Generic Format of a Formal Proposal

Important Note: The following section describes in detail how to develop a generic proposal. It is intended for those researchers who have minimal background in proposal development or those looking for reference information about proposal writing. Please be aware that some sponsors, such as NIH, have very specific guidelines for developing and submitting a proposal. In all cases individual sponsor guidelines should be followed.


There are three major components to the standard research proposal. They are the text, the budget, and the supporting documents, referred to as the appendices, attachments or exhibits. This section outlines each piece of the proposal, and concludes with a discussion of certain variations in format required if one is seeking support for other kinds of academic programs.

Cover Sheet or Face Page

Most sponsoring agencies specify the format for the cover sheet, and some provide special forms to summarize basic administrative and fiscal data for the project. Generally, the principal investigator, his or her department head, and an official representing the College sign the cover sheet. In addition, the cover sheet usually includes the College's reference number for the proposal, the name of the agency to which the proposal is being submitted, the title of the proposal, the proposed project period, the total funds requested, the name and address of the College unit submitting the proposal, and the date submitted. Some agencies want the cover sheet to specify whether the proposal is for a new or continuing project. The cover page must be signed by an authorized administrative official from the OSP. Follow the directions for completing a cover sheet exactly.

While most sponsors require applicants to fill out an official cover page for the proposal, in the absence of that cover page, applicants should include a cover letter on Dartmouth College or DHMC stationery addressed to the sponsoring organization specifying the following information:

  • Project Title
  • Project Summary
  • Total Cost of Project
  • Funds Requested from Sponsor
  • Name, Position, Address, Phone number, and E-mail of principal investigator
  • Signature block for Principal Investigator
  • Signature block for Sponsored Projects Administrative Official
  • Address, Phone Number, and E-mail, of Office of Sponsored Projects

Title Page

Although titles should be comprehensive enough to indicate the nature of the proposed work, they should also be brief. One good way to cut the length of titles is to avoid words that add nothing to a reader's understanding, such as "Studies on...," "Investigations...," or "Research on Some Problems in...." A good title is usually a compromise between conciseness and explicitness.

The title page should include not only the title of the project, but also the submission date, who the proposal is being submitted to, and the name of the institution submitting the proposal, i.e., " Submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities by the Trustees of Dartmouth College."

Abstract or Project Summary

Every proposal, even very brief ones, should have an abstract. Some readers read only the abstract, and most readers rely on it to give them an initial quick overview of the proposal and later to refresh their memory of the project's main points. Agencies often use the abstract alone in their compilations of research projects funded or in disseminating information about successful projects.

The abstract speaks for the proposal when it is separated from it, provides the reader with a first impression of the request, and, by acting as a summary, frequently provides the reader also with his last. Thus it is the most important single element in the proposal.

To present the essential meaning of the proposal, the abstract should summarize or address all the questions identified in the Section 3.2 of this manual, with the exception of the cost of the project. The project cost is excluded from the abstract because the abstract is often subject to a wider public distribution than the rest of the proposal.

Although it often appears at the beginning of the proposal, the abstract should be written last, as a concise summary (approximately 200 words) of the proposal. It should appear on a page by itself numbered with a small Roman numeral if the proposal has a table of contents and with an Arabic number if it does not.

Table of Contents

The convenience of the reader should be the guiding consideration in producing a table of contents. Very brief proposals with few sections ordinarily do not need a table of contents. Long and detailed proposals should list all major parts and divisions, including the abstract and significant preliminary pages. Subdivisions usually need not be listed. The table of contents may require a list of illustrations (or figures) and a list of tables. If all of these are included, they should follow the order presented in the text, and each should be numbered with lower-case Roman numerals. The table of contents should be simply labeled "Contents" in the header of the page.


The introduction to a proposal sets the tone. The researcher must appear appropriately confident, organized, and clear as to the intent of the research to be undertaken. The introduction should begin with a capsule statement of what is being proposed and then should proceed to introduce the subject to someone unfamiliar with the topic. One cannot assume that the proposal reviewer is familiar with the topic of the proposal. The introduction should briefly outline the goals and objectives of the project, how long it will take, and give enough background to enable the reviewer to place this particular research problem in a context of common knowledge.

