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Office of Sponsored Programs
Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College
Columbia University

Before You Write

 Proposal Preparation: Preliminary Stages


All Federal RFPs, virtually all State and Local RFPs, and most private foundations include the name and contact information of a program officer or another party to contact with questions about your proposal. Contacting these individuals is essential at this stage of the proposal development process. Unfortunately, it is the part of the process most likely to be overlooked, especially by less experienced applicants.

The process of submitting a grant application should not be confused with submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal. In the latter case, scientific merit is the only evaluation criterion (at least ideally). While scientific merit is a primary criterion in the grant review process as well, many things in addition to scientific concerns are taken into consideration during the grant review process. Researchers who have served on review panels state that in a typical round of funding, only 5% of all proposals have science that is so strong and of such obvious merit that funding is assured. 30% are dismissed out of hand for not meeting some type of administrative, budget or submission requirement. The remaining 65% are proposals with good science that could yield interesting or important results if funded. There are always more worthwhile projects than there is available funding. Contact with the sponsor's program officer will clarify what additional evaluation criteria exist (if any) and help you develop your proposal to address them effectively.

Given that evaluation and judgment are key components of the grant review process, there is a bias towards seeing the relationship between sponsor and applicant as adversarial. Keep in mind that it is in the sponsor's best interest to receive the largest possible number of strong proposals that meet their specific objectives, and the job of the program officer is to insure that this happens. Even in instances where the guidelines are clear and you do not have any specific questions about the application process, personal contact with a program officer is still important at this stage. A round of funding might yield, as an example, ten proposals evaluated as "fundable" during peer review when funding exists for only three. It is the program officer's responsibility to decide among them, and your personal contact can work to your advantage, particularly if you have never received funding from the agency before. Some other purposes this contact serves:

  • Agencies with broad mandates or which issue general guidelines in support of research in a large disciplinary area usually have expectations about the types of proposals they would like to see and will tell you what these are if you ask. For example, the Department of Defense recently issued an RFP for research into behavioral and biomedical factors affecting leadership, an area where TC has significant expertise. The RFP included a long list of potential areas of research, including sleep disorders. However, when a Psychology faculty member doing research in sleep deprivation inquired, she was told that the agency would not be particularly receptive to a sleep deprivation study at this time. While that was not the answer we wanted to hear, it saved the faculty member the enormous effort of preparing a proposal for the rapidly approaching deadline and helped us to consider alternatives. Often, program officers have suggestions about more appropriate funding resources for your proposal.
  • NIH publishes a list of its review panels on its web site at www.csr.nih.gov. Program officers are your best source for this information at other agencies. While there is never any guarantee your proposal will be sent to any one particular review panel, getting some sense of who may be reviewing it can be extremely useful during the development process.
  • Most requests for proposals will tell applicants the total funding available during a particular round and the total number of anticipated awards. Program officers can provide additional guidance about appropriate budget requests.
  • A conversation with a program officer about program objectives can often reveal the vocabulary in current use at the agency. What words or phrases does the program officer use to describe programmatic goals or methodologies? Incorporating that vocabulary into your proposal demonstrates that you are in tune with the current priorities at the agency and not just within your field.

Initial contact with the program officer can be via either email or telephone. If you get no response to one, try the other, but keep in mind a real conversation is ultimately more revealing than an email exchange.

If you do research in an area that is regularly supported by one of the Federal agencies, it behooves you to make contact with the program officer even if you don't currently have plans to submit a proposal. Try to arrange a meeting if you are ever in the Washington area. Program officers travel to research sites to meet investigators as well. As a long-term career strategy, establishing yourself as a review panelist at the Federal agencies is an excellent way to gain an inside track and get a valuable perspective on the review process before you submit a proposal of your own. You can volunteer your services directly to a program officer, but you will be more successful if another panelist or funded researcher recommends you.

The effort you make to establish contact with the program officer during proposal development can reap enormous benefits after the review process is concluded. Most projects in this highly competitive arena will not be funded the first time around. If yours is one of them, the program officer can provide you with much more detail than the reviewer's comments as to why it was rejected; you can also gain insights into non-scientific factors that may have affected the review process. These insights can be crucial as you revise to resubmit. Program officers at this stage will often provide you with a realistic assessment of whether it is worth your while to revise and resubmit.

The other pivotal step at the preliminary stage is a preliminary review of the resources necessary to carry out a project. Some factors to consider:

  • Expertise: Do I have the necessary expertise and credentials to serve as sole PI on the project or do I need to team up with another researcher in the College or at another institution? Junior faculty in particular should be aware that agencies fund investigators whom they have supported in the past and naming yourself as Co-PI on a project headed up by an investigator with a proven track record significantly increases your chances of success.
  • Facilities: Does TC have the facilities necessary to conduct the project? If not, partnering is once again an effective strategy. Major equipment purchases are sometimes appropriate budget requests. However, your proposal will be less attractive if it competes with institutions that already own the equipment/facilities in question (unless the RFP is specifically targeted to improving facilities and research capacity).

Applications, Submissions, and Reporting

Finding Funding Resources