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MSU Home :: Writing the proposal

3. Writing the Proposal

While much attention is paid to funding source research, project development and compliance, writing the actual proposal is a topic that often gets overlooked. The following sections will break down the most common elements required in proposals and discuss ways in which the writer can strengthen them.

Take note that while these are common elements, you may not always be required to produce them, depending on the funding source and its guidelines. Conversely, other funding sources may require additional sections not mentioned here. This discrepancy brings us to a key point: Always follow the guidelines!


The proposal introduction is where you describe your agency's qualifications and credibility as an applicant for funding. A good starting point is MSU's basic background information, located here.

When writing an introduction that necessitates an organizational background, it is helpful to write from general to specific, transitioning from the University background to your college/department background, briefly highlighting:

  • Prior and current activities
  • Accomplishments and their impact
  • Any other significant aspects related to the funding source


Problem Statement

The problem statement (sometimes called the needs statement) is one of the most critical components of your proposal - it is the reason for the proposal in the first place!

Strong problem statements:

  • Should be clearly related to the purposes and goals of your organization
  • Should be supported by evidence drawn from statistics/information provided by authoritative sources (don't make assumptions)
  • Should be of reasonable dimensions - something that you can realistically do something about over the course of the project period
  • Should be stated in terms of clients or constituents rather than the needs or problems of the organization



Most grant proposals must include a list of objectives to be achieved within the project period. Program or project objectives are the "outcomes" of your activities - not the activities themselves. If you begin statements with "to provide" or "to create," you are talking about methods, not objectives.

Objectives are the measurable criteria by which you judge the effectiveness of your program. To be useful, objectives must be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time constrained

To put it another way, objectives should:

  • Tell who
  • Is going to be doing what
  • When
  • How much
  • How it will be measured

Statements like the following refer to objectives:

  • At the conclusion of the five-day workshop, at least 20 to 25 participants will demonstrate a pre/post test gain of at least 25 percent on the Evaluator's Competency Test, covering the areas of (1) introductory statistical terminology, (2) measurable objectives, and (3) educational program evaluation concepts.
  • To increase employment in Rowan County by at least 10 percent in high-tech jobs by the end of the 12 month project period as indicated by Chamber of Commerce data.



The methodology is simply a description of the steps to be taken to achieve your desired results.

The two critical points to remember when developing your methodology:

  • Clarity - your methods should be understandable
  • Justification - methods should be accompanied by an explanation of the rationale behind them (why do you think they'll work?)
    • Description of your past related work, or
    • Presentation of evidence drawn from the work of others

Key elements that should be included in most methodology sections (when applicable):

  • Selection of staff
  •  Staff training
  • Selection of participants

Time charts (or Gantt Charts) can be useful in providing readers with a clear picture of program activities in an organized fashion (some funding sources will specifically ask for this)



Most funding sources will require an evaluation component. Even if you intend to budget for a consultant to conduct an evaluation for you, it is still important to understand what an evaluation is, and why it is important.

The evaluation is something to be considered throughout the program planning process, not something to be thrown together after everything else is done. An evaluation section that reads: "Evaluation will be afforded by a weekly conference of the multidisciplinary team and maintenance of comprehensive records and explicit documentation" shows only that the applicant took little time to develop an evaluative component.

A successful evaluation will answer two questions:

  1. To what extent has the project achieved its stated objectives?
  2. To what extent can the accomplishment of objectives be attributed to the project?

In designing an evaluation, consider the following:

  • Clarify program objectives - clear, measurable objectives will lead to a clear and logical evaluation plan
  • Determine the potential audience for the evaluation - specific evaluation questions can come from considering who will be looking at the evaluation
  • How will data be collected? This will depend on the nature of your project
  • How will the data be analyzed?
  • How will the results be reported?

Evaluations are important for a variety of reasons. Accountability is critical in managing external grants and contracts. Funders want to see the fruits of their labor, and grantees that do not provide this can negatively affect future grant submissions. Evaluative data helps to strengthen the applicant's credibility. Additionally, designing an evaluation forces you to examine the clarity of your objectives.

When searching for an external evaluator for your project, keep these things in mind:

  • Cost - the more prestigious the evaluator, the more they will charge. Keep your budget limitations in mind.
  • Reputation - does the potential evaluator have a reputation that will enhance the credibility of the application?



While the proposal summary is usually the first thing on a funding source's list of required materials, it is last here because summaries should be the last thing you write. If you have already developed your concept paper, it most probably will form the crux of your abstract.

Clear, concise summaries include:

  • Identification of the applicant and a phrase or two about their credibility
  • The reason for the grant request: issue, problem or need to be met
  • Objectives to be achieved through the funding
  • The kinds of activities to be conducted to accomplish the objectives
  • The total cost of the project, funds already committed (if applicable) and amount asked for in the proposal

The importance of the summary:

  • It's usually a requirement
  • It may be all that is read (along with the budget)
  • It will probably be the first thing that is read
  • It provides readers with context for what is to follow
  • It's good practice to express your ideas with clarity and brevity!


