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Components of a Proposal

Cover Page

“Cover page" refers to the topmost page of the proposal. It is an integral part of the proposal, first because of the information it carries, and second because it bears the signatures that are required to make the proposal a formal, certified document. (Some agencies issue printed forms for proposals; these should be used whenever they are required.) 

Several things should be noted regarding the cover page (see a sample cover page here):

  • The CU Proposal Number is assigned by OCG and appears at the top.
  • The name of the funding agency appears in its complete, official form. Sometimes, additional information (e.g. the name of an office or program within the funding agency) may be included in this space.
  • The space for the title (and this should be as short as scholarly rigor allows) may include certain additional information, preferably in lower case, parenthesized under the title. For example, if our sample proposal were for renewal of an existing grant, the current grant number would be referenced thus: Effects of Climate Change in the Colorado Alpine (ATM-9748769)
  • The name and address of the institution appears exactly as shown:

    The Regents of the University of Colorado
    572 UCB
    Boulder, CO 80309-0572 
    (if a street address is required, please use 3100 Marine St., 4th Floor, Room 479)

  • There may be more than one Principal Investigator. In this case, the designation Co-Principal Investigator is adopted for each person, and the same information provided for each. When space is restricted, an investigator's data and signature-block can be combined.
  • The chair of the primary department involved must sign the cover page ("involved" refers to the department that will administer the University account, as determined by the Principal Investigator(s), should the proposal be funded)
  • The bottom signature on the cover page is always that of the official in OCG specifically authorized to commit the institution to contractual agreements.


The abstract is a short summary of the proposed research, adhering to length requirements specified by the funding agency. Some care should be given to the abstract, since many agency officials rely on it for their understanding of the proposal as a whole. Also, the abstracts of proposals are frequently journalized or published in some way (e.g. by the Smithsonian Science Information Exchange), and so may gain fairly wide distribution. An abstract should be confined to a description of the proposed project, and should not involve any discussion of the Principal Investigator's background, the amount or kind of funding requested, or other peripheral matters, unless these are specifically required by agency guidelines. It should be informative to other investigators in the same or related fields and, insofar as possible, understandable by a scientifically literate reader.

Project Description

The Project Description is the most important part of any proposal. Simply put, the Principal Investigator's task in writing the project description (also called the scope of work or research plan) is to be persuasive and to convince reviewers that the proposed project will be a good investment for their agencies' dollars. In it, you must:

  • define the problem you are addressing
  • demonstrate your familiarity with the background to the problem, including the literature surrounding it and, often, the work now underway in other laboratories
  • describe your proposed experiments, always fully and sometimes exhaustively
  • explain the techniques you mean to employ, in such a way as to show that you understand and can use them
  • specify the observations you plan or hope to make, and explain what you intend to do with the data generated
  • describe the facilities available to do the research
  • outline the organization and personnel plan for the project
  • attempt to do this in language that is comprehensible to the non-specialist if not to the layperson and in as brief a space as possible—most agencies stipulate an upper limit for the length of a project description

All in all, the project description is a distinct species of literature. People who are new to proposal writing may find it helpful to look over examples of existing funded proposals for guidance in writing new project descriptions. (Please note: Although award documents are public information and are kept on file in OCG offices, we recommend contacting Project Directors directly for permission and access to proposals.) 

Help in writing project descriptions is also available from other sources. Most funding agencies publish guides to proposal-writing, and these should be consulted as the first step in composing a project description. For example, the National Institutes of Health include a set of General Instructions with every copy of their Form PHS 398, which is the form used when applying to the Institutes for most kinds of research grants. 

The National Science Foundation's Grant Proposal Guide (NSF 09-29) also provides detailed instructions. 

Although both the NIH and NSF require the same type of information in a project description, the precise manner in which that information is presented is left to the Principal Investigator's discretion. One constant, however, is the need for efficient and clear presentation. 

Most agencies ask for a description of the facilities available to the proposed project. This is an important requirement, and worth some attention, for at least three reasons:

  1. The existence at an institution of special equipment or space may be a critical factor in determining whether a particular proposal is feasible at all; if your project will require the use of some sort of unusual facility (a cyclotron, a high-voltage electron microscope, a massive computer), that facility and your access to it should be described in full.
  2. More conventional research support facilities or large departmental machines (e.g. ultracentrifuges or gas chromatography) cannot be assumed to exist at every university; reviewers of a proposal are apt to assume that they don't exist, unless you make specific mention of them.
  3. Requests for specialized research equipment must be explained in conjunction with discussion of existing equipment; reviewers consider the suitability and fit of such requests given current resources.

