Preparation of Research Proposals for the Microbiology Preliminary Examination
This outline provides guidance for students to the form and function of research proposals. The model used is the NIH plan for public health service grants. As in the case of a real proposal, you should persuade a reviewing group that:
- your goals are interesting and important;
- you have chosen a plan of experimentation that is highly likely to return interesting and interpretable results in a reasonable timeframe;
- you have the background and understanding to bring this plan to fruition.
Plan on writing the proposal as you would for a two- or three-year postdoctoral project.
Clarity is important in a proposal. Not all of the people who review it will be experts in your field, therefore, you must provide significant information to document the above goals to this group. You should avoid unnecessary arguments and information, as they will distract from the essential arguments.
Because you will actually be judged on the final version of the proposal and your defense of it, it would obviously be prudent to generate as good a proposal as possible for submission to your committee. It is therefore reasonable that you begin the overall outline of the proposal well before the fact and discuss the goals and approaches with colleagues. To this end, you will prepare at least two pre-proposals, each of 1 –2 pages long, that will allow the committee to assess your focus and strategic plan. One of these will be chosen as the topic of your full Research Proposal. You are encouraged to consult with your advisor, committee members and colleagues at the pre-proposal stage. After the pre-proposal, the proposal itself should represent your independent efforts.
The proposal description below contains information about the overall structure of the proposal as well as suggestions about each of the individual sections. You will be writing a proposal that can be accomplished as a postdoctoral requesting a 2 – 3 year funding period. You should follow the format for an NIH NRSA Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship (F32); NIH provides form 416 and instructions online. If you have further questions, contact the director of graduate programs (DGP) for the MGP.
This is the critical initial contact with the reader. Distill the necessary parts of your proposal to a one-half page or less, stating the problem and what you intend to do about it. Make it understandable to the intelligent, but inexpert, reader.
List the major questions that will be answered in your research and the specific approaches that will be used to address those questions. This is typically done in an outline form of no more than one-half page. It should also provide the framework for the Experimental Design section below, so its organization is key to the entire proposal. Try to be realistic and propose an amount of work that you are likely to accomplish in the next 2-3 years; excessively optimistic proposals suggest a lack of critical thought.
It is often advisable to divide the following sections into subsections with titles to orient the reader.
Background and Significance
This section should be several pages long and contain enough information to make the subsequent sections understandable to the reviewer. It should also give the reviewer an understanding of the state of the field before your participation. It should, therefore, cite any critical information that is either published or known to you through personal communication. This section should also serve to convince the reviewer that the general question chosen is an important one.
Preliminary data can be described in this section, but as this is not the exact research project you can use the most recent of published data to establish the current status and take-off point for your proposed projects. The goal of this section is to convince the reader that “you” have made some progress and/or that you have skills that will be necessary to complete the proposed work.
Typically the sections in this part will follow in the order laid out in the specific aims. The goal here is to convince the reviewer that your approach will yield interpretable results and that you understand those approaches. If there are intermediate goals that are critical to the whole project, either defend why your single approach must work, or propose alternative approaches. Provide enough information to make it clear that you understand the technique; this does not mean an abundance of detail, but a terse description of potential problems and shortfalls in the experiment or its analysis. If there are obvious experiments that will not be done, tersely say why.
Make your priorities clear; not every experiment is as important as the next, and some approaches will be pursued only under certain circumstances. Continually orient the reader by explaining how each intermediate goal fits into the overall plan.
This short section should be a realistic estimate of when the critical intermediate goals in the proposal will be accomplished. It should also make clear when the primary approaches will be dropped and the alternatives adopted. You wish to convince the reviewer that, no matter what happens, you will return with a “story” in a reasonable time period. Plan on writing the proposal as you would for a two- or three-year postdoctoral project and that the goals will be met in this time frame.
Using a standard format (authors’ names and journal citation, including titles), list the references cited throughout the proposal. This should not only document your understanding of the state of current information but also that you know the critical sources of information on the methods you have proposed to use.
You will follow the NIH postdoctoral NRSA application overall format. Keep the proposal, including figures and tables, but not the Literature Cited, to no more than 15 single-spaced pages. Use 1″ margins, 12-pt type, and page numbers throughout the proposal.