The introduction should very specifically and concisely state the importance of the research being proposed. The introduction may introduce the concept of how this project's approach and resulting work will advance the field of knowledge and prove an important contribution to other related research. It may also be helpful to state what the proposal does not expect to accomplish or address. The introduction may also specify the order and arrangement of the sections included in the proposal

Project Goals and Objectives

Goals and objectives are not the same and should be dealt with separately. The goal of the project is what one hopes to accomplish as a result of the completed project. Objectives are statements of precise outcomes that can be measured in support of the project's goals. Properly written objectives should be specific, measurable, and time bound. Unless specifically requested by the sponsor, do not include milestone activities. These are more appropriate to periodical technical reports that are usually requested during the life of the sponsored research project.

Ability of the Project Staff to Undertake this Project

Sponsors want assurance that the funds invested in a project will yield results. One indicator of success is the researcher's professional reputation and past experiences in managing sponsored research projects. A background discussion of the researcher's own previous work, including evidence of the researcher's competence in the field, previous related work undertaken, and how this new proposal will continue or enhance that previous work should be included as background information. Some sponsors also want to know who has funded the previous work. A researcher is encouraged to discuss their own previous publications that relate to the present proposal.

Description of Relevant Institutional Resources

It is useful to think of this section of the proposal as an opportunity for the researcher to assure the proposed sponsor that the institution is solidly in support of the research proposal, has the resources to devote to the project's undertaking, and is willing to commit a portion of those resources to this project. Some administrative areas have a boiler plate already developed that outlines the institution's demonstrated competence in the pertinent research area, unique or unusual research facilities or instruments available to the project staff, and support services and staff available to assist the project.

Review of the Literature

Discussions of work done by others should give the reviewer a clear impression of how this project will build upon what has already been done. Additionally, a review of the literature will highlight how the project under consideration differs from other related projects. It is important to establish what is original in the project's approach, what circumstances have changed since related work was done, or what is unique about the time and place of the currently proposed research.

Literature reviews should be selective and critical. Reviewers do not want to read through a voluminous working bibliography they want to know the especially pertinent works and a fair evaluation of them. A list of works, neither evaluated nor studied, contributes almost nothing to the proposal. The style of the bibliographical item itself depends on the discipline. The main consideration is consistency. Whatever style is chosen, the style should be followed scrupulously throughout the proposal.

Description of Proposed Research

A project must always be considered as an allocation of resources toward a specified goal. Using this definition as a framework, the project description is the heart of the proposal and is the primary concern of the technical reviewers. It should persuasively describe what is to be undertaken and how it will be accomplished. The comprehensive explanation of the proposed research is addressed not to the general reader but to other specialists in the field. Some points to consider when writing this section of the proposal:

  • Be realistic in designing the program of work. Overly optimistic notions of what the project can accomplish in one, two, or three years or of its effects on the world will only detract from the proposal's chances of being approved. The proposal should distinguish clearly between long-range research goals and the short-range objectives for which funding is being sought.
  • Develop a clear timeline and activities that will be accomplished during each phase of the project. Try to be as detailed as possible about the schedule of the proposed work. When will the first step be completed? When can subsequent steps be started? For complex projects a calendar detailing the projected sequence and interrelationship of events often gives the sponsor assurance that the investigator is capable of careful step-by-step planning. Project management tools, such as GANTT and PERT charts, can be used effectively for this purpose.
  • Be explicit and concrete in outlining any assumptions or hypotheses on which the research rests.
  • Be clear about the focus of the research. In defining the limits of the project, especially in exploratory or experimental work, it is helpful to pose the specific question or questions the project is intending to answer.
  • Be specific about the means of evaluating the data or the conclusions. Try to imagine the questions or objections of a hostile critic and show that the research plan anticipates them.
  • Be certain that the connection between the research objectives and the research method is evident. The reviewer must see this connection if the proposal is to be given any further consideration. It is better here to risk stating the obvious than to risk the reviewer assuming that the approach and methodology have not been carefully developed and thought out.

