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Proposal Development

Research Development maintains this website to provide virtual grant-seeking support to investigators. In addition to the material below, we have compiled answers to FAQs specific to Penn State College of Medicine.

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Biosketch Tips

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.

Helpful Advice

  • Consider your tone. There can be a fine line between sounding confident and arrogant.
  • Utilize first person (e.g., I, me, mine, we) for the personal statement. Why first person? First person creates a sense of familiarity between author and reader. Because the personal statement is an opportunity for you to sell yourself to reviewers, take this opportunity to connect reviewers to your story by using first person. In contrast, third person (e.g., he, she, they) places distance between the author and the reader, which feels less personal.
  • 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. Biosketches represent the strength and complementary skill sets of your team. Make sure 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. You will need to export your biosketch as a Word document and make this formatting change outside of SciENcv.
Prepare a Biosketch Using SciENcv Expand answer

The best way to develop an NIH-compliant biosketch is to use SciENcv. Science Experts Network Curriculum Vitae (SciENcv) is a free application developed by the NIH that allows researchers to create and maintain biosketches that meet current agency requirements for the NIH, AHRQ and the NSF. SciENcv allows users to create an unlimited number of biosketch templates that can be auto-populated with researcher information from other linked systems – namely, ORCiD, eRA Commons and NCBI My Bibliography.

To use SciENcv, users are recommended to first log into My NCBI using their eRA Commons login. This action links the user’s eRA commons profile with My NCBI. Second, it is suggested that users create a customized “My Bibliography,” saving citations from PubMed and entering citations manually, as needed. Once a bibliography is created, users can generate a public URL to a full list of published work that meets NIH standards for inclusion in the biosketch.

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

View a SciENcv Tutorial.

View a My NCBI Tutorial.

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.

If applicable, include ongoing and completed research projects from the past three (3) years that are relevant to the proposed project.

In Section A, you may cite up to four (4) 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

  • Figures, tables or graphics are not allowed in the NIH biosketch.
  • Customize the personal statement for your role on 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.
  • If you are a new investigator or early-career investigator, discuss your future research direction.
  • 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, reflect upon how you can communicate insights gained/skills acquired/etc. as a value-added to the proposed project.
Section B: Positions, Scientific Appointments, and Honors Expand answer

List in reverse chronological order all positions and scientific appointments both domestic and foreign, including affiliations with foreign entities or governments. This includes titled academic, professional or institutional appointments whether or not remuneration is received, and whether full-time, part-time or voluntary (including adjunct, visiting or honorary). High school students and undergraduates may include any previous positions. For individuals who are not currently located at the applicant organization, include the expected position at the applicant organization and the expected start date.

List any relevant academic and professional achievements and honors. In particular:

  • Students, postdoctorates and junior faculty should include scholarships, traineeships, fellowships and development awards, as applicable.
  • Clinicians should include information on any clinical licensures and specialty board certifications that they have achieved.
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.

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.

Program Officer Communication

What does a program officer do? Expand answer

A wide variety of funding sponsors administer competitive grant programs to support biomedical and health-related research. These funding sponsors include, but are not limited to, federal agencies, state agencies, local government agencies, industry, foundations (of all shapes and sizes), professional societies, and associations. Many funding sponsors employ program officers to oversee and manage their programs. The day-to-day responsibilities of program officers vary by funding sponsor. But at their core, program officers are tasked with implementing the funding sponsor’s strategic objectives, monitoring the progress of existing grants, keeping current on the latest advances in the field, and connecting with grant-seekers.

With the exception of some funding sponsors who actively discourage people from contacting them, most funding sponsors encourage grant-seekers to engage with program officers.

