Corrie Dog!
School of Social Work Doctoral Program
SOCW580 / Advanced 
Research Methods & Design
Karl G. Hill, Ph.D.

Summary of Proposal Guidelines

Turn in 1 copy of full proposal (electronic is preferred). Due 5:00 PM Wednesday 20 March 2013 by email to I will send an email acknowledgement that I received your proposal.

Now is your chance to integrate your thinking for this quarter (and before) into a coherent proposal!


I am suggesting the proposal be shorter than in years past to fit more with contemporary grant styles (which are shorter).

A. Abstract & aims (1 page)
B. Significance (2-3p)
C. Approach: Design, Method & Analysis (3-4p)
D. Human Subjects Considerations (1 p)

These page-length guidelines are for a single-spaced manuscript, and are approximations only.

Pascal once wrote (in 1671!)... I have made this letter longer than ususal, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter. Take the time to make your proposal concise and compelling!

The proposal format is similar to the Public Health guidelines.

The application must be clear, readily legible, and conform to the following four requirements:
  1. Text no more than 12 pages (single spaced) (not including references or appendices).
  2. NIH now requires either Helvetica or Arial 11-point font.
  3. Type density, including characters and spaces, must be no more than 15 characters per inch (cpi). For proportional spacing, the average for any representative section of text must not exceed 15 cpi;
  4. Single-space the manuscript (proposals are typically single-spaced)
  5. Margins, in all directions, must be at least 1 inch (though NIH typically asks 1/2 inch).

Here are some of my thoughts and a set of tips I have collected over the years about writing a successful research proposal. It may help to keep these in mind as you are writing your draft and final proposal.

In addition, I put several examples here of proposals for you to look at the overall proposal and the Methods & Analysis sections. I put examples of well-written proposals from former students Tyler Perry, and Cecilia Ayon online just to give you a ballpark idea. Two others you might look at are a Violence Etiology Proposal I wrote a few years ago. Another is a Dissertation Proposal that one of my staff, Jennifer Bailey, wrote. Yours will be shorter than these, but they do provide examples of general content.

General Comments.

Creating a top-quality research plan is critical to your application's success in peer review. Your plan describes what you are proposing to do, why it's important, and how you will do it. The typical proposal will have four main sections: a. Specific Aims, b. Background and Significance, c. Preliminary Studies/Progress Report, and d. Research Design and Methods. The "Proposed Analyses" comes under the "Research Design and Methods", but for our purposes I put them into two assignments so we could focus on each on its own.

A completely new project may not have a "Preliminary Studies" section. Instead, you may use this section to describe your professional qualifications to accomplish the project, as well as the research environment (e.g., your advisor's research group, or the facilities and support available at the SSW that will support the project).

Try to avoid the main traps applicants fall into.

Below is a list of the most common reasons cited by reviewers for an application's failure to gain an award. Review this list and make sure none of these items apply to your idea.
  • Problem not important enough.
  • Study not likely to produce useful information.
  • Studies based on a shaky hypothesis or data.
  • Alternative hypotheses not considered.
  • Methods unsuited to the objective.
  • Problem more complex than investigator appears to realize.
  • Not significant to the goals of the funding organization.
  • Too little detail in the research plan to convince reviewers the investigator knows what he or she is doing, i.e., no recognition of potential problems and pitfalls.
  • Over-ambitious research plan with an unrealistically large amount of work.
  • Direction or sense of priority not clearly defined, i.e., procedures do not follow from one another and lack a clear starting or finishing point.
  • Lack of focus in hypotheses, aims, and or research plan.
  • Lack of original or new ideas.
  • Investigator too inexperienced with the proposed techniques.
  • Proposed project a fishing expedition lacking solid scientific basis, i.e., no basic scientific question being addressed.
  • Proposal driven by technology, i.e., a method in search of a problem.
  • Rationale for experiments not provided, i.e., why they are important or how they are relevant to the hypothesis.
  • Proposed model system not appropriate to address the proposed questions.
  • Relevant controls not included.
  • Proposal lacking enough preliminary data or preliminary data do not support project's feasibility.
  • Insufficient consideration of statistical needs.
  • Not clear which data were obtained by the investigator and which reported by others.

One can think of solutions to each of these. Here are simple solutions to the most common:

Problem: The reviewers may not see the significance of your proposed research.
Solution: Write a compelling argument.

Problem: They may not be familiar with all your methods.
Solution: Write to the nonexpert in the field.

Problem: They may not be familiar with you or your research group.
Solution: Show them you can do the job.

Problem: They may get worn out by having to read 10 to 15 applications in detail.
Solution: Write clearly and concisely, and make sure your application is neat, well organized, and visually appealing.

Here are some section-by-section tips:
Specific Aims.
  • Try to summarize your entire proposed project in one guiding question that summarizes what you seek to understand.
  • Make sure your guiding question is sound and important.
  • Design your specific aims and methods so they answer the guiding question of the study.
  • Your specific aims are the objectives of your research project, what you want to accomplish, and your project milestones. Write this section for general audiences, primary reviewers and other reviewers, since they'll all read it. Choose aims reviewers can easily assess. Your aims are the accomplishments by which the success of your project is measured.
  • A common mistake new researchers make is being too ambitious. You should probably limit your proposal to three to four specific aims.
  • Organize and define your aims so you can relate them directly to your research methods.

