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Crafting a Competitive Proposal

Understanding the Mission of the Agency

Before starting, understand the mission of the agency and make sure that your proposed work aligns with the targeted program objectives. Don’t try to impose your research priorities onto a program that is not a good fit. If you have sufficient time (two to three) months before submission, use the resources on Concept Papers and Program Officer Engagement to prepare a concise summary and get early feedback on your ideas and program alignment from a program officer.

Read the full solicitation and take note of review criteria and required elements in both the narrative and supplemental materials. you will want to make sure you have all the required elements, otherwise your proposal may be returned without review. Reviewers are asked to respond directly to the review criteria so making your that you have addressed them fully and that they are easy to find in your narrative, will make their job easier. Additionally, you will want to make sure you have all the required elements, otherwise your proposal may be returned without review. All NSF proposals are evaluated on intellectual merit and broader impact, while additional review criteria may be relevant for specific programs. Also see the evaluation criteria for NIH programs.

If you have not prepared a concept paper, use the Heilmeier catechism to frame your thoughts before writing your proposal. You should strive to integrate the answers to the catechism questions concisely in the first few pages of your narrative. This will be of great benefit to your reviewer and motivate them to continue reading.

Consider your audience

Will your proposal be read by disciplinary experts in your subfield, or will it be reviewed by a panel from a variety of backgrounds? Inquiring about the review process whether panel, ad-hoc (typically a specialist) or a combination is a reasonable question to ask a program officer and can help you determine the level of familiarity your reviewers will have with your subject matter.

In general, it is almost always a good idea to write for an intelligent non-expert and to minimize jargon and excessive detail. Your reviewers want to know the big picture and how your project will address important knowledge gaps, not the detailed step-by-step. Address any necessary details and methodology, succinctly and concentrate them in stand-alone sections so that a non-specialist can scan over them without breaking the narrative thread, while an expert can get the details that they are seeking to verify that your project is on solid footing.

External Validation of the Importance of your Work

When motivating your proposed work, if possible, provide external validation by referencing grand challenges in your discipline or quoting from reports from the National Academies or other respected organizations.

Preparing Figures

Do not overlook figures––they should be carefully considered. Remember that your audience might not be familiar with the topic as would a journal reader; so you might not be able to recycle figures from recent journal submissions, but rather may need to make new figures that are more easily accessible for a non-expert. Make sure that the figures effectively supports your narrative and are not too busy. Use captions that fully explain the figure, and ensure that the figure is large enough so that details are not compressed. You may want to consider the services of a graphic artist (a number of online marketplaces for freelancers exist) to prepare figures for organizational structures, interdisciplinary connections, etc..

Get Feedback

The RO offers an external review service that takes two to three weeks. You do not need a fully polished proposal, but rather a solid draft is acceptable. Your proposal will be evaluated anonymously by an experienced individual.


  1. Submit draft aims
    (MS Word format)
  2. Include any RFP or solicitation notice
  3. Complete External Review Request Form (DOC)
  4. Email form

Broader Impacts

Broader impacts may be accomplished:

  • Through the research itself
    (transformative research that has widespread impact across the field or multiple fields)
  • Through the activities that are directly related to specific research projects
    (Examples: dissemination of open-source software or other research instrumentation/samples/methods that could be more widely used by the research community and/or research training of graduate students and undergrads in techniques and analysis)
  • Or through activities that are supported by and are complementary to the project
    (Examples: outreach to K-12 students and/or teachers; collaboration with museums and other non-profits that promote scientific literacy; engagement with general public)

ARIS Broader Impact Toolkit 

WVU and WV partners for Broader Impacts

Supplemental Documents

Equipment, Facilities and Other Resources

Specifications and text associated with instrument descriptions for centrally supported facilities can be found at the following websites

Data Management Plans

Instructions for data management plans

Postdoctoral and/or Graduate Student Mentoring Plans NSF only

Note: For proposals submitted after May 20, 2024, each NSF proposal that requests funding to support postdoctoral scholars or graduate students must upload under "Mentoring Plan" in the supplementary documentation section, a description of the mentoring activities that will be provided for such individuals. In no more than one page, the mentoring plan must describe the mentoring that will be provided to all postdoctoral scholars or graduate students supported by the project, regardless of whether they reside at the submitting organization, any subrecipient organization, or at any organization participating in a simultaneously submitted collaborative proposal. Separate plans are not required for postdoctoral scholars or graduate students. The plan may, however, specify how different components of the mentoring program will be enacted for the two types of researchers.

After an award, if a recipient rebudgets funds to support a postdoctoral scholar or graduate student and the original proposal included a mentoring plan, no further documentation is necessary; however, if the original proposal did not include a mentoring plan, then the recipient must send the cognizant NSF Program Officer the requisite mentoring plan.

This information is intended to provide ideas and resources to develop a plan; PIs should develop and adapt plans tailored to the specific project and circumstances.

  • Orientation and Onboarding

    There should be initial meeting(s) to determine the graduate student and/or postdoctoral scholar’s long term professional objectives (academia, industry, startups etc.) and to identify skills development tailored to those objectives. Initial communication should establish work expectations, frequency of future meetings and introduce other group members that the individuals may work with or supervise/mentor. You may want to consider developing an advisory team for the individual mentee, which complements any interdisciplinary focus, and which may also support a junior scholar based on their gender, ethnicity and other characteristics.

  • Responsible Research Training

    Through the research appointment the scholar should be trained in methods that foster responsible research conduct including laboratory safety, ethical research practices, and responsible research conduct.

    Responsible Conduct of Research

  • Training in Grant Proposal Development

    Students and postdocs should be encouraged to learn about proposal preparation by active involvement in identifying funding opportunities, developing concept papers and outlines, writing narrative components, responding to pre-submission reviewer feedback and in participation in the submission process. Postdocs and senior students have access to all the proposal development services of the WVU Office of Research, including training activities and workshops.

  • Publications

    Students and scholars should be encouraged and mentored in the development of manuscripts related to their projects.

  • Presentations

    Students and scholars should be expected to make both internal and external presentations related to their research outcomes. Funds should be budgeted for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to engage in conference travel.

  • Teaching Skills

    Scholars with interests in academic careers should be allowed to engage in teaching and outreach activities that will prepare them for jobs as faculty members.

  • Other Resources

    • Career Services
    • Office of Graduate Education and Life offers a number of resources for both professional development and that enhance the quality of the graduate student experience at WVU. Research links from this office to find additional programs to assist you in developing a mentoring plan for your graduate students.
    • Office of Student and Faculty Innovation is designed to guide University employees, graduate students and postdocs through the process and steps associated with forming and participating in University Start-ups. In addition this office provides informational resources and education around SBIR/STTR grants, connection to state ecosystem resources, access to the Regional and National Science Foundation I-Corps program, and connections to mentors and business advisors.
    • National Postdoctoral Association
      WVU is a member of this national organization which facilitates professional growth, and raises awareness, and collaboration across stakeholders in the postdoctoral community.