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Proposal Development

Proposal development is a key part of the Research Concierge Service. In addition to the material below, you can see Research Concierge-compiled FAQs specific to Penn State College of Medicine here.

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NIH Biosketches

NIH Biosketch Overview Expand answer

For NIH grant submissions, a biosketch is required for all key personnel and Other Significant Contributors (OSC).

Visit the NIH website for templates and samples and answers to frequently asked questions.

You can also see Penn State College of Medicine biosketch FAQs.

Preparing a Biosketch and Using SciENcv Expand answer

The standard (non-fellowship) NIH biosketch is limited to five pages. Graphics, figures and tables are not permitted in the biosketch.

The best way to develop an NIH-compliant biosketch is to use SciENcv. Endorsed by the NIH, SciENcv is an online tool that can be used to create biosketch templates for multiple federal agencies. SciENcv populates a biosketch with citations saved in My Bibliography, a reference tool that helps you save your citations from PubMed, to manually upload a citations file or to manually enter citation information.

The NIH recommends using My Bibliography to provide a URL to a full list of published work within your biosketch.

Visit the SciENcv website for a YouTube tutorial and to get started.

See Penn State College of Medicine SciENcv FAQs.

Helpful Advice

  • Consider your tone. There can be a fine line between sounding confident and arrogant.
  • Be consistent with use of the first or third person. Keep in mind that the grant proposal will likely include biosketches from several individuals. To create a more cohesive experience for reviewers, all proposals should be consistent in their choice of first or third person.
  • If you are the corresponding PI for the grant proposal, review all biosketches that will be incorporated into the grant proposal to affirm that each personal statement has been customized for the funding mechanism and speaks to each individual’s unique role in the proposed project.
  • Use bold text to highlight your authorship position on all citations. If you used SciENcv to generate your biosketch, the software does not do this by default, but it is appreciated by reviewers.
Section A: Personal Statement Expand answer

Briefly describe why you are well-suited for your role(s) in the project described in the grant application.

The NIH instructions recommend you discuss relevant factors, such as aspects of your training; your previous experimental work on the specific topic or related topics; your technical expertise; your collaborators or scientific environment; and/or your past performance in this or related fields.

You may cite up to four publications or research products that highlight your experience and qualifications for the project described in the grant application.

Research products can include, but are not limited to, audio or video products; conference proceedings such as meeting abstracts, posters, or other presentations; patents; data and research materials; databases; educational aids or curricula; instruments or equipment; models; protocols; and software or netware.

Helpful Advice

  • Customize the personal statement for each grant proposal.
  • Early on in the personal statement, speak directly to the name of the grant application, the funding mechanism and the purpose of the funding mechanism within the context of the proposal.
  • Be concise. The personal statement should be no longer than half a page.
  • Do not use the personal statement to walk reviewers through all of your accomplishments. Instead, use the personal statement to connect your background to the proposed project. What specific strengths do you bring to the table that make you ideally suited for your role in the project? What unique skill sets/capabilities will you contribute that would not be readily apparent to reviewers who read the balance of your biosketch?
  • If you are a new investigator or early-career investigator, discuss your future research direction. If someone is sponsoring/mentoring/collaborating with you, mention it.
  • NIH instructions for the biosketch provide the opportunity to utilize the personal statement to explain factors that affected your past productivity, such as family care responsibilities, illness, disability or military service. In today’s highly competitive funding environment, reviewers may be less than sympathetic to an extended absence of research productivity. Because there are reviewers who will view any lapse of research productivity as a weakness, it is generally recommended that you not try to explain what challenges impacted your ability to remain productive. There is one exception to this general rule: If during this inactive period you were acquiring training/skills/research methods that will be directly relevant to the proposed project and can explain the period of sustained inactivity as a valuable addition for the proposal.
Section B: Positions and Honors Expand answer

List in chronological order positions held since the completion of your most recent degree, concluding with your present position.