The description of available facilities in your proposal may be long and detailed enough to justify including it as an entirely separate section. In unusual cases, especially where long lists of items, diagrams, or floor-plans are involved, it may be advisable to include such details in an appendix to the proposal. 

The Principal Investigator should always be aware of the criteria by which the proposal will be judged. These are often spelled out by the agency, usually in a rather general way but sometimes quite specifically. Successful project descriptions are consciously constructed to meet these criteria. 

Finally, make use of the resources available to you. A number of websites and books address proposal writing and offer help with the program description. Take advantage of a valuable, if not often overlooked resource—the knowledge acquired by your colleagues. Ask a trusted and more experienced investigator to read your proposal and offer constructive criticism.


This section may be variously titled Bibliography, References, Literature Cited, etc., and it may or may not incorporate notes. Make every attempt to be judicious in compiling the bibliography: it should be relevant and current and support the claims in your project description.

The bibliography serves two purposes:

  1. demonstrates the amount and, to some extent, the kind of scholarship you have put into the proposal. A familiarity with the literature surrounding the topic to be studied is obviously necessary for any serious researcher. Further, an understanding of the relevant scholarship is a sort of credential— reassurance that the Principal Investigator is solidly grounded in the field under study.
  2. provides a starting-place for reviewers to begin their homework in assessing your proposal

It is the practice of virtually all funding agencies to obtain scientific evaluations of a proposal from experts in the field. This technical review is normally entrusted to specialists who will be familiar with the subject at hand; however, at times a reviewer may be less knowledgeable about a specific topic or research interest than the Principal Investigator. A conscientious reviewer may use a bibliography to become familiar with the subject of a proposal before attempting to make a technical evaluation.

The exact format for bibliographic citations varies greatly from one scholarly field to another. The prevailing form in your own discipline is always the best one to use.

Biographical Sketch

This is one of the most important parts of a proposal. 

To quote NIH, the biographical “is used by reviewers in evaluating the adequacy of project staff." In fact, the competence of the people proposed as researchers has much (perhaps everything) to do with whether or not the project will yield meaningful results. The biographical sketch serves as the researcher’s credentials and is the only way by which reviewers can evaluate the researcher's competence. 

Of course, the importance of a biographical sketch, or vita, is well known to everyone who has ever achieved professional status in a learned discipline. The usual practice is to include in your vita everything you have ever done in a professional way: every committee membership, every paper, every workshop, every minor society joined. For the specialized purposes of a research proposal, however, keep biographical information concise and relevant.

The following list includes the basic items often found in a biographical sketch:

  • Name; date and place of birth
  • Educational history, beginning with the Bachelor's degree (give institution and dates attended)
  • Honors, beginning with graduate-level awards
  • Languages (if relevant)
  • Major presentations at professional meetings within recent years
  • Publications

About publications

These are probably the most important items in your biographical sketch. Although everyone is proud of his or her publications list, editing may be necessary to keep the list relevant and concise. A publications list can be shortened in several ways: It can be a list of selected publications, including major papers and books from an individual's entire career. It can be a list of relevant publications, i.e., a list of works that bear on the proposed project. It can be a partial listing of publications, covering perhaps the last five or ten years. Combinations of these can also be used. The most important thing to remember about your publications list (and your entire vita) is it must be kept current. Articles not yet in print can legitimately be included in your list of publications if they are at all relevant, but it is essential that the citations be updated as they are published. 

Besides the Principal Investigator's information, a biographical sketch should be included for all professional personnel involved in the project: associated faculty members, major collaborators from other institutions, postdoctoral research associates, and so on. In short, anyone who is making a substantial contribution to the project deserves, and ought, to have his/her vita included. 

Please be aware funding agencies may have particular guidelines for the format and content of biographical information.

Current Support and Pending Applications

Virtually all funding agencies require information on the Principal Investigator's present support and pending proposals. The same sorts of information must be supplied both for grants and contracts in force and for pending proposals. This requirement applies not only to the Principal Investigator, but to all other faculty formally committing time to a proposed project, even if their roles are relatively minor. The following examples show the kinds of information needed: funding agency, grant or award number or other identifying number, project title, dates, other faculty involved in a major role, amount, and the Principal Investigator's total time commitment. This last item must include both summer and academic year time commitments to the project. Your academic year time commitment is a total of your time devoted to the project, including that for which you are being or are to be paid from the award, and any time committed as University cost-sharing, as discussed in the budget section. What follow are examples detailing current and pending support.

