Tips/Lessons Learned in Submitting Proposals

Tips/Lessons Learned in Submitting Proposals appear in the Engineering Research Digest e-newsletter.

December 23

Not Funded This Time?

It happens to most everyone. Don’t be afraid to take reviews, consult program officers, and re-submit in the next competition. Proposal writing and grantsmanship is a learning process that is honed with experience and includes not only good science, but understanding the psychology of the reviewers. Reviews help you better position for the next submission. It is important to stay in touch with the program officer to learn as much as you can for the next attempt. It is perfectly legitimate to tailor your research proposal to fit within the goals of a funding agency; however, if your research isn’t a good fit for a particular program, don’t try to force it to be.

December 16

New NSF PAPPG (NSF 16-1)

If your proposal is due on or after January 25, 2016, you will need to follow the new version of the PAPPG (NSF 16-1). Keep in mind that even if you submit your proposal early, you will need to follow the new version.

December 9

Budget Bits

The Budget is very important and should not be constructed casually or left until the last minute. It tells the reviewers what you are going to do based on how you have aligned the dollars available.

  • Check typical Budget Categories.  Don’t overlook funds needed for external evaluators, travel, or page charges.
  • It is very important to contact Sponsored Research Services budget personnel early in the proposal process.
  • Don’t divide the budgeted amounts by the number of participants. Instead, align budget allocations with effort and cost, including salary. Too little or too much money budgeted for the PIs can raise a flag. Reviewers identify this as a common and basic mistake, which makes proposals receive a lower score.
  • Make sure your department head is aware of your proposal. It can be awkward for him/her to find out for the first time about your proposal when paperwork routes to him/her for signature.

December 2

Before Submitting Your Proposal

  •  Print out a final copy, especially if you are submitting electronically, and double check that all sections of the proposal are readable.
  • Review the grant guidelines one more time to ensure you followed the rules. Have you overlooked anything?
  • Consider if additional graphics would help make your point stronger and clearer.
  • Check your budget numbers for consistency between text and budget spreadsheets.

November 25

Submitting Your Proposal

If submitting electronically via FastLane, LOAD EARLY AND OFTEN! Get vitas, cover sheets, references, current and pending, etc., completed as early as possible and get it out of the way. Also, waiting until the last day to load is a mistake. Internet traffic and equipment/network problems can affect your ability to meet that deadline.

November 18

The Finishing Touches on Writing a Proposal

Once you have a near-final draft which should be several weeks before the proposal is due, have a person outside of your field read your proposal for clarity and flow. This will allow you time to re-write and polish your proposal —an important competitive step. Write a clear proposal that is not so technical you would need a doctorate in your field to understand it. Not all reviewers will be experts in your particular areas—yet all of them vote!

Make sure figures and graphs are all labeled and readable and you have followed the required font size and margins and line spacing. Increased competition has resulted in more submissions and proposals that have not followed the guidelines are less likely to be reviewed. Put yourself in the reviewers’ place! What can you improve?

So you are over the page limit? DON’T reduce the font size; edit your text to get down to the page limit. A too-small font is less readable and, frankly, irritating to reviewers, and therefore, it is not in your favor. Less is best. Stick to 1-inch margins, 12 pt font, and keep clear spaces between paragraphs. Use bold and italicized text judiciously. Use clear headings and subheadings. Avoid awkward or run-on sentences. Read aloud what you write. Drive home your message by repeating words or concepts in the title throughout the text.

The proposal summary is the single most important item you will write. It must tell who, what, and why in a manner that creates interest from the reviewers. If it is a proposal to NSF, it must include separate paragraphs on intellectual merit and broader impacts.

Seek letters of endorsement that clearly state the person/organization/institution commitment to the project, if permitted.

November 11

What Reviewers Want

The Purpose and Significance of your Idea. This is the “So-What?” Factor. You don’t want a reviewer to say that after reading your grant proposal. Does this address an important problem? How will scientific knowledge be advanced? What is the significance of your work in the larger context of science knowledge?