An approach commonly used to organize this section of the NIH biosketch breaks the section down into three component parts: positions and employment, other experience and professional memberships, and honors.

Positions and Employment

Follow the NIH guidance and list all positions in chronological order, concluding with your present position.

Other Experience and Professional Memberships

This subsection provides a good space for speaking to the contributions you have made – and continue to make – in your field.

Many PIs use this section to highlight their participation on conference committees, journal review boards and professional societies. You can also use this section to talk about any leadership roles you held – or currently hold – at your home institution (e.g., research committees, scientific review board). For physician-scientists, this subsection is a good place to note your medical board certifications.


General guidance for completing this subsection is to focus on honors that are relevant to the grant application. Examples of relevant honors for a new investigator or early-career investigator include travel awards, research awards and trainee positions on institutional training grant (e.g., T32 fellow).

Helpful Advice

  • Be judicious when completing this section. The key is to highlight information that emphasizes your commitment to a career in research.
Section C: Contributions to Science Expand answer

In this section, describe up to five of your most significant contributions to science. Each contribution can reference up to four peer-reviewed publications or other non-publication research products, for a maximum of 20 citations.

Helpful Advice

  • At the end of this section, it is recommended you include a URL to your full body of work. The NIH requires the URL be a .gov government website, such as My Bibliography.
  • You can utilize the narrative portion of this section to mention manuscripts that have not yet been accepted for publication, but you many only cite published papers.
  • Do not feel compelled to list more contributions than make sense for you, given your career stage and experience. Three solidly written contributions will have more impact than four or five weaker ones.
  • If you contributed to more publications than you can cite, indicate as such in the narrative.
  • For each contribution, emphasize what the team did, what your specific role was and what impact your contribution had or will have on the field.
  • Consider how each contribution may have laid the foundation for the current proposal.
Section D: Additional Information Expand answer

In the Research Support and/or Scholastic Performance section, list both the ongoing and completed research projects from the past three years that you want to draw attention to – that is, that are relevant to the proposed project.

List chronologically by the project end date. Briefly indicate the overall goals of the project and your responsibilities.

Helpful advice

  • Name the PI as well as your role on the project.
  • Follow the NIH format for presenting information in this section.
  • Do not include start-up funds.
  • Do not include the number of person-months or direct costs.

NSF Biosketches

NSF Biosketch Overview Expand answer

For NSF grant submissions, a biosketch is required for each individual identified as Senior Personnel on the project. Senior Personnel includes PIs, co-PIs and other faculty members (at the applicant institution or another institution) who will participate in the project being supported.

Some key differences between the NSF biosketch and the NIH biosketch:

  • NSF biosketch format does not allow a URL link to an investigator’s full body of work.
  • NSF biosketches allow only 10 potential citations to be listed. The 10 potential citations include:
    • Up to five products most closely related to the proposed project, and
    • Up to five other significant products, whether or not related to the proposed project.

    Only the list of 10 citations are used in the review of a proposal.

  • In lieu of the personal statement on the NIH biosketch, the NSF biosketch has a section titled “Synergistic Activities,” which allows individuals to list of up to five examples that demonstrate the broader impact of their professional and scholarly activities, focusing on the integration and transfer of knowledge as well as its creation.
NSF Biosketch Section-By-Section Guide Expand answer

See the NSF’s Biosketch guidelines here.


  • Provide only the requested information and include each section. If you don’t have information to provide for a section, indicate “Not applicable.”
  • Allowable fonts and font sizes: Arial, Courier New or Palatino Linotype in 10 pt or larger, Times New Roman or Computer Modern Family in 11 pt or larger. The font size of less than 10 points may be used for mathematical formulas or equations, figures, tables or diagram captions and when using
    a Symbol font to insert Greek letters or special characters. Peers are cautioned, however, that the text must still be readable.
  • Margins: One inch in all directions
  • Line spacing: No more than six lines of text within a vertical space of one inch


Include investigator name, NSF ID, position title and institution, professional address, and professional telephone, email or webpage.

