Grant Proposals 101

The ability to put together a winning NSF grant proposal is a priceless skill for graduate students, especially as you near the end of your studies and consider job prospects. With approximately 25% of all research funding ($8.3 billion in FY 2020) at US universities and colleges being initiated from the NSF (National Science Foundation), knowing how to tap into that resource to fund your own research will make you a prime candidate for tenured faculty research positions across the USA.

This page is intended as a starting point for your grant writing efforts. The examples, templates, and guidance offered here are resources to help you succeed, but please always remember to CHECK THE MOST RECENT VERSION OF YOUR GRANT CALL (aka the “Program Solicitation”) for submission deadlines, details, requirements, formatting, etc.

Note: The grant writing process described here is quite different from the preparation of fellowship applications. Fellowships typically cover a single individual’s course of study or a portion thereof. Grants of the type described here typically cover a team of researchers, including at least 1 faculty Principal Investigator (PI), over the course of a multiple-year project and may net funding in the millions of dollars. For information on fellowship applications, see (link).


Some Initial Thoughts:

  • Begin the process early — way earlier than you might imagine … especially if this is your first grant. At times the process can seem analogous to assembling a puzzle, while being given the pieces one-by-one, and without knowing what the final picture will look like. While preparing a proposal for submission might only take a few weeks, it may be beneficial to embrace a 2-3 year “proposal mindset” so you can mentally identify team members, resources, and opportunities (the pieces of your puzzle) over time.
  • Take charge  – Preparing a successful proposal requires a focused effort by several people on a singular objective, which is much easier said than done. Understand that while you might be 100% focused on the proposal, others may be less so, or diverted off course as life tends to get in the way (family, work, health, etc.). Even if you did 99% of the work (not recommended), you still need pesky things like people’s signatures on important documents. One missing signature from a non-responsive team member can cause your proposal to be “incomplete”, or at least cause a massive rework to remove that person from the proposal. It would serve you well to take on a proactive persona, make specific project deliverables, and set periodic team meetings— more than you think you might need. Senior team members are extremely busy, making deliverables difficult to obtain.  You may need to kindly tell them the same thing 2-3 times and then respectfully remind them a few more times, so give yourself extra time to get what you need from them.
  • Plan Ahead – Few things are more distressing in academia than that missing critical document or signature just mere hours before the submission deadline. Create a project calendar and plan ahead for holidays, travel, academic crunch times, etc. to avoid having a critical out-of-touch signatory who’s in Bermuda during important milestones of the proposal preparation process.
  • It’s a win-win effort – Your ability to manage the proposal preparation project is a fairly accurate reflection of how your research might unfold. No matter what the outcome is, however, preparing your proposal documents is a massive bootstrap for future efforts that improves the odds of your research being funded. When you apply for future proposals, many of the documents you create can be “recycled” with minor modifications, so it pays massive dividends to always do your best work. Additionally, unlike journals that prohibit submitting the same manuscript to two or more places, with grants you can submit your proposal to as many funding agencies as you wish.

The Basic Steps:

