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Tips on Writing Proposals

The following pages provide a detailed account of the main features and elements that are usually included in a research proposal, keeping in mind that there is no set or sample formula or procedure for writing a proposal.

In General, a proposal should be thorough yet concise, any supporting documents and information not directly related to the main argument or topic of research should be placed in appendices. The length of a proposal ranges from 15-20 type written pages, although it might be longer if the investigator or the funding agency requests greater elaboration.

Main Elements of a Research Proposal

A solid proposal contains a number of important elements presented in separate sections. The following are major elements to be included in a proposal:

1. Abstract/Executive Summary
2. Statement of Need or Problem Statement
3. Project Description
4. Budget
5. Appendices

1. Abstract/ Executive Summary

This section is a summary of the whole proposal. It should define the problem that will be addressed, and provide a short description of the main aims as well as of the expected benefits of the proposed research project. It should provide an overview of what you propose to do and clear understanding of the project's significance and potential contribution. The project's end-products should be clearly identified. Often proposal reviewers must write up a summary of your project for presentation to a larger review panel. If the abstract is clear and precise you make the reviewer's job easier, and if it is poorly written, the reviewer's job is more difficult and your funding chances diminish.

This section could also provide a brief statement about the University or about the faculty emphasizing its capacity to carry out the proposed project.

Tips for Writing a Proposal Abstract:

Do not write the abstract until you have completed the proposal. Generally, the abstract section contains 250-500 words. Include at least one sentence each on problems, objectives, and methods, using the major subheadings you used in the proposal.

2. Statement of Need Or Problem Statement

The statement of the problem - your need - represents the reason behind your proposal. It specifies the conditions you wish to change, the problem to be solved. This section should include the facts and evidence that support the need for the project. The information used to support the case can come from authorities in the field as well as from the faculty member's previous research readings and findings, and from appropriate literature reviews. Your problem or need statement should summarize the problem, show your familiarity with prior research work on the topic, reinforce your credibility for investigating the problem, and justify why this problem should be researched. Do not assume that the reader sees the problem as clearly as you do. Even if the problem is obvious, your reviewers want to know how clearly you can state it. Include an explanation of the project's significance and how compatible is it with the academic programs of the respective faculty/department.

Key Questions to Answer:
1. Does it indicate a precise understanding of the problem or need that you are attempting to solve?
2. Does is establish the significance of the problem?
3. Does it show that the problem could be solved?
4. Does it make the reviewer want to read further?
5. Does it indicate how the problem relates to your organizational goals?
6. Does it state the problem and outputs in terms of human needs and societal benefits?

3. Project Description

This section is the nuts and Bolts of how the project will be implemented. It should have 4 subsections: a) Objectives, b) Method, c) Project Staffing/administration; and d) evaluation. Together objectives and methodology dictate and determine staffing and administrative requirements. Then they become the focus of the evaluation to assess the results of the project.

3a. Objectives (or specific aims): are the measurable outcomes of the program/project. They define your methods. It is extremely important to state your objectives clearly. They must be tangible and specific indicating precisely what you intend to change through your project. They must also be concrete and measurable indicating what you would accept as proof of project success. They must be practical and logical indicating how each objective is a real solution to a real problem, and how each objective systematically contributes to achieving your overall goal(s), and achievable in a specified time period (indicate the time frame during which a current problem will be addressed).

Tips for Writing the Objectives Section:

List your objectives in no more than one or two sentences each in order of importance. It is important not to confuse the objectives (ends) with your methods (means). The objectives emphasize what will be done, and the methods will explain, how, when and why it will be done.

3b. Methods/Methodology: By means of the objectives you have explained to the funder what will be achieved by the project. The methodology describes the specific activities that will take place to achieve the objectives: how, when, and why. This section describes the methods you would use in detail, indicating how your objectives will be accomplished.

How: Detailed description of what will occur from the time the project begins until it is completed.
When: The methods section should present the order and timing for the tasks. It is sensible to provide a time table. In graphic form, it segments your total project into manageable steps and lets your reviewers know exactly what you will be doing and when. It shows organizational and planning skills and that you have thought out the major steps of your project. It lets them know that you have done some significant planning and are not just proposing on a whim. Finally the time and task chart represents a clear one page, visual summary of the entire methodology section.
Why: You may need to defend your chosen methods, especially if they are new. Why will the planned work lead to the outcomes you anticipate.

3c. Project Staffing/Administration: Mention the needed number of staff, their qualifications, and specific assignments. Staffing refers to research assistants, project directors, volunteers, or consultants. Include percentage effort of every member of the staff needed to complete the research requirements. Justification for each staff member to be hired might be required by some funding agencies.

3d. Evaluation: Evaluation should be built into the project. Including an evaluation plan in a proposal indicates that you take your objectives seriously and want to know how well you have achieved them. Not all funding agencies require formal evaluation, some want monitory reports only. Evaluations pinpoint what is really happening in your project so you can improve your project efficiency. Based on evaluation information, you can better allocate resources, improve your services, and strengthen your overall project performance. Beyond these immediate benefits, a project evaluation can uncover needs to be served in your next proposal and make it easier to get and sustain future funding.