Background & Significance.
  • Remember that this is one of the three sections likely to be read by a general audience as well as reviewers familiar with your area of work, so you'll write this section in non-technical terms for the broader audience. It's important that you convey the significance of your research and how it relates to the betterment of human welfare.
  • In the Background and Significance section, you want to develop the logic model of your proposed project. Make sure you talk about each of the components to come in the methods section. For example, if it is an intervention, talk about other interventions in this field (if any), about the logic model of your intervention, as well as indicating prior research that supports the logic of your intervention. Similarly, for an etiological proposal, discuss prior work on this outcome, what strengths and gaps there are in this field that your proposed study seeks to address.
  • It should be clear also how your proposed work suits the mission of the funding agency to which the proposal is being submitted. When reviewing your application, reviewers will judge the likelihood that your research can make an impact on social welfare.
  • Do not, however, include tons of info that leads the reader off target. This is not an exhaustive lit review: you are building a logic model of the intervention or etiological analysis. If you do bring up topics that are related to this field, but you will not be exploring in the particular study, then say so...indicate that you are aware of this issue, but are not focusing on it for the proposed study.
  • By the end of the Background and Significance section the reviewer should see what the problem is, why it is important, that it hasn't been studied in the manner you propose, but that what you are proposing is logical and grounded in prior work. They should get to end of your Background and Significance section say "wow! this study really needs to be done!"

  • Make sure your research plan is reasonable and show that you understand any potential problems.
  • After you give an overview of the type of research you propose, defend your choice of study design.
  • Next, list the activities you will engage in to complete the project, referring to the aims so reviewers can see how you will achieve them. Anticipate reviewers' questions about the feasibility of what you propose, e.g., how you will gain access to participants, what about ethical considerations? What available measures will you use? Describe sources for development of measures if measures are not currently developed.
  • Make sure the procedures are in a logical sequence, flowing from one another with clear starting and finishing points. And take care you are proposing a realistic level of work for the allotted time. Estimate how much you expect to accomplish each year of the project.
  • You'll also want to ask yourself: Are your procedures feasible and within your competence? You'll have to convince reviewers you chose the right methods. If your methods are innovative, state why you chose them and how you will avoid technical problems. If you're working with ethically sensitive issues, your application must state what special precautions will be taken to protect the participants.
  • In this section, you may also want to discuss any limitations of your methods and how they may affect your results and data. Call attention to potential difficulties you may encounter, propose alternatives.
  • All method sections need three basic categories of information:
      Participants ? who will be in your study, sampling procedures (how you will recruit them), relevant demographic information, and will they volunteer or get some sort of course credit or other compensation.
    • Measures ? what are your measured and manipulated variables (a.k.a. operational definitions)? How are you going to measure each of the constructs in your study?
    • Procedure ? what exactly the participants experience during the study session.
    You may choose to use three different headings for this information (as presented in the example below), or you might want to combine procedures and measures into one section if your procedure is very simple (e.g., handing them a survey measuring X, Y and Z). Format the method section however it works best for you ? but be sure to put participant information first and in its own section.
  • The example should help provide you with some commonly used (conventional) ways of writing out this information. In addition, look at the journal articles we have been reviewing, and the sample violence proposal I wrote a few years ago. I've also included some instructions and tips in the example below.

    Sample Method Section.


    Participants will be N members of volunteer organizations (or N civil reintegration programs operating in Northern Ireland, etc.). The participants will receive xxxx in exchange for their participation. Twenty of the participants will be female, and 20 will be male. [Note: In the participants section, gender, age (or year in school), and ethnicity are typical standard demographic statistics to measure and report. You should also report any other demographic statistic that relates to your hypothesis. ]


    Name of first variable. When using a published scale, always provide a reference for the scale (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001). Say generally what the scale is designed to measure, how many items are on it, and give an example item. An example item is: ?xxxxx.? Indicate how participants will respond to the scale. For example, participants will respond using a 7-point scale (1=strongly disagree, 7=strongly agree). If you are including the entire scale in an appendix, refer to that appendix here (see Appendix A for entire scale).

    Another Scale or Variable. Continue in a new paragraph with a new heading for any other scales you are using or manipulations you are creating. If your study is an experiment, instead of labeling your sections with the specific names of the variables as illustrated above, you should have sub-sections labeled ?Independent Variable(s)" and "Dependent Variable(s)." Be sure to always include a reference for the scale/variable (unless you wrote all the items or totally made up the manipulation from scratch). For measured variables, be sure to provide information about the response format and an example item.