  1. Browse a funding organization’s index of grant opportunities to find something that aligns with the research you’d like to conduct. The NSF’s A-to-Z index (link) and NaED Spencer Foundations list of grants (link) are great places to start.  You may also look at the UC Berkeley Solicitations List (link) for current or upcoming funding opportunities. Most of these opportunities are on an annual cycle, allowing you to plan ahead based on the previous year’s program solicitation, requirements, and deadlines.
  2. Find a faculty member to lead the proposal as the Principal Investigator (PI). Every proposal requires a PI, so this step is crucial. Since faculty have more experience and are motivated to do research, it wouldn’t be uncommon if you found a PI first and then started looking for a funding opportunity. Either way, the PI is ultimately responsible for the execution of the research proposal, should it be funded. Your research, if awarded, will probably last 2, 3, 4, or more years, so it’s important that you and the PI have a healthy working relationship that will survive the stresses of challenging research over time.
  3. Assemble the research team. One way to convince funders that you’re capable of performing the research you propose is by demonstrating that you have a rock-solid team. This team may consist of consultants, faculty (from any university), industry experts, post-docs, graduate student researchers, etc.  Each team member’s salary will increase the budget, with some salaries being much more than others. If evaluation is an important part of the grant, look also for an independent evaluation team who will investigate your work and generate reports about the progress of the work being done (link). That said, don’t add experts you don’t need (or worse, who won’t do any work) just to make the application look impressive. That’s bad karma, leads to poor research, and is basically unethical in the first place.
  4. Satisfy the requirements of the Limited Submission, if applicable. To prevent powerful universities from gobbling up all the funding and leaving other universities with nothing, some funding agencies limit the number applications per institution for certain types of grant calls. For example, the NSF Advancing Informal STEM Education (AISL) program solicitation limits institutions to 3 applications each. In those cases, UC Berkeley sends out a campus-wide “Limited Submission” (Ltd Sub) notice, stating that they will pick the top 3 proposals (assuming there are more than 3), and approve them for submission to the NSF. The Ltd Sub’s deadline is much earlier than the NSF deadline, and usually consists of a “mini proposal” to include a brief narrative, budget, biosketches (CV’s) etc. that they will use to select the top 3 proposals.  An RA (see # 5 below) will be assigned to you to help your prepare your Ltd Sub or answer any questions you might have. If your Ltd Sub proposal is selected for advancement to the NSF, you’ll be granted permission to prepare and submit a full proposal. If you intend to submit a proposal that’s not part of the Limited Submission process, then contact the Special Projects Office (SPO) directly (link) with questions about your proposal and if they should be involved.
  5. Connect with your university’s RA (Research Administrator).  In cases where UC Berkeley gets outside funding, you will be assigned an RA from the SPO (Special Projects Office) (link). You can expect a clear and direct email from SPO with the RA assignment and contact information.  The RA’s job is to be extremely familiar with the documentation needed for the grant submission, to assist you with Ltd Sub mini proposal (if applicable), and to work with you extensively in preparing and submitting your main proposal. In order to process the submission through numerous internal Berkeley offices, they will also impose an earlier (by 5+ business days) submission deadline than the funding institution requires. Work with your RA early and often to ensure your materials are prepared appropriately. Be nice to them, and be respectful – the relationship you have with your RA can make or break your proposal.
  6. Create a task-tracking spreadsheet. Grant proposals can have dozens of moving parts and pieces. Stay organized by using a “task-tracker” to document who, what, when, where, and how of all proposal requirements will be met. Beyond the narrative (see # 7 below), there are LOTS of odd documents that might need to be prepared and submitted in special ways. These include (but are not limited to) budgeting (often accompanied by a written justification); data management; undergraduate, graduate, or postdoc mentoring plans; CVs of the primary personnel (aka biosketches), often in grant-specific formatting; disclosures of financial interest; and disclosures of lab or institutional resources, etc. Keep in mind that, while the funding organization may have their requirements, UC Berkeley often has its own that may overlap or be separate requirements from the NSF. For example, UC Berkeley requires separate disclosures for partnering organizations or sub-contractors, where the funding institution may not. This task-tracker template (link) was created for an NSF AISL proposal and can be modified to match your specific grant. This one was created for a Spencer RPP submission. Run your task-tracker by your RA to ensure that nothing is missing. The document is a great place to keep track of the status of various project documents and deliverables, and to refer team members for needed items. It also feels great to mark things off as done. It’s recommended that you set a deadline for 7+ days earlier than the NSF deadline, as proposal preparation delays may occur and the extra time will come in handy.
  7. Start writing your proposal narrative. Often called a project narrative, narrative description, or other combination of these words, this document outlines your research problem, research questions, particular theoretical (and often design) approach,  methods, and any preliminary findings from previous work. It also includes the qualifications of you/your team to actually do this work, a project management plan, a timeline, and other things that the program solicitation may require. Talk with your RA about the proposal’s specific call for requirements. You can find some example project descriptions here <include link>, as well as a Spencer RPP proposal here <link>. Check with the grant call and your PI(s) to get a sense for direction the funding institution would like to see in this document. Start early! Know the max page count and use that as your writing goal.
  8. Submit your proposal.  For most grant proposals, the RA collects all of your required documents and uploads everything to through a Berkeley portal to the funding institution on your behalf.  The SPO then goes over everything with a fine toothed comb to ensure that all requirements are satisfied. Note that they typically focus on documentation and formatting rather than the content of the narrative description. Once your package is submitted to the funding agency, it may be 3-5 months before news of awardees are released.

Document Templates and Examples

Below are some documents (need access? contact us!) that you can use as guides to prepare your proposal. Requirements change often, so ALWAYS check with your RA to make sure you have the latest “version” of each administrative document.

  1. NSF Proposal Narrative Example – an actual proposal narrative that was submitted to the NSF AISL Program Solicitation Call in 2019.
  2. NSF Project Summary Example
  3. NSF Post-Doc Mentoring Plan Example
  4. NSF Budget Justification Template
  5. NSF Data Management Plan Example
  6. NSF Facilities and Resources Example
  7. NSF Biosketch Template
  8. NSF Current and Pending Support Template
  9. NSF Budget Template
  10. NSF Letter of Collaboration Template
  11. Collaborators and Other Affiliates (Sample)