Current Support

U.S. Forest Service Grant 117577CA, "The Effects of Fire on a Sage Community in Southeastern Arizona", 9/1/98 - 12/15/99, $122,720; Dr. Doe's time-commitment: 5% A.Y.*, 100% two months each summer. 

Pending Applications

Proposal to NSF, "Computer Analysis of Audubon Society Annual Census" (B. E. Smith, Principal Investigator), NSF ID No. BRS-9300001, 6/1/97 - 5/31/99, $75,500; Dr. Doe's time-commitment: 15% A.Y.*, 100% two months summer. *A.Y. = Academic Year


The budget is the most "technical" part of a proposal and, for many, the most worrisome. Consequently, this section will go into the organization and calculation of budgets in detail, with the aim of providing an up-to-date guide to their preparation.

Here's a piece of advice about your budget: leave it until last. No one can realistically foresee budgetary requirements until the project description is down on paper. Too often, people work up what they think will be a final budget before tackling the rest of the proposal, and then discover their real needs are different from what they originally anticipated. Having a well-organized project description in hand will greatly simplify budget preparation. 

Budgets are arranged by cost categories. This is not the obvious fact it may seem, since many investigators (and not always the novices) tend to try to organize budgets by activity or component, so that cost items of the same type appear in several different places. Some agencies may require a budget summary organized by project component, but this will always be as a supplement to the detailed category-type budget. 

The reasons for organizing a budget by cost category are:

  1. clarity and simplicity of presentation
  2. ease of matching proposed budget items to the eventual award document, which is invariably arranged by category
  3. simplifying the task of the University's research accountants, whose records must necessarily be organized by type of expenditure

Budgets are also organized by funding period, with a separate column for each twelve-month period of the proposed award. Again, this is not an obvious way of doing things: some investigators see their projects in terms of timed phases (e.g. an initial exploratory phase, one or more investigative phases, and a final phase for report writing) and will attempt to divide their budgets into periods corresponding to these phases. Another common mistake is to prepare a separate, complete budget for each year of the proposed grant or contract; this involves needless and confusing repetition of details.

The reasons for arranging a budget by twelve-month periods are much the same as for arranging it by cost category: simplicity and clarity, correspondence to agency practice (even multi-year awards are broken up into the twelve-month periods), and ease of later fiscal accounting. 

To reiterate, the only basic principles that need to be observed for good budget preparation are organization by cost category and organization by funding period.

The following elements appear in budgets:

  • CU Proposal Number: This will be assigned by OCG.
  • Budget Heading: This heading represents the official title of the University, the title of the proposed project, and the name of the Principal Investigator. Also the duration is the period of time proposed for the active life of the award, and should be appropriate to the anticipated amount of time needed for the completion of the project.
  • Salaries and Wages: This category includes only those payments to project workers which are made on a salary or wage basis. Personnel are normally listed in the order shown:
    1. Faculty salaries are ordinarily projected using an annual increase. When calculating salaries, remember that annual increases come on July 1 for faculty who have academic year (i.e., nine-month) appointments.
    2. Research Associates are faculty-level personnel and annual increases may also be used in calculating their salaries. Salaries for Research Associates must be comparable to salaries for department faculty members with similar experience. Please consult your departmental chair for establishing a Research Associate's rate of pay. Annual increases occur on October 1 for research personnel on 12-month appointments.
    3. Graduate Research Assistants' salaries are calculated using annual increases every July 1. Graduate Research Assistant salary levels above the campus minimum rate may be set by official action in each individual department. A unit is free to declare one rate of pay (the minimum or higher), or a graded plan may be adopted that allows the research assistant salary to increase with training and years of experience. This graded scale must be uniformly applied, and all rates exceeding the campus minimum must have prior approval of the Dean of the Graduate School. GRA salaries are subject to annual revision, so it is a good practice to check with OCG, your department, or the Graduate School regarding current and future rates. Also note that appropriate tuition must be budgeted in accordance with the GRA's appointment.
    4. Staff salaries are projected using annual increases, unless more precise information is available. These increases usually come on July 1 of each year, although a given individual may have a different anniversary date.
    5. Hourly Workers' wages should be calculated as precisely as possible, using the number of person-hours and current rates of pay.
    6. See Inflation Rates on the Researcher FAQs page for annual increase details.
  • Fringe Benefits: For detailed fringe benefit rates by job category, click here.

  • Permanent Equipment: This category is defined by the University and the Federal government as including all items over $5,000 per unit which have an expected service life of one year or more. Provide as much specific information as possible about each item of equipment, including manufacturer's name, model number and name, unit cost of the equipment, and the number needed.