Your Approach. Are the conceptual framework, design, methods, and analyses adequately developed and well-integrated? Do you identify potential problem areas and consider alternative tactics? Whether your ideas and talent are worth funding hinges upon your ability to write a research plan that clearly and simply gives the reviewers everything they need to know. Reviewers want to understand the rationale behind your proposed idea. Address the questions reviewers will have about your project and methods.

Innovation. Do you employ novel concepts, approaches, or methods? Are your objectives or aims original and innovative? Do you challenge existing paradigms or develop new methodologies or technologies? Do you have inherent weaknesses in the project design, and what are your alternative plans? How will this fit with the “Big Picture”?

Investigator and Team Qualifications. What is the quality of the PI and teams’ background, training, and accomplishments as they pertain to this project? Are you appropriately trained and capable to carry out the work? Is the work proposed an appropriate level for the PI and researchers’ experience? Are established scientists on the project?

Finally, Detail the Environment. Does the scientific environment in which the work will be done promote the likelihood of success? Are there unique aspects of the environment such as equipment, labs, or collaborative arrangements? What evidence exists of institutional support? Is space, time, or equipment provided to support the success of the project?

November 4

The Writing Process

Write clearly, concisely, and accurately. Define your acronyms and avoid abbreviations. Don’t make it hard for readers to understand or follow. Guide your reviewers through your proposal. Unclear and vague narratives do not score well. Make sure the underlying science and experiments/methods behind your plan are sound, feasible, and complete.

Be sure to include how your project will be evaluated. There is a climate of accountability today. How will you measure progress and outcomes/impacts of the project? What is the difference between evaluation and assessment? Will your evaluations be internal and/or external? Formative and summative? Quantitative and qualitative?

WOW vs. So What? Wows win. Remember you have to sell your idea. Convey your enthusiasm throughout the text. It should be credible and have appropriate endorsements.

October 28

Significant Changes in New GPG Effective January 25, 2016

One of the changes is that the collaborators info will no longer be required in the biosketch, and a separate single-copy document will be required for this information:

Chapter II.C.1.e, Collaborators & Other Affiliations Information, is a new single-copy document that requires each senior project personnel to provide information regarding collaborators and other affiliations. This information used to be provided as part of the Biographical Sketch. The new format no longer requires proposers to identify the total number of collaborators and other affiliations when providing this information.

Chapter II.C.2.f, Biographical Sketch(es), has been supplemented to inform proposers that they may use third-party solutions to develop their biographical sketch, however, the information they submit must be compliant with NSF proposal preparation requirements. In addition, biographical sketches must now be uploaded as a single PDF file or inserted as text for all senior personnel. It is no longer allowable for the biographical sketches of all senior personnel to be grouped together in a single PDF file. Biographical sketches for Other Personnel and for Equipment proposals (Chapter II.C.2.f(ii) and (iii) respectively), however, should be uploaded as a single PDF file in the Other Supplementary Documents section of the proposal.

October 21

Writing the Proposal – Where to Start

  • Create an outline based on proposal requirements presented in the guidelines.
  • Use the same headings for your outline as used in the Request for Proposal.
  • Clearly state your overall goal and objectives, evaluation, and expected outcomes.
  • Be sure you anticipate problems and consider alternative approaches.
  • Use a Logic Model.  Resources are available from W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Extension Service.
  • Know the scope of the program so your proposal is appropriate. This is a question you could ask of the program officer. Have you proposed an unrealistic amount of work to be accomplished? Have you balanced the research and education components according to importance? Avoid weakening your proposal by trying to do too much.
  • Contact the program officer to present your proposed idea. Formulate and ask a list of questions! Does this align with the program and division to which you plan to submit? Most program officers willingly provide information and insight which enables you to produce a better proposal.

