I am currently in the later stages of preparing my thesis research proposal, which I will be defending in our version of a Ph.D. qualifying exam before the end of the year. The proposal follows the format of an NRSA F30 application, a fellowship for dual degree students. It’s quite interesting, but I thought this would be a great opportunity to discuss the possible components of research proposals. Not all of these sections would be included in a standard proposal, and this list can be adapted for projects in both clinical and basic science research. The sections I included were:
- Motivation – Here, we provide a brief background in order to both describe our motivation for the project. More importantly, however, this serves to capture the attention of the reader while laying a broad foundation. This should be limited in length.
- Theoretical Framework – This does not apply to all studies but is helpful for laying out the problem statement. Briefly, the line of inquiry should be addressed. Variables within the project and their interrelated concepts should be laid out. In social science and basic science research, these can be useful in laying out the assumptions of the project. The results of the project can be generalized, but we must place a hold on how far this can be taken. Such a framework provides a foundation for later discussions of the project and its results.
- Problem Statement – This is a brief description, within the context of the theoretical framework, of what is to be addressed. It is best if we describe not only what is sought, but why we wish to seek it. This is often incorporated into the above sections and rarely stands alone.
- Specific Aims – In either a list or series of paragraphs, the aims of the project should be outlined. These can be hypothesis-driven or purely exploratory. It is best to group the aims into broad “sub-projects,” where each aim informs the next. The NIH states that these should “describe concisely and realistically what the proposed research is intended to accomplish.” It is an expansion of the problem statement into tangible goals. For each aim, be sure to specifically state each hypothesis. Additionally, any experiments to be performed should be described here. However, the aims are once again brief.
- Literature Review – A full literature review could span countless pages. However, a research proposal’s review must be focused. Each of the studies referenced here should be linked back to the problem statement. For example, if one wishes to determine the effects of aspirin on vascular outcomes, it would be beneficial to focus on studies of the mechanisms of aspirin and various determinants of vascular outcomes. However, it would be less useful to provide background on the various alternatives to aspirin. Keeping this focused and relating papers back to the problem statement will add to the overall understanding of the proposal.
- Methodology – Papers typically include a methods section. However, the methodology section in research proposals should be much more expansive. The purpose is to describe how each of the aims will be addressed with a plan of the experiments and expected results. In doing so, this demonstrates a level of competency in the project at hand. It also provides readers with evidence that the project is sound. Go into detail with the methods, but be sure to relate these back to the specific aims.
- Preliminary Data – Preliminary data may be sparse, but such data is useful in showing that the project is realistic. These data should follow the previous section on methodology. Unlike a thesis, these data do not yet tell a complete story, which makes sense for a research proposal. Nonetheless, be sure to discuss the results briefly in order to demonstrate competency and to show that the project can be done. Clinical studies may have less preliminary data in early proposals. However, these data could be as simple as a survey. For basic science work, the preliminary data are often slightly more involved.
- Budget – Operating costs for a project vary, and the budgets depend on the type of application. A training fellowship (e.g., F series) should include costs of tuition, whereas a project grant (e.g., R series, K series) would focus on the expenditures for the lab.
This differs from a thesis in that the thesis will go into detail when displaying results, discussing the data, and formulating conclusions.
Clinical trials often include schematics where various hypotheses are tracked, following alternative routes in methodology. Some proposals will need to discuss ethical issues which may arise in the course of the study. Nonetheless, the general pattern of specific aims -> literature review -> research plan -> preliminary data holds for most proposals, and it is this pattern that I followed in mine.
Of course, at my stage, who am I to say what is the right way to write these things? If you want an accurate depiction of what is expected for grants (which are basically proposals), check out some of the formats below:
- NIH R01 Application Guide – for major research support
- NIH F30 Application Guide – for dual degree training support
- Sample R01 Applications – in public health