    In this section, you want to explain what the participants will experience. Generally the first thing that happens in any study (surveys or experiments) is that an informed consent statement is read and signed. Then, if your study is a survey, explain in what order the participants will get the questionnaires. If your study is an experiment, give a sort of timeline for what the participants will be told first, second, etc. Generally the last thing that happens in any study is that participants are debriefed. For a study that doesn?t involve any deception or complicated procedures, it is sufficient to say that will give them a debriefing form (then refer to the form which you will put in an Appendix of your paper). Here is a sample debriefing form that I use, which we call "frequently asked questions". If your study involves deception or complicated procedures, you might want to reassure the reviewer that those issues will be addressed in the debriefing.

Proposed Analyses.
  • In this section explain what you would do with the data the participants generate in order to meet the aims of the study and answer your guiding question.
  • The Proposed Analyses section provides a brief description of variables and the statistical analyses you will use under each aim.
  • This is where you will discuss the analyses you plan to conduct if you actually performed the study. Please consider the scale of your data (continuous or categorical) and the design elements (correlational? cross-sectional? longitudinal? quasi-experimental?) to describe what statistical analyses are appropriate.
  • Take a look at how your referenced articles analyzed their data for an idea. This section should describe all of the information that you used to determine what analyses would be appropriate.
  • Typically you will want to discuss:
    • Initial steps to understand your data (e.g., "Analyses will first begin by examining the distributions and desicriptive statistics of the collected measures.")
    • How you will create your major outcome measure(s). Remember, it is the type of outcome measure you are examining that largely limits the type of analyses you can conduct. Interval or ratio level data (e.g., like "level of successful adaptation") permit parametric analyses (like correlation, regression, causal modeling, t-tests, ANOVA, Factor Analysis, etc.). If you have a nominal outcome (e.g., "adapted or not" 0/1) then you are mainly limited to non-parametric procedures (chi-square, logistic regression, etc.).
    • How you will create your predictor and control measures. Scaling required, etc.
    • Then, Aim by Aim, discuss what analyses may be conducted to address the aim, and, ultimately, answer the guiding question of the proposed study.
Human Subjects Considerations

  • In the Human Subjects Research section, applicants must (1) address the involvement of human subjects and protections from research risk relating to their participation in the proposed research plan (see Non Exempt Human Subjects Research for specific requirements), or (2) provide a justification for exemption with sufficient information about the involvement of the human subjects to allow a determination by peer reviewers and NIH staff that a claimed exemption is appropriate (see Exempt Human Subjects Research for specific requirements).
  • For our current purposes, I don't think you need to write an exhaustive section as outlined in the NIH guidelines below. However, since we discussed the topic in class, I think some discussion here of human subjects considerations would be helpful. So please include at least a paragraph noting (1) any potential risks to participants for being in your study (2) protections against risk and (3) any potential benefits to the participants and to others.

Non Exempt Human Subjects Research Protection of Human Subjects (From NIH PHS 398)

If you marked "Yes" for Item 4 on the Face Page of the application and did not claim any exemptions from the regulations, create a section entitled "Protection of Human Subjects." In this section, you must provide information to address all four evaluation criteria below as they apply to the research you are proposing.

Failure to address the following human subjects protection issues will result in the application being designated as incomplete and will be grounds for the PHS to return the application without peer review. Under each criterion, indicate whether the information relates to the primary research site, or to a collaborating performance site(s), or to all sites.


Human Subjects Involvement and Characteristics: Describe the proposed involvement of human subjects in the work outlined in the Research Design and Methods section. Describe the characteristics of the subject population, including their anticipated number, age range, and health status. Identify the criteria for inclusion or exclusion of any subpopulation. Explain the rationale for the involvement of special classes of subjects, such as fetuses, neonates, pregnant women, children, prisoners, institutionalized individuals, or others who may be considered vulnerable populations.

Sources of Materials: Identify the sources of research material obtained from individually identifiable living human subjects in the form of specimens, records, or data. Indicate whether the material or data will be obtained specifically for research purposes or whether use will be made of existing specimens, records, or data.

Potential Risks: Describe the potential risks to subjects (physical, psychological, social, legal, or other) and assess their likelihood and seriousness to the subjects. Where appropriate, describe alternative treatments and procedures, including the risks and benefits of the alternative treatments and procedures to participants in the proposed research.


Recruitment and Informed Consent: Describe plans for the recruitment of subjects and the process for obtaining informed consent. Include a description of the circumstances under which consent will be sought and obtained, who will seek it, the nature of the information to be provided to prospective subjects, and the method of documenting consent. The informed consent document need not be submitted to the PHS unless requested.

Protection Against Risk: Describe the planned procedures for protecting against or minimizing potential risks, including risks to confidentiality, and assess their likely effectiveness. Where appropriate, discuss plans for ensuring necessary medical or professional intervention in the event of adverse effects to the subjects. In studies that involve clinical trials (biomedical and behavioral intervention studies), describe the plan for data and safety monitoring of the research to ensure the safety of subjects.


Discuss the potential benefits of the research to the subjects and others. Discuss why the risks to subjects are reasonable in relation to the anticipated benefits to subjects and others.

  This page last updated December 2012