Section A, Professional Preparation

Include a table listing the following columns: Institution, Location, Major or Area of Study, Degree (if Applicable) and Years (inclusive).

Be sure to include undegraduate institution(s) first, then graduate institution(s), then postdoctoral institution(s).

Section B, Appointments

List professional/academic appointments in reverse chronological order (starting with the most recent appointment and working back). Do not include postdoctoral appointments in this section.

Section C, Products

List up to five products most closely related to the proposed project and up to five other significant products, whether or not related to the proposed project. Only the list of 10 will be used in the review of the proposal.

Acceptable products must be citable and accessible including but not limited to publications, data sets, software, patents and copyrights. Unpublished documents submitted/accepted for publication are
acceptable and should include likely date of publication.

Unacceptable products include unpublished documents not yet submitted for publication, invited lectures and additional lists of products.

Citation format: Each product must include full citation information including (where applicable and practicable) names of all authors (no et. al), date of publication or release, title, title of enclosing work such as journal or book, volume, issue, pages, website and URL or other Persistent Identifier.

If only publications are included, the heading “Publications” may be used for this section of the biographical sketch.

Use the heading “Products Most Closely Related to the Proposed Project” and list five items below. Then use the heading “Other Significant Products, Whether or Not Related to the Proposed Project,” and list up to five other significant products below.

Section D, Synergistic Activities

List of up to five examples that demonstrate the broader impact of the individual’s professional and scholarly activities that focus on the integration and transfer of knowledge as well as its creation. The examples should relate to the proposal and/or reflect demonstrated skills, assets and inroads to the program activities being suggested by the proposal. If you review for a number of journals or funding agencies, give the total number, but do not list each individual journal or agency: NSF will count each of those as one synergistic activity!

Examples: Innovations in teaching and training (e.g., development of curricular materials and pedagogical methods); contributions to the science of learning; development and/or refinement of research tools; computation methodologies, and algorithms for problem-solving; development of databases to support research and education; broadening the participation of groups underrepresented in science, mathematics, engineering and technology; and service to the scientific and engineering community outside of the individual’s immediate organization.

Boilerplate Language

Overview Expand answer

Grant proposals often require a description of facilities and resources or other supplementary documentation that describes the environment where the research will be performed.

The Research Concierge Service has compiled boilerplate language for this purpose. Investigators are advised to tailor boilerplate language to reflect the specific aims of their research project. In addition, the RCS strongly recommends that investigators directly contact the department/institute/center in question when seeking a more in-depth resource description, particularly if a specific resource is integral to the research proposal. If you would like to submit boilerplate language for the website or provide updated language for an existing resource, please email

See available boilerplate language

Checklists, Tips and Templates

Tips and Templates Overview Expand answer

Are you writing your first grant proposal, but need help getting started? The Research Concierge Service (RCS) has compiled some guidance documents that can be helpful reference when preparing your next grant submission.

The RCS also maintains a small “K library,” which contains copies of mentored K proposals that were subsequently awarded to College of Medicine faculty. These proposals were provided to the RCS by permission of participating faculty members to be shared, by request, with College of Medicine faculty considering a mentored “K” submission.

To request access to the “K library,” please contact the RCS.

Setting the Stage for a Successful NIH Mentored "K" Application Expand answer

So you decided that a mentored “K” award is the right opportunity at the right time for you. You need a period of mentored research and training (three to five years) to position you for an independent research career. Before diving into the proposal writing process, take some time to examine the big picture.

It is true that a competitive mentored “K” proposal needs a good research idea with a focused hypothesis. But the research strategy must work hand-in-hand with the career development/training plan, which holds significant weight with reviewers. With mentored “K” awards, reviewers pay close attention to the candidate’s career development/training plan – its synergy with the research strategy and its integration with the mentor team. Before getting started, take some time to assess your career goals in light of NIH reviewer priorities. What resources are available at your institution? What strengths can you capitalize upon? What weaknesses (or gaps) can you fill with external resources? Use these tips to map out a strategy for preparing a competitive mentored “K” proposal.

