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Written Preliminary Exam Format

This page serves as a guide to the form and function of the research proposal required as part of the doctoral preliminary exam. You will be writing a proposal that can be accomplished as a postdoctoral requesting a 2 – 3 year funding period. You should follow the format for an NIH NRSA Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship (F32). If you have further questions, contact the Director of Graduate Programs (DGP) for the MGP.

As with all research proposals, you must persuade a reviewing group that:

  • your specific aims are interesting and important
  • you have chosen a plan of experimentation that both directly tests your aims and is highly likely to return interpretable results in a reasonable timeframe
  • you have the background knowledge and understanding to bring this plan to fruition

Clarity is important in any proposal. Not all of the people who review your proposal will be experts in your field, therefore, you must provide significant information to adequately justify your goals to this group. Avoid unnecessary information, as it will distract from your essential arguments.

You must prepare at least two pre-proposals (1-2 pages long), which will allow your committee to assess your focus and strategic plan. One of these pre-proposals will be chosen as the topic of your final Research Proposal. The written proposal should focus on your doctoral research or a closely related topic. You will be evaluated on the final version of the proposal and your defense of it, so you should begin the overall outline of the proposal as early as possible. Additionally, you are encouraged to consult with your advisor, committee members and colleagues at the pre-proposal stage. After the pre-proposal, the proposal itself should represent your independent efforts.

Overall Format

Your research proposal must follow the overall format for an NIH postdoctoral NRSA application. Proposals should be no more than 15 single-spaced pages, including figures and tables, but not the Literature Cited. Use 1″ margins, 12-pt type, and page numbers throughout the proposal.


The abstract of a proposal is critical as it is your initial contact with the reader. Distill the necessary parts of your proposal to one-half page or less, stating the problem and what you intend to do about it. Make it understandable to a reader who is intelligent, but may not be an expert on the topic.

Specific Aims

The Specific Aims page is the most important component of a research proposal and serves as a sort of master plan for your proposal. Within your Specific Aims page, you should summarize the current knowledge on a topic, demonstrates the gap in that knowledge, and the objectives of your proposal, which will fill the gap in the current knowledge. In other words, the aims you propose should work toward a solution and reveal the impact of the proposal on the problem, the field, and future research.

The Specific Aims page should not only present the current major questions that will be answered in your research, but should also provide the framework for the Experimental Design section (below), so its organization is key to the entire proposal. A good Specific Aims page is realistic and should only propose the amount of work you can complete in the next 2-3 years (timeframe for the proposal); excessively optimistic proposals suggest a lack of critical thought.

Background and Significance

The Background and Significance section should be several pages long and contain enough information to make the subsequent sections understandable to your reviewer. It should also give the reviewer an understanding of the state of the field before your participation. Therefore, it should cite any critical information that is either published or known to you through personal communication. This section should also serve to convince the reviewer that your Specific aims are Important.

Previous Results

Preliminary data can be described in the background section. Since this is a research proposal and not a paper, use the most recent published data to establish the current status and take-off point for your proposed projects. The goal of this section is to convince the reader that “you” have made some progress and/or that you have skills that will be necessary to complete the proposed work.

Experimental Design

Typically the Experimental Design section will follow in the order laid out in the Specific Aims. The goal here is to convince the reviewer that your approach will yield interpretable results and that you understand those approaches. If there are intermediate goals that are critical to the whole project, either defend why your single approach must work and/or propose alternative approaches. It is important to provide enough information to make it clear that you understand the technique; however, this does not mean an abundance of detail, but rather a direct description of potential problems and shortfalls in the experiment/technique or its analysis. If there are obvious experiments that will not be done, say why.

Make your priorities clear; not every experiment is as important as the next, and some approaches will be pursued only under certain circumstances. Continually orient your reader by explaining how each intermediate goal fits into the overall plan.


This short section should be a realistic estimate of when the critical goals in the proposal will be accomplished. It should also make clear when the primary approaches will be replaced with alternatives should issues arise. You want to convince the reviewer that no matter what happens, you will return with a “story” in a reasonable time period. Plan on writing the proposal as you would for a two- or three-year postdoctoral project and that your goals will be met in this time frame.

Literature Cited

Using a standard format, list the references cited throughout your proposal. Be sure to include all necessary information for a citation: author’s name, article title, journal name and edition, etc. The NIH formatting guide suggests uses this resource for citations. This section not only documents your understanding of the current information on your topic, but also that you know the critical sources of information on the methods you have proposed to use.