In preparing the evaluation section, answer these questions. Does your evaluation section: a) describe why evaluation is needed in the project, b) identify the purpose of your evaluation and the audiences to be served by its results, c) Demonstrate that an appropriate evaluation procedure is included for every project objective, d) Provide a general organizational plan of model for your evaluation, e) describe what information will be needed to complete the evaluation, the potential sources for this information, and the instruments that will be used for its collections, f) clearly summarize any reports to be provided to the funding source based on the evaluation and generally describe their content and timing.

Tips for Writing the Evaluation Section:
Include a separate evaluation component for each project objective. Strengthen your evaluation by including samples of surveys, questionnaires, data collection instruments, data analysis forms and other evaluation methodologies in order to demonstrate the credibility of your evaluation section. If you use outside evaluators, identify costs, credentials, and experience. Evaluation sections are less likely to be included in basic research and training grants.

4. Budget
While the project description provides the picture of your proposal in words, the budget refines it with numbers. As you start preparing the budget, go back through the proposal narrative and make a list of all personnel and non-personnel items related to operation of the project. Program officers will look at your budget to see how well it fits your proposed activities.

The budget must be divided into direct and indirect costs.

4a. Direct Costs - These costs that are line items listed in the budget as explicit project expenditure are called direct costs. The direct costs are usually categorized into personnel and non-personnel components. Personnel cost include such items as salaries, wages, consultant fees, and fringe benefits. Non-personnel costs include such items as equipment, supplies, travel, and publication charges. Space and utilities may be reflected as direct costs or included as part of your indirect cost rate.

4b. Indirect Costs - These costs that are not directly listed in the budget and yet are project operating costs are called indirect costs. They are real costs that are hard to pin down, such as payroll and accounting, personnel office, library usage, use of office space or rent, renovation, legal services, general maintenance, depreciation costs, as well as general project administration. The general policy of the American University of Beirut is to charge indirect costs on sponsored research projects and programs. For more information on this, see section on Proposal and Budget Preparation.

Foundations vary considerably in their policies regarding the allowability of administrative costs on grants, and their application guidelines specify the allowable percentage of total direct costs. Many sponsors allow you to calculate a percentage of your direct costs and add it to your budget request. These costs are usually figured as a percentage of the grant, either of the total direct costs or the total project salaries and wages. For example AUB has an approved federal indirect cost rate on salaries and wages with US Federal agencies such as NIH and NSF. Unless the sponsor guidelines dictate otherwise, you can include in your budget overhead or indirect costs which will allow the project to bear a portion of the administrative costs.

c. Cost Sharing - Those costs that your organization will contribute to the total project costs are called shared costs. You may contribute partial personnel costs, space, volunteer time, or other costs towards the total project expenses. The cost sharing may be in the form of a "hard" dollar match, or you may donate "in-kind" contributions; that is, costs that do not require a cash outlay yet would cost real dollars if you had to pay for services rendered. For example volunteer time is one example of in-kind cost sharing.

Tips for Budget Preparation:
1. Provide sufficient resources to carry out your project.
2. Include a budget narrative or justification that explains major budget categories.
3. Present the budget in the format desired by sponsor.
4. Provide sufficient detail so that the reviewer can understand how the various budget items were calculated, and make sure your calculations are clear (e.g. 2 research assistants @ $600/month * 5 months = $6,000 OR Office Supplies (pens, pencils, paper , clips etc) at an average of $100/year/key person).
5. Separate direct costs from indirect costs and describe what is covered by the latter.
6. Relate budget items to project objectives.
7. Include any attachments or special appendices to justify unusual requests.
8. Identify evaluation costs.
9. In multi-year budgets, allow for yearly increases; indicate annual percent increases.
10. Do not overlook budget support for such things as service, or maintenance contracts, insurance, shipping, or installation. If you anticipate training costs associated with the purchase of equipment, include these costs in your budget as well.

5. Appendices
Appendices contain information peripheral to your proposal, such as reprints of articles, definition of terms, consortia agreements, tabular data, certifications, lists of board members and officers with titles, recent annual reports, organizational fiscal reports, organizational charts, resumes, past success stories, significant case histories, agency publications, publicity, and letters of support. Nevertheless, the use of appendices is recommended, especially when page limits are imposed by the sponsor.

Tips for Writing the Appendices:
After proposal is finished, reread it to make sure that the reviewers could make an informed funding decision without any additional information. Include strong letters of support and endorsement. Attach assurances of cooperation, and be sure to include the resumes of all key project personnel including yourself, and consultants.

For more information on writing proposals refer to the following useful websites:

Proposal Writing Short Course

Advice on Writing Proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF)

NSF, A Guide to Proposal Writing

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