  • Materials and Supplies: This category includes material items that cost less than $5,000 per unit and/or last less than one year in service. As with the permanent equipment category, provide as much detail as possible about each item included in the budget. Examples of relevant items include chemicals and other laboratory supplies, computer software, and field supplies.
  • Travel: This category is subdivided into domestic and foreign subcategories. Domestic travel includes all trips within the U.S., its possessions, and often Canada and Mexico. Foreign travel includes trips beginning or ending in any other country. The travel category, particularly foreign travel, should be quite detailed. Details for each trip should include the name of the traveler, the purpose of the trip, and the destination and duration. There should be separate lines for such items as registration fees, ground transportation, airfares and per diem. Contact the OCG or use the U.S. Dept of State website to find federally approved domestic and foreign per diem rates for given regions or countries. 

  • Publication Costs: This category is meant to cover the cost of disseminating research results. Normally this involves the preparation and submission of required reports, and the publication in one or more professional journals. Includes the name of the journal, anticipated number of pages, and the cost per page.

  • Other Direct Costs: This category is for everything not covered by the more specific categories discussed above. It includes such things as: consultants' fees, shop services, computer costs, tuition, subcontract costs, equipment maintenance costs, and special rental costs. The same rules apply to items in this category as to other categories: provide specific details and up-to-date cost estimates whenever possible.

    Tuition remission for graduate research assistants on appointment to a research grant or contract for at least 15% time is required. This charge will be budgeted at the resident rate and pro-rated according to the student's percentage of appointment.
  • Indirect Costs: Indirect costs on grants and contracts are real costs for the support of research and other sponsored programs. Indirect costs are those which cannot be directly identified with specific projects and include the following types of expenses: general and administrative, research administration, physical plant (utilities and maintenance), departmental administration, building and equipment use charges, libraries, and student services. Indirect cost rates are negotiated with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and are averaged over the costs of all research done on our campus. Due to Federal requirements, a modified total direct cost (MTDC) rate has been established at the Boulder campus. Thus, indirect costs are charged on all items of direct costs, except for permanent equipment, subcontract costs beyond the first $25,000, tuition remission, and stipends.

    For a listing of current indirect cost rates, click here. Some Federal programs do not allow the audited indirect cost rates, but rather specify the base and percentage to be used. (For example, ED training grants pay a simple 8 percent of total direct costs.) Also, many private agencies have established their own indirect cost rates. The University policy on indirect costs is to request the Federally audited rates shown above in all cases where no other rate is specified and consistently applied by the funding agency. When full indirect cost recovery is not possible, the Principal Investigator must complete an Indirect Cost Addendum Form which will be attached to and routed with the proposal.
  • Cost-Sharing: Cost sharing specifically refers to a portion of the total project costs contributed by the University. Some degree of cost-sharing is required by Federal law on some government-sponsored grants, but rarely on contracts. Some agencies require no cost sharing. When required, the percentage of cost-sharing differs from agency to agency and even from project to project. If the solicitation indicates cost sharing is required, coordinate all necessary approvals and information and provide it to the OCG in advance of the proposal submission date.

    The normal method of cost-sharing is to show a percentage of the Principal Investigator's time as being devoted to the project during the academic year. It should be emphasized that this time-commitment for cost-sharing purposes is in no sense merely pro forma: it is a real time-commitment by the person involved. It imposes a formal obligation on behalf of the University, and must be accounted for later. The salary shown for this percentage of time is calculated in exactly the same manner as in the proposed budget. Fringe benefits and indirect costs are also calculated on the basis of this salary in the same manner as before.

Budget Justification

This section is one of the more important parts of a proposal, and one that often suffers neglect from Principal Investigators. This section requires PIs to go beyond listing the items needed and relevant costs to making a case for almost everything included in the budget. The better your case, the better your chance of getting what you want. 
The budget justification serves another purpose: it's a self-check against budget padding. The budget should contain requests for everything you need to do the proposed work in first-class style, but nothing beyond that. If you find it hard to justify a particular item, perhaps that item is superfluous and should be eliminated from the budget. 
A budget justification may seem redundant, but in fact it is usually not. The need for a particular piece of equipment, for instance, may be implied in the project description, but the implication is not necessarily apparent to a non-specialist reviewer. The need must be made explicit. The place to do this is in the budget justification, which should begin on a page as handy to the budget as possible. 
These are the major items to include in your budget justification:

  • Salaries for research associates, graduate students, technicians, administrative staff *, and hourly help
  • Permanent equipment, item by item, in terms of its place both in the proposed project and in the existing facilities
  • Large or unusual categories of supplies
  • Travel, especially any sort of foreign travel
  • Consultant's fees
  • Subcontract costs
  • Any special items not easily justified by the nature of the proposal as a whole

*The Federal government considers the salaries of administrative and clerical staff as indirect costs. Charging these salaries as direct costs is appropriate only in particular circumstances. For more information please contact any of the OCG proposal analysts.