October 14

Writing the Proposal

A good proposal is readable, well-organized, and grammatically correct. You should address: (1) What you intend to do, (2) Why the work is important, (3) What has already been done, (4) How your work adds to the knowledge base, and (5) How you are going to do the work. As you are writing be sure to refer back to the RFP to make sure you are covering all requirements. It is helpful to do this as you write, rather than waiting until a final draft of your proposal is complete.

October 7

Before Submitting Your Proposal

  • Print out a final copy, especially if you are submitting electronically, and double check that all sections of the proposal are readable.
  • Review the grant guidelines one more time to ensure you followed the rules. Have you overlooked anything?
  • Consider if additional graphics would help make your point stronger and clearer.
  • Check your budget numbers for consistency between text and budget spreadsheets.

September 30

Select Your Co-PIs and Partners Strategically

Establishing your co-PIs for specific effective and competitive reasons is extremely important. Don’t just consider who is easiest to ask or who happens to work down the hall, especially if that person isn’t as qualified as another that you could include. Consider whether or not diversity is important to the funding agency. How will reviewers view the expertise the PIs present? Choosing co-PIs by consensus or the “Who wants to be?” method is not the best approach.

September 23

Check for Winning Proposals

Do a thorough search of the agency website; contact colleagues in that field who have been awarded grants and see if any will share information or even a proposal with you.

September 16

Know Your Field, Know Your Competition

Gather background information. It is critical you know where your field is in relation to your proposed research. Analyze what already exists. Show thorough knowledge of your field and don’t overlook relevant publications potential reviewers have authored. Seek constructive criticism from knowledgeable peers. If you state your idea is novel or innovative, it had better not already have happened elsewhere in your field! Know your competition.

September 9

Research the Program You Are Submitting To – Your first step is to decide where and how to pitch your proposal.

  1. Understand the success rate. Would you be better pursuing this one or one with higher rates of awards funded?
  2. Make sure you understand the review process and criteria. Will this be peer reviewed? Is the panel a standing group or ad hoc? Will it include professionals outside your field? Will education or diversity aspects weigh heavily in the competition? What will the broader impacts be? NIH lists Integrated Review Groups and Study Section Rosters at
  3. Know the review criteria. Broader impacts are more important for an NSF proposal than one for NIH. NSF seeks to increase participation of women and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, and engineering.
  4. Reviewers will look for Significance, Approach, Innovation, Investigator, and the Environment. These are discussed in more detail online in the “Writing The Proposal” section.

Consider your target audience of the grant. Clearly explain your target audience in terms of demographics, size, problems, or challenges faced.

September 2

Limited Submissions

It is very important that you identify any requirement which limits submissions from a single institution as these must be coordinated for the entire campus. Typically, this involves a pre-selection process. Also, identify any eligibility and PI or Co-PI restrictions. To receive limited submission emails from the VPR, please see the section below.

August 26

First, Read and Re-read the Proposal Guidelines

Failing to use the acceptable font size or missing required sections can cause your proposal to be rejected without review. Reviews are important because they provide you with competitive information for future rounds and allow you to more strategically align your proposal to a program’s funding goals.

August 19

Proposal Writing – Start Early

Competitive grants are not best produced through last minute efforts. You’ll need time to research, reflect, rewrite, and to get others to critique your proposal. It is critical to identify funding opportunities as early as possible to allow the maximum amount of time to prepare the proposal.

August 12

Details about Collaborations May Need to Be Included in the Project Description

The recent NSF CAREER program submissions had a new requirement for a single-sentence prescribed content for the allowed collaboration letters. This resulted in ALL details about the collaboration needing to be included in the project description text, when in prior years these details could have been included in the attached letter. As NSF tries this technique with other programs, it will require additional planning to accurately and efficiently include these details as the proposal is written. Always read the entire RFP.

August 5

Annual/Final Reports

If you submit and annual or final report and you don’t hear back in a reasonable amount of time, follow up with the program officer. Late or missing reports can affect future funding for you or your co-PIs.

July 29

New Automated Proposal Submission Compliance Checks in FastLane

Beginning July 24, 2015, proposals submitted in response to Program Solicitations in FastLane will undergo a new series of automated proposal compliance validation checks to ensure they comply with requirements outlined in the Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG). To view a detailed list of all compliance checks, click here.