Why contact a program officer – and when? Expand answer

Contacting a program officer can be a daunting prospect, but it is an important part of the grant- seeking process. By contacting a program officer at the project ideation stage, you have an opportunity to develop a professional relationship with someone who understands the funding sponsor’s mission and who is motivated to find projects that are a good fit. A program officer can:

  • Confirm if a project fits within the funding sponsor’s strategic priorities, saving you significant time and effort before you develop a full grant proposal
  • Serve as a barometer for the funding sponsor’s level of enthusiasm for the project
  • Yield advice for shaping the most competitive grant proposal
  • Provide clarification on program guidelines and/or technical requirements

Keep in mind that program officers are very busy people who receive lots of emails. They may be traveling to conferences, attending review meetings, and managing existing grants. The best time to contact them is at the project ideation/concept development stage. It is at this stage that a Program Officer can provide the most thoughtful feedback. Keep in mind that program officers will not review a draft proposal prior. But most will happily review a specific aims page or concept paper.

Before contacting a program officer…do your homework! Expand answer

Before you contact a Program Officer, do your homework. Remember that while most Program Officers are scientists, they are not immersed in your research topic. Prepare any written materials and talking points with that understanding in mind. Before contacting non-governmental funders, particularly foundations and industry sponsors, researchers at the College of Medicine should contact Corporate and Foundation Relations (CFR) for guidance and support. CFR can update you on the current status of Penn State’s relationship with the corporation or foundation, confirm whether the College of Medicine – or Penn State University – has a previous history with the sponsor, and help you navigate the funding sponsor’s submission process.

  • Prepare a special aims page or concept paper – free of technical jargon. The entire document should be brief – no more than 2 pages.
  • Review the funding sponsor’s website, paying particular attention to strategic plans that speak to funding priorities, average size of grant awards, success rates of past funding cycles, and priorities for future research investment.
  • Study the funding sponsor’s award history. Confirm if the funding sponsor has invested in similar research – and assess if those research investments are complementary to your proposed project.
  • Develop a succinct list of questions that cannot be readily answered by visiting the funding sponsor’s website or a careful reading of a funding announcement.
  • Identify the most appropriate program officer to contact. Researchers can utilize NIH Matchmaker to identify a program officer at the NIH. Researchers are encouraged to contact Corporate and Foundation Relations (CFR) for guidance and support when seeking to connect with a program officer at a foundation, business interest, or other non-governmental funder.
  • When feasible, review the program officer’s bio. Many funding sponsor websites feature brief biographies of their program officers. A biography will shed light on the program officer’s professional background and current responsibilities. Your genuine interest and professionalism will come across in your communications.
What to include within an initial email to a program officer Expand answer

Program officers are busy people, and they like to be prepared when they speak with you, so please do not cold call. Always email a program officer and ask for a follow-up telephone call. Utilize the subject line of the email to provide context to your message (e.g., FOA#, Program Name). Remember that program officers can be most supportive when contacted early in the proposal planning process – not 3-4 weeks before a proposal submission deadline. Key information you could include within an initial email to a program officer:

  • Working title of the proposed research project
  • Funding mechanism and/or program being considered (if applicable)
  • Brief summary of the proposed project: highlight what makes the project unique and how it supports the research priorities of the funding sponsor
  • Briefly introduce the PI’s background and research program
  • Provide a short list of specific questions or topics you would like to discuss
  • State your appreciation for the program officer’s time and request available dates/times for a follow-up discussion. List your available dates/times as a courtesy.

Attach a specific aims page or concept paper (no more than 2 pages). Remember that while most program officers are scientists, they are not immersed in your research topic. Keep your email and the specific aims page or concept paper free of technical jargon.

Include a copy of your CV. Your CV will help the program officer become familiar with your research. The CV is also a useful resource for the program officer to confirm your eligibility for specific funding opportunities.

Give the program officer 1-2 weeks to respond. If you do not receive a reply within 1-2 weeks, send a gentle email reminder. Never assume that a program officer’s delayed response – or lack of response – reflects disinterest. Like you, they have busy schedules and personal lives. Exercise patience and gentle persistence.