Scientific Research Proposals

A research proposal is similar in a number of ways to a project proposal. Many of the elements discussed are critical; however, a research proposal addresses a particular project: academic or scientific research. The forms and procedures for such research are well defined by the field of study, so guidelines for research proposals are generally more exacting than less formal project proposals. Research proposals contain extensive literature reviews and must offer convincing support of need for the research being proposed. In addition to providing rationale for the proposed research, the proposal must describe a detailed methodology for conducting the research – a methodology consistent with requirements of the professional or academic field.

The article “Understanding Research Proposals,” published by The Grantsmanship Center, provides an excellent framework for designing a scientific research proposal.


NSF: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is unique in that it asks applicants to discuss the intellectual merit and broader impacts of the proposed project.

According to NSF, intellectual merit is how the proposed project will advance knowledge and understanding within a particular discipline. An in-depth description of intellectual merit is available online at:

Broader impact refers to how the proposed activity will advance NSF's mission of advancing learning, broadening participation of underrepresented groups and enhance research and education infrastructure. An in-depth description of broader impact is available online at:


Final Points
  • Read and understand the agency guidelines! Agencies may ask for more, less or different content than what is outlined here.
  • Avoid jargon and industry-specific lingo.
  • Because writers usually tackle proposals by sections, it is important to make sure each section flows logically into the next.
  • Solicit colleagues to review your proposal.
  • Become a reviewer - seeing other proposals helps to strengthen your own writing.
  • Always contact the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs before you begin - we're here to help!

Research and Sponsored Programs Calendar

Research News

      • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has awarded MSU's Space Science Center a $7.9 million contract as part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) to advance concept studies and technology development projects in the areas of advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellites. This contract is the largest sponsored research program award in the University's history. Click here for more information.
      • Morehead State University's 21st Century Education Enterprise has been awarded a $149,999 grant from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education's Improving Educator Quality program for its project titled "Engineering Authentic Experiences in the Next Generation Science Classroom.” Click here for more information.
      • Dr. Alison Hruby, Assistant Professor of English, has been awarded a $2,000 grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. Her project, titled "The effects of frequent reading on the reading comprehension abilities of tenth grade struggling readers in rural Kentucky," aims to improve the reading comprehension of tenth grade students placed in a remedial English class by increasing the students' reading time by at least 100 minutes per week. The outcome of the project will be measured using the students' reading scores on the Spring 2015 Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test. For more information about the project, please contact Dr. Hruby at 606-783-2732 or via e-mail.
      • The National Institutes of Health has renewed the Kentucky IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (KBRIN) Program. Headed by the University of Louisville, KBRIN aims to develop a network of support, infrastructure and capacity for biomedical researchers and educators within the Commonwealth. The total award to Morehead State University totals $463,845, which includes neuroscience laboratory renovations in Reed Hall. For additional information, please contact Dr. Bruce Mattingly, KBRIN Program Coordinator, at 606-783-2544 or via e-mail.
      • Dr. Kurt Gibbs, Assistant Professor of Biology, has received a $319,346 award from the National Institutes of Health Academic Research Enhancement Awards (AREA) program. Dr. Gibbs' proposal, titled "miRNA expression after spinal cord compression injury in Xenopus laevis," aims to determine how developmental changes in microRNA expression affect the ability of Xenopus frogs to regenerate their spinal cords, which in turn can increase understanding of the genetic regulation associated with recovery from spinal cord injury and generate new therapeutic targets to promote recovery in humans. For additional information, please contact Dr. Gibbs at 606-783-2932 or via e-mail.
      • Early Child, Elementary and Special Education Professor Edna Schack has been awarded more than $154,000 from the National Science Foundation's Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) program for a collaborative project focused on developing prospective teachers' professional noticing skills with respect to children's mathematical thinking. The three-year project, titled "Collaborative Research: TECHNO: TECHnology-Centered Mathematical NOticing," is a collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Thomas (Northern Kentucky University), Dr. Molly Fisher (University of Kentucky), and Dr. Cindy Jong (University of Kentucky). The project builds upon previous work by further developing previously successful materials, and includes a new focus on early algebraic thought. For additional information, please contact Dr. Schack at 606-783-2501 or via e-mail.
      • The Appalachian Regional Commission has awarded MSU a $500,000 grant to continue the Appalachian Rural Dental Educational Program, an initiative started in 2011 with the University of Kentucky and the University of Pikeville to increase the number of practicing dentists in Appalachia, and provide a campus-based oral health awareness program. For more information, click here to view the official news release.




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