this order.

  • Develop your idea - Choose a project that interests you and is worth doing. The project may evolve during the proposal writing process.
  • Review the literature - Familiarity with previous research helps you refine your project and demonstrate its relevance and value.
  • Identify an appropriate funding agency - Be sure your project fits the funder's mission and funding areas.
  • Become familiar with the funder's application process and timelines - Know what you have to do and when, so you can create a schedule for yourself.
  • Contact the University's Office of Research - Find out what procedures you need to follow, which institutional reviews are required, and relevant timelines. Learn how the Office can assist you. 
  • Read and pay attention to the instructions! - Follow the rules of both the funder and the University.
  • Determine whether you and/or the University need to register with a funding agency in order to submit applications online.
  • Decide whether you need a collaborator to provide expertise or instrumention necessary for completing your project - If so, identify the collaborator and agree on respective roles and responsibilities.
  • Propose achievable goals and a realistic timeframe for your project - A project too big to be accomplished with the alloted time and budget isn't likely to be funded.
  • Develop a realistic and accurate budget  - A budget that overlooks necessary costs or significantly over- or underestimates costs suggests a lack of clear understanding of what's needed.. Be sure to understand what costs the funder is willing to cover, and what costs, if any, it is not.
  • Consider how you will evaluate the success of your project.
  • Understand any requirements for sharing the results of your research, and determine if any documentation is needed for the proposal - Must you deposit a copy of your articles in PubMed Central? Do you need to submit a plan for managing and sharing your data?

Common Parts of a Proposal

Although an application's actual form will vary with the funding agency, the elements below are commonly included in some form. Check your agency's instructions for specifics on the information and sections required and for expected formats.

  • Cover or Title Page - Follow the funding agency's prescribed format. Choose a descriptive, but brief, title.
  • Abstract - A summary that states the problem, proposed solution and methodology, and basic funding and investigator information.
  • Introduction - Outlines the problem, the proposed research and its significance. Should be understandable to non-experts in the field.
  • Description of the proposed research - Detailed description of the proposed research, demonstrating the methodology is appropriate and how the results will be evaluated. It should convince the experts that the research is worth doing, that your approach has a reasonable chance of success, and that you are capable of doing it. 
  • Literature Review - May not be a separate section. Include and discuss the key articles that show how you are building on previous work.
  • Budget - Outlines costs (personnel, equipment, overhead, etc.) to be covered by the funder and by other sources. Include justifications, and pay attention to costs allowed and not allowed by the funding agency.
  • Personnel/Biographical Profile - Who will conduct the research, and what is their background and pertinent experience?
  • Institutional Resources/Equipment - Statement of instrumentation and other institutional support available to enable you to complete the research.
  • Agreement from any collaborators - Statements from collaborators may be required to document their commitment to the project. 
  • Data Management Plan - Funders may require evidence of your plan to manage and maintain the research data acquired and to share it with other researchers at some point.