Questions to ask a program officer Expand answer

Congratulations – you secured a scheduled phone call or meeting with a program officer! At the beginning of the call or meeting, confirm with the program officer how much time their schedule allows. Respect their time constraints and prioritize your questions. Prior to the conversation, you should have developed a succinct list of questions. Focus on questions that cannot be readily answered by visiting the funding sponsor’s website, carefully reading a funding announcement, or (in the case of non-governmental funders) contacting Corporate and Foundation Relations (CFR). The program officer will appreciate you did your homework. Here are some questions that would be appropriate to ask a program officer:

  • Does the project fit with current priorities?
  • Have I identified the most appropriate funding mechanism to support the project? Would a different funding mechanism be a more suitable fit?
  • Are there any new or emerging areas of interest?
  • What common characteristics do funded proposals share?
  • What are the most common reasons a proposal does not get funded?
  • How many grant proposals are received each cycle and what percentage typically get funded?
  • Do applicants receive written feedback from the proposal review process?
  • Are resubmission applications accepted?
  • What is the general composition of the review panel?

This last question may be relevant if the peer review process is not readily apparent on the funding sponsor’s website or through due diligence at your institution or with colleagues. Some funding sponsors review internally while others utilize ad hoc external reviews and/or consumer reviewers. Understanding the general composition of the review panel – and review process – will give insight on how proposals will be evaluated.

To keep the lines of communication open, remember to send a follow-up email thanking the program officer for their time, summarizing key outcomes, and noting next steps, if applicable.

Do’s and Don’t for Working with program officers Expand answer

Proposal Support

Boilerplate Language 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.

Research Development 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, Research Development 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.

See available boilerplate language

College of Medicine Proposal Library (Internal) Expand answer

Research Development manages a proposal library to support College of Medicine researchers seeking guidance on how to structure a well-crafted proposal. Hosted on a dedicated SharePoint site, the library contains winning grant proposals for numerous mechanisms, including fellowships, career development awards, and investigator-initiated (e.g., R01-equivalent) mechanisms. Summary statements are often included, providing insight on the peer review and resubmission process.

To request access, please send an email with a brief explanation to: Please keep in mind that access is view-only to protect the confidential nature of PI materials.

Sample Applications (External) Expand answer


The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) makes available a wide variety of top-scoring applications and summary statements on its website. You are encouraged to visit the NIAID website to access the repository of proposal samples and related materials.


The National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Division of Cancer Control & Population Sciences (DCCPS) shares excerpts of funded dissemination and implementation (D&I) grants on its website. Visit the NCI website to learn more.

Open Grants

Open Grants is an open repository of funding proposals that was made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to the University of Florida. Development of the site was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Visit Open Grants to learn more.

Grants Academy Expand answer

Grants Academy is a structured, non-credit workshop that assists participants with preparation and submission of an independent investigator-initiated grant application. Participants commit to submitting a grant application, with support of their chair, in the summer/fall of each year. Participants meet monthly from October through April and are expected to commit approximately 10 percent of their time. Applications include, but are not limited to, submissions to the NIH (such as R01, R21, K01, K08, K23), the American Cancer Society, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association.

Explore Grants Academy

Institutional Mock Review of Grants (MoRe) Program Expand answer

The MoRe Program at Penn State College of Medicine offers support for research proposals in advance of submission to external funding sponsors. The program uses a live review session similar to that of an NIH study section during which the reviewers interact with the principal investigator to help strengthen the proposal. In contrast to an NIH study section, reviewers will critique a limited set of documents rather than the full proposal. The goal of the MoRe Program is to improve the quality and success rate of externally submitted grants. MoRe is strictly advisory, and the ultimate decision on how to proceed with a given proposal remains with the faculty investigator in consultation with any mentors and/or collaborators.

The MoRe Program accepts research proposals prepared for submission to a wide variety of external funding sponsors, including state, federal, and philanthropic organizations (e.g., NIH, DOD, HRSA, PCORI, ACS, AHA).

The MoRe Program is offered annually in three cycles that precede each NIH cycle for research grants. Investigators preparing non-NIH proposals are also welcome to use the program.

Explore MoRe Program