Tip 1: Do your homework at the institute level

Overview: Before you begin writing your application, do some intelligence-gathering on the relevant funding announcements. Reach out to the program officer(s) to discuss the alignment of your proposed project with the institute’s funding priorities.

Suggestions: The NIH supports mentored “K” awards through parent announcements. These omnibus funding announcements enable applicants to submit investigator-initiated “K” grant applications to any participating institute. Keep in mind that each institute that participates in a parent announcement will have their own requirements and funding priorities. Potential applicants are well-advised to navigate these concerns early in the proposal development process. On occasion, some institutes issue their own funding announcements for mentored “K” awards.

  • Step 1: Determine which type of “K” award may be right for you. The NIH has a career development website to get you started.
  • Step 2: Carefully review the relevant funding announcements for your chosen “K” mechanism. The Funding Opportunity Purpose section of most parent announcements contains a web link to an NIH “Table of IC-Specific Information, Requirements, and Staff Contacts.” This table provides critical information about how each institute approaches that specific “K” mechanism – in terms of research priorities, limitations for salary support, and research support.
  • Step 3: Assess the funding environment. Use NIH RePORT to examine the types of projects that have been funded within the institute(s) you are considering for your “K” submission. Spend some time on the institute websites to familiarize yourself with the scientific focus of their respective research programs. Determine if your ideas match the institutes’ high-priority areas.
  • Step 4: Contact the Program Officer(s) to discuss your proposed project. Briefly introduce yourself via email to the relevant Program Officer(s) to express interest in the funding mechanism and to request an opportunity to discuss your project at their convenience. Consider attaching a project concept paper.

Tip 2: Select mentors with funding and a mentoring track record

Overview: Mentors should serve as trusted advisors who provide support and guidance at critical junctures in your career. Select a mentor team that has active funding, a strong training track record and complementary strengths.


  • Select a primary mentor that is a full-time, senior investigator, actively funded (preferably NIH R01 or equivalent), and well-respected in your field. Reviewers are looking closely at the qualifications of your primary mentor because if you receive the award, your primary mentor will be the main individual responsible for guiding your career development for the next three to five years.
  • Select a primary mentor with a strong training track record. NIH reviewers want to see a primary mentor who not only has a strong publication record, but also has a solid record of training people who have gone on to achieve significant career success as researchers.
  • Select co-mentors that complement the strengths of your primary mentor. Each mentor should play a unique role in your career development. Select co-mentors that are actively funded investigators who complement the strengths of your primary mentor. If you feel that you need additional mentors that would have a narrower area of responsibility, consider forming an advisory committee and refer to them as scientific or technical advisors.
  • Make sure you will have access to your mentors. A prospective mentor may be well respected in your chosen field, but may travel extensively or be so overcommitted that they will not realistically have the time to serve as your mentor. If mentors are located at another institution and/or have a demanding schedule, be prepared to demonstrate within your application how you will sustain the mentoring relationships throughout the life of the award.

Helpful references:

Tip 3: Develop a detailed schedule for completing your application

Overview: Work with your primary mentor to map out a timeline for your “K” application.

Suggestions: NIH reviewers want to read an application that reads as if your mentors – particularly the primary mentor – had an active role in writing your application. If reviewers sense that your mentors have not been actively involved in the development of your “K” application, they may question how involved your mentors will be when you have the “K” award in hand. Work with your primary mentor to identify key milestones when you will engage the mentor team – i.e., reviewing early drafts, offering constructive criticism, etc.

Tip 4: Connect your training goals to your specific aims

Overview: Make sure the career development/training plan and research strategy “speak” to each other.

Suggestions: The career development/training plan should demonstrate that you have conducted a thoughtful self-assessment that identified specific weaknesses that can only be addressed through additional training and mentored research experiences. In addition, the career development/training plan and research strategy need to align with each other. In other words, the research experiences and training opportunities outlined within your career development timeline should match the timeline of your proposed research aims. For example, if you propose to learn a new research method, the research strategy section should explain how you will utilize this newly learned technique within your research project.