July 22

NSF EHR and SBE Requiring Rigorous Research Designs

Many programs in the NSF Education and Human Resources (EHR) and the Social, Behavioral, & Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorates are now requiring rigorous research designs if you are involving people in your project. If you do not know a social scientist that can help you with your research design, contact TEES Research Development for help.

July 15

NSF Broader Impacts

For Broader Impacts in many NSF directorates, broadening participation still matters, but it’s not enough. Reviewers are also looking for how your research will add new knowledge that can be broadly applied.

July 8

NSF Biosketches – Collaborators & Other Affiliations

Some directorates at NSF are enforcing the requirement for the Collaborators & Other Affiliations section of biosketches that require:

A. All people be listed in alphabetical order
B. You list the total number of collaborators for each section (1. Collaborators and Co-Editors, 2. Graduate Advisors and Postdoctoral Sponsors, and 3. Thesis Advisors and Postgraduate-Scholar Sponsor)

July 1

NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) Informational Meeting – Presentation and Handouts

To view the NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) presentation and handouts from the July 1 informational meeting, please visit the Events page on our website:

June 24

NSF GPG Requirement for Budget Justification

The new NSF GPG requires putting monthly or annual salary in the budget justification for all individuals requesting NSF support. This can be something as simple as (monthly salary $19,353) at the end of each person’s listings in the justification.

June 17

NSF Rotator Opportunities

  •  Rotator Positions – (link)
  • Engineering (ENG) – Job Openings
  • Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems (CBET) also plans to offer the following: Program Director for Chemical and Biological Separations – Link to program description.

June 10

Data Management Plans

In light of the recent research scandals involving fabricated and mishandled data, review panels are looking closely at data management plans.  If you need help with a data management plan, the Texas A&M Library has information at

They even have a tool for creating a data management plan that conforms to most funders’ requirements:

If you need additional help, contact Bruce Herbert, Director of the Office of Scholarly Communication, Texas A&M University Libraries,,, 979-845-2405.

June 3

More Resources for Funding Opportunities

If you are searching for a specific funding opportunity, visit the funder’s website to get information as soon as it’s available. Some of these websites include:

Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Funding Opportunities Funding Opportunities Funding Opportunities
FedConnect Funding Opportunities
Texas A&M Division of Research Funding Opportunities (Limited Submission)

May 27

Funding Opportunities

If you are searching for a specific funding opportunity, visit the funder’s website or join the listserv to get information as soon as it’s available. Some of these websites include:

May 20

Letters Signed by the President

For proposals that require a letter signed by the president, drafts need to be submitted to the VPR at least 15 business days before needing the letter.

May 13

GPG – Collaborators & Other Affiliations on Biosketches

Certain divisions and program officers are now using non-compliance with GPG guidance for Collaborators & Other Affiliations on biosketches as a reason to return a proposal without review.

Although this is LONG been the rule, certain NSF program officers are enforcing:

  1. Collaborators be in alphabetical order
  2. You must indicate current affiliation for each collaborator

NEW: You must list the TOTAL number of collaborators under each section:

  • Collaborators and Co-Editors (48 months for co-authors, 24 months for co-editors)
  • Graduate Advisors and Postdoctoral Sponsors (your graduate advisors—forever)
  • Thesis Advisor and Postgraduate Scholar sponsors
    • You were chair/co-chair of their committee
    • PhD students (forever)—Since the purpose is to identify conflicts of interest, you only need to list the graduated However, you can list numbers graduated, numbers in process
    • Postdocs (48 months)

May 6


In addition to RFPs, DARPA has Open BAAs that can be applied for at anytime by submitting a two-page white paper to the program officer. If the program officer likes what you are proposing, he/she will invite you to submit a proposal.

These Open BAAs can offer big dollars for high risk, high reward proposals.

Search the DARPA website for problems and program officers to find an Open BAA in your subject matter.