Plan of Action, Methodology, and Design

Methodology of a project is clearly and directly related to the project description. While the description outlines in more general terms what the project is about and how long it will take to complete, the action plan spells out in specific steps and procedures how the research will take place. This section of the proposal typically answers four important questions in exacting detail:

  • The time frame in which the project will take place.
  • How long it will take to accomplish the goals of the project.
  • Where the project work will be performed.
  • How the researcher will accomplish each aspect of the work.

The plan or methods section will be the longest section of the technical narrative and will present a description of the work to be done in accomplishing the project objectives. It should account for all activities and individuals to be involved in the project. This section of the proposal often includes a time chart or flow chart showing the order of activities to take place. Two commonly used project management tools are:

  • Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT): PERT is a project management technique for determining how much time a project needs before it is completed. Each activity is assigned a best, worst, and most probable completion time estimate. These estimates are used to determine the average completion time. The average times are used to figure the critical path and the standard deviation of completion times for the entire project.
  • GANTT (Bar) Chart: A GANTT chart is a graphic display of activity duration. It is also referred to as a bar chart. Activities are listed with other tabular information on the left side with time intervals over the bars. Activity duration is shown in the form of horizontal bars.

In determining the total length of the project, it is important to remember to incorporate interview and hiring schedules into the total time needed to complete the project. If new staff are to be hired, particularly when they are coming from outside the Dartmouth community or Upper Valley area, it may well mean an additional four months added to the project's timetable. Sponsors will want to know if any project activities will be happening during the start-up months, what those activities are, who will be doing them, and how those activities will be funded. Explicit detailed scheduling presents a more organized and well thought-out plan, than vague statements such as 'staff will be hired'.

Project Staffing

The explanation should specify how many persons at what percentage of time and at what administrative level will be participating in the project. If the program is complex and involves people from other departments or colleges, the organization of the staff and the lines of responsibility should be made clear. Project position descriptions should be included in the appendices.

A plan for staff training is another area frequently overlooked in proposal development. Again, a sponsor will want to be assured that once hired, and where applicable, staff will be trained in a manner that is consistent with national standards for the work to be performed, staff will have the opportunity to thoroughly learn the skills needed to successfully do the work of the project, and the training will support the efficient use of project funds.

If a consultant is to be used to accomplish specific project tasks, the researcher should provide a description of the work to be performed and the length of time the project will need the consultant's services.

Current and Pending Support

Many sponsors request that applicants supply information on both active and pending support. Faculty should include a complete list of current sponsored projects including

  1. Project titles
  2. Funding sources
  3. Duration of projects,
  4. Total approved budgets.

This information should be included in the appropriate spaces on required application forms or, in the absence of any required form, typed neatly on a separately numbered page in the appendix to the proposal.

Faculty should also list the same information about pending applications. This is particularly important when applying to Federal programs where possible sources of support may come from several different funding agencies. Private foundations often want to know if the proposal under consideration has also been submitted to other foundations for support.

Facilities and Equipment

Information pertaining to resources available to the PI for the conduct of the project should be described in detail. Examples of such resources include: lab space, equipment, animal facilities, library resources, and computer systems.


Well-planned research proposals include a method of evaluating the success of the project. Evaluation represents the logical conclusion to the proposal and sends a clear message that the researcher has not only thought through the execution of the project, but is also concerned that the stated goals have been achieved. Most sponsors asks that an evaluation methodology and outcome statement be part of the submitted proposal. These two parts of the evaluation are known as product and process evaluation. Product evaluation judges the end result of the project.

To write an effective product evaluation section, the researcher must first have had clearly defined and measurable objectives for the project. The process evaluation measures how well the execution of the project matched the plan initially proposed. Did each step outlined in the initial plan support the development of the final product? Were changes to the plan incorporated to accommodate new data, or to compensate for some aspect of the initial plan that did not work? While the evaluation stage to many proposals may seem anticlimactic, a well developed evaluation process can force the researcher to more carefully articulate the project 's objectives.