Tip 5: Familiarize yourself with the NIH Review Process

Overview: Become familiar with the NIH guidance provided to reviewers and use this information to inform the approach to your “K” application.

Suggestions: Spend some time on the NIH’s Guidance for Reviewers website to familiarize yourself with the guidelines, critique templates, and review criteria provided to NIH reviewers. On this website, the NIH posts Review Criteria and Considerations, which includes detailed review of guidance for each of the “K” award mechanisms. Also available are sample fillable templates that are similar to the templates that are provided to reviewers who will score your application.

Tip 6: Establish a track record of published productivity

Overview: The funding environment at NIH is highly competitive. To demonstrate your commitment to a career in research – and your capacity to succeed with a mentored “K” award – NIH reviewers want to see candidates that have a publication track record.

Suggestions: It is highly recommended that candidates pursue opportunities to be both corresponding and lead author on research papers to demonstrate their potential for research independence. Reviewers look closely at each candidate’s past productivity as an indication of future productivity. Major review articles can be helpful; first-author articles are best.

Tip 7: Do homework on your home institution

Overview: Do you know what resources are available at your institution to help with the preparation and submission of your “K” application? Before you start writing the proposal, take some time to “take stock” of the resources available and the institution’s policies that will impact your application timeline.

Suggestions: It is important to understand that “K” grants are awarded to the candidate’s sponsoring institution, which administers the “K” award on behalf of the candidate. This means that the College of Medicine plays an integral role in a candidate’s “K” grant, both at the pre-award and post-award stage. Once a candidate has selected a “K” mechanism and decided upon a targeted submission deadline with a given Institute/Center, they are strongly encouraged to reach out to the pre-award specialist within their primary department to discuss their intent to submit a proposal. Pre-award specialists have a strong working knowledge of the NIH proposal preparation process and can often help PIs compile the application package. At the College of Medicine, the Office of Research Affairs (ORA) has signatory authority for all external grant submissions and, as such, must review a “K” grant for completeness before it gets submitted to the NIH. PIs must familiarize themselves with ORA policy regarding grant review and submission as it will impact the timeline for completing the “K” application.

Helpful NIH Resources Expand answer
  • NIH Grants and Funding Overview: An overview of all NIH grant and funding content.
  • NIH Career Development (“K”) Kiosk: A tool to help you identify the “K” mechanism right for your career stage. Includes links to active funding announcements.
  • NIH Table of Application instructions: Refer to this table to determine which set of application instructions applies to your grant program.
  • Career Development (“K”) Grant Application Instructions: Application instructions for the mentored “K” should be used alongside the information contained in the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) to complete your application. Always keep in mind that instructions contained in the relevant FOA always supersede standard application instructions.
  • Guidelines, Critique Templates, and Review Criteria: These documents provide general orientation to individuals participating as reviewers in the NIH peer review process. The NIH provides reviewer guidance for each type of “K” mechanism.
  • Sample Applications and Summary Statements: NIAID offers sample applications and summary statements, as well as example forms, sharing plans, letters, emails and more.
  • NIH RePORTER: This NIH-managed database, updated weekly, profiles research projects funded by NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and other entities. A good resource for identifying the types of projects funded through specific institutes at the NIH.
Helpful NSF Resources Expand answer

Concept Papers

What is a Concept Paper? Expand answer

Concept papers are the written equivalent of an “elevator speech.” These one- to two-page documents provide a concise overview of your proposed project.

Some funders (including foundations) approve concept papers before inviting full applications. Concept papers are also a good best practice for anyone interested in honing their message with potential funding sponsors.

When writing a concept paper, consider the “Heilmeier Catechism.” George Heilmeier was Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the 1970s. Heilmeier developed a set of questions, referred to as the Heilmeier Catechism, that every proposal for a new research program had to answer:

  • What are you trying to do?
  • How is it done today? What are the limits of current practice?
  • What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the metrics for success?