Mar 25

Office of Naval Research (ONR) Recommendations

  • Contact program officer before submitting your ONR proposal

  • Young investigators should spend summers at one of the Navy Research labs (with pay) to get linkages for future research. This tip also applies to the Army and Air Force.

Mar 11

The NSF’s Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Division (CMMI) is currently returning 30% of proposals received.

Remember to follow the announcement’s guidelines and the GPG guidelines.

Mar 4

Listing Prior NSF Support

An NSF proposal was recently returned without review because a Co-PI did not list prior NSF support. Remember that if a PI/Co-PI does not have prior NSF support, a statement still needs to be submitted. A statement similar to the following can be used: (Faculty name) has no prior NSF support in the past 5 years.

Jan 21

Results of Prior NSF Support

NSF proposals REQUIRE Results of Prior NSF Support section in every proposal unless specifically stated otherwise in program announcement.

The PI and all co-PIs must report on the one award from the last 5 years most closely related to the proposed project.

Information MUST include:

the NSF award number, amount and period of support;

  1. the title of the project;
  2. a summary of the results of the completed work, including accomplishments, supported by the award. The results must be separately described under two distinct headings, Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts;
  3. the publications resulting from the NSF award; (can be in references)
  4. evidence of research products and their availability, including, but not limited to: data, publications, samples, physical collections, software, and models, as described in any Data Management Plan.

If you have no NSF support in the last 5 years, state that.

Jan 14

Saving Space in the Management Plan
You can save space in the Management Plan by describing researcher’s roles in the Budget Justification.

Changes for NIH Grant Applications

Biographical Sketch format change update
NIH and AHRQ encourages applicants to use the new Biosketch format for applications submitted for due dates on or after January 25, 2015 and will require use of the new format for applications submitted on or after May 25, 2015. (This represents a delay in implementation.)

  • The new biosketch format can be obtained on the SF 424 Forms and Applications page,
  • The new biosketch format replaces the list of 15 relevant publications with a description of up to five of the researcher’s most significant contributions to science,
  • Allows inclusion of a link to a full list of the researcher’s published work in a publicly available digital database, and
  • Increases the page limit from 4 to 5 pages.
  • See NOT-OD-15-032 Update: New Biographical Sketch Format Required… for full details.

Changes to marking of revised text in resubmission applications

Jan 7

Reminder: Revised Version of NSF PAPPG Now Available

A revised version of the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG) (NSF 15-1), is effective for proposals submitted, or due, on or after December 26, 2014. The PAPPG is consistent with, and, implements the new Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards (Uniform Guidance) (2 CFR § 200). Be sure to review the Grant Proposal Guide information in the NSF 15-1 December 26, 2014, update. Application Guide for NSF Proposals Application Guide – A Guide for Preparation and Submission of NSF Applications via – Effective December 26, 2014 (link)

Dec 17

Biosketches: Proposals Returned to Be Fixed or Returned without Review

Recently, NSF program officers have returned proposals to be fixed or without review because of mistakes made in the biosketches. Some of the issues include:

  • Adding the h-index;
  • Adding more than 5 synergistic activities;
  • Adding honors and awards;
  • Using incorrect fonts and font sizes; and
  • Not separating the 5 most closely related products/publications to the proposed project from up to 5 other significant products/publications.

Information on biosketches can be found in the NSF Grant Proposal Guide. Be sure to review the information in the NSF 15-1 December 26, 2014, update.

Nov 12

Proposals Returned without Review

Recently, NSF program officers have returned proposals without review because of mistakes made in the biosketches. Some of the issues include:

  • Using incorrect fonts and font sizes;
  • Adding honors and awards;
  • Not separating the 5 most closely related products/publications to the proposed project from up to 5 other significant products/publications; and
  • Providing a data management plan over 2 pages.

Information on biosketches can be found in the NSF Grant Proposal Guide.

If you have a tip or lesson learned in submitting proposals and you would like for it to be considered for this newsletter, please email it to