In short, it's better to include too many items in the budget justification than not to include enough.


Attachments and appendices to research proposals are optional items. Usually they are included for purposes of elaborating on the project description, but they may also contain illustrations, samples of past work, or some part of the proposal which is too unwieldy to include in the main sequence (for instance, if a great many professionals are involved, it may be advisable to include their biographical sketches in an appendix). In some instances, the funding agency will instruct the reviewers that attachments are not required reading, but may be referred to for clarification. Generally speaking, attachments should be kept to a minimum, and should be clearly identified as items that are supplementary to the main proposal.

Where to Submit Proposals

There are hundreds of agencies involved in supporting research and other kinds of projects. Actually, if we broaden our view to include every existing private, local, county, state, national, and international organization, and every grant, contract, or fellowship program, the number of current funding sources grows into the thousands. The fields of effort supported are correspondingly numerous. New funding sources are constantly being announced, while older ones change, split, decay, or pass out of existence. A particular funding source may be publicized broadly, or not at all; program guidelines can change abruptly, remain constant for decades, or vanish.

The field is broad, but not trackless. Generally speaking, the first, most obvious sources of funding for almost any kind of project are those administered by the Federal Government. 

In addition to information available online, all of these agencies publish written guides to their various programs of support. These may be on hand for use at the OCG, or can be obtained by writing to the agency in question. Also, an overall listing of most Federal programs can be found in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance. In addition, special programs, particularly for contractual work, are announced in Government publications such as Commerce, Business Daily, and the Federal Register.

Non-Federal funding sources are legion. Besides the more well-known (for example, Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts), there are scores of privately endowed organizations providing support in various areas, some narrow, some broad. The most important of these can be found by searching such volumes as the Annual Register of Grant SupportThe Foundation Grants Index, and The Grants Register. These are commercially published directories of major funding sources; all are available at Norlin Library.

Once you have compiled a list of possible sources of support, the next step is to contact the agencies in question. In the case of most Federal programs, no preliminary communication is required, but may be advisable. In the case of many non-Federal organizations, a preliminary phone call or, better still, a letter is in order. This should be a fairly short communication (not more than two pages) introducing the Principal Investigator and briefly describing the project for which he/she is seeking support, and finishing with a request for a response from the potential funding agency. This response will determine whether a formal proposal should be submitted; also, it will automatically procure a set of up-to-date guidelines and forms for such submissions. Sending a preliminary letter may seem like unnecessary work, but in fact it can save a great deal of effort and waste, in that large numbers of formal proposals would otherwise be prepared for and submitted to foundations that could not entertain them.

This brings up an important point: one should avoid if at all possible the mistake of submitting a proposal to the wrong agency. There are several reasons for this: 1) The Principal Investigator's and OCG's time and resources are limited. 2) The Principal Investigator can lose months waiting for a favorable response from an agency unable to give one. 3) Agency personnel are not fond of people or institutions wasting their time in this way. Therefore, take the time up front to research the best place for your proposal. 

A frequently employed method of sounding out an agency is to send an informal proposal. This is a proposal that is complete or virtually complete but which lacks any official institutional (University) signature. It is thus a communication between the Principal Investigator and the prospective funding agency. Funding agency officials can usually give informal proposals a quick, informal evaluation and if they are impressed with the content, can request the PI continue with formal submission. (It is important when submitting an informal proposal to include a letter emphasizing the fact that it is not yet a genuine institutional application.) Although it requires no processing by the University, it is advisable to consult with OCG before sending the informal proposal, particularly for any budget details that should be included.

Formal submission of a proposal to more than one agency is to be encouraged, if the agencies in question are appropriate. Again, this caution is made with the intention of avoiding unnecessary work for all concerned.

An important point to remember in preparing any application is that funding agencies always require considerable lead-time in which to evaluate an application. Thus, the proposed starting date for your project may have to be up to six months or more beyond the date of submission for your application.

Finding sources of funding for a project can be a lengthy process, but it is usually fruitful. OCG's staff is always ready to help with this effort.

Finally, there are many helpful resources both in hard copy and electronic form to help you navigate the task of locating funding sources and writing a proposal.

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