Learn more about the Heilmeier Catechism

Why Create a Concept Paper? Expand answer

You identified a funding opportunity that seems to be a good fit for your proposed project. For the next several weeks (if not months) you will be committing a substantial amount of your time to the proposal-writing process. Are you confident you have fully vetted this opportunity and know for certain that your proposal is responsive to the funding announcement? Before committing significant time to the proposal, consider drafting a one- to two-page concept paper to float your idea with the relevant program officer.

  • Concept papers provide an opportunity for investigators to receive informal feedback from funding sponsors before developing a full grant proposal.
  • A concept paper also demonstrates to potential funding sponsors that the investigator has thought about the significance of the proposed project and its alignment with the sponsor’s research mission.
  • Many private foundations require concept papers as a means of assessing a proposed project’s alignment with their mission before inviting full proposals.
  • For state and federal funding opportunities, a concept paper facilitates interaction with program officials whose resulting advice can be instrumental to determining the funding mechanism and program area that best fit your project.
Concept Paper Template Expand answer

Instructions: No more than two pages in length, a concept paper frames a research idea and explains the importance of a particular research project to potential funding sponsors and/or collaborators. A concept paper may include some or all of the following sections, depending upon how developed the research idea and whether or not the concept paper is being developed in response to a specific funding opportunity.

Header: The header of your concept paper should be the working title for your project. Including your institution’s logo builds brand identity. Approved logos are available for download from the Infonet (internal access only; login required).

Introduction: In two to three sentences, provide a brief overview of the project, an explanation of how it aligns with the funding agency’s mission, and why the research question needs to be addressed.

Purpose: If applicable, describe the funding mechanism you believe is a strong match for the project.

Project Description: Describe the “who, what, and when” – what tasks will be undertaken, who will lead those tasks, and when the work will be accomplished. If a simple, yet effective graphic can be included to illustrate a key point, include it!

The project description can be broken down into three sections:

  • Problem and Significance
    • Explain why you think, based on a review of the literature, that the topic needs study and why it is important to the field.
  • Approach/Methodology
    • Specify what hypotheses you will test and what model will guide your hypotheses. Explain what is new in your approach, why it is important to be done, and how it is unique. Include mention of any resources, collaborators, target populations, preliminary data, etc. that area available to the project.
  • Impacts and Outcomes
    • Describe the project’s expected outcomes, which may include impacts on the scientific field, societal benefits, health impacts, economic impacts, etc.

Project Team: Identify key collaborators and their sponsoring institution. Identify stakeholders for which significant cooperation will be needed to implement the proposed project. If applicable, indicate which stakeholders are willing to provide a written commitment of support for the project.

Budget/Timeline: If appropriate for the chosen audience, indicate what you anticipate the project will cost and how long it will take to complete.

Contact Info: Provide contact information for the lead investigator.

Hanover Research Partnership

Overview Expand answer

Penn State College of Medicine has contracted with Hanover Research, a grant development firm headquartered in Washington, D.C., to provide proposal support services to faculty investigators.

The primary goal of this partnership is to increase the quality and success rate of extramural research proposals. Faculty members with a primary appointment at the College of Medicine are eligible for Hanover’s services, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis. This initiative is generously supported by the Office of the Vice Dean for Research and Graduate Studies. There is no cost share requirement for the individual PI or his/her home department.

Learn more about the Hanover Research partnership

Tips for Working with Program Officers

Do's and Don'ts for Working with Program Officers Expand answer

Program officers manage an agency’s grant portfolio and therefore have a vested interest in helping researchers submit competitive research proposals. To help investigators nurture more productive, lasting Program Officer relationships, we compiled a list of Do’s and Don’ts.

Helpful Articles Expand answer

The following articles provide insight into the Program Officer relationship and can be helpful if you are new to research or seeking fresh perspective.