THE PHS 398 APPLICATION FORM
In this handbook, there is a great deal of emphasis placed
on seeking grants from the The National Institutes
of Health (NIH). The reason is simple -- NIH is by far the richest
source of funding for health related research in the world. The rest of
this section details some of the finer points of writing your grant application
for the NIH.
398 Form is the standard application form for National
Institutes of Health grant
applications, as well as for some research proposals
to other agencies of the Department of Health
and Human Services. Like most federal forms, it can be daunting
at first glance. Any investigator hoping to do federally-sponsored research,
however, would do well to get acquainted with the PHS 398 in advance of
needing it. Both hard and disk copies (in Wordperfect or Word/Excel) are
available from the Office of Research Development;
these electronic versions can also be downloaded here.
Various digitally-formatted versions can also be downloaded from other
Web sites (See "How to Apply")
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PHS 398 TABLE OF CONTENTS
To get an overview of your task in completing the
PHS 398, look at the Table of Contents page from
the application packet. It lists the required forms and sections in the
order in which they should appear in your application. Many entries in
the Table of Contents provide context and identifying information, convey
assurances or show that the financial plan for the project is appropriate
and feasible (See Constructing a Grant Budget).
The "science" part of the 398 is presented in the central sections, set
off under the heading, "Research Plan".
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THE RESEARCH PLAN
The heart of your proposal is a narrative description of
your research plan (Research Plan, parts a through d). In the discussion
to follow, each part of this narrative will be outlined, with advice on
how to present the material.
Part a: Specific Aims
NIH reviewers are not sympathetic toward waffling.
Vague promises and purple prose are totally useless in a 398 application.
For every section of the narrative, you must provide detailed, specific
information on WHAT you plan to do, HOW you plan to do it, and WHY it is
important to do it.
In Part a, you will present the skeleton of your proposal
as succinctly as possible. Generally, this section should follow this outline:
* One or two sentences summarizing your research question.
This is the general problem to be solved by your proposed work.
* A brief summary of the context for this work: The current
state of knowledge in the field; gaps or ambiguities that need resolution;
linkage to larger goals (i.e., health care).
* Enumerate the specific aims of your proposal. These
can be in the form of hypotheses (you will test whether...) or in the form
of objectives (will demonstrate that...), or both. Your specific aim may
be to develop a methodology, rather than to test an hypothesis.
Write out your aims so that a reviewer can easily imagine
what kind of activity each would entail. Number them in the text. Reviewers
may refer back to your aims when they read the methodology section, to
see how well your methods fit your aims.
* Briefly summarize the design and methods to be used
to accomplish your aims.
Part a should be no longer than one page, single-spaced.
If yours is longer: 1) edit out all unnecessary verbiage; 2) check to see
if you have put in more detail than necessary on the context or the design
and methods (you will have an opportunity to present the detail in later
sections); and 3) check to see if any of your aims overlap (reorganize
them if they do).
If after this editing your specific aims section still
runs over a page, consider whether your project as conceived might be too
complex or ambitious for one proposal. If so, simplify your plan.
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Part b: Background and Significance
In this section, you will demonstrate that you know
your field well, and that you understand the significance of the research
Start with a review of the relevant literature. Your literature
review should be thorough, up-to-date, and selective.
Read and cite every important publication on your topic. Omit
any marginal ones. Discuss the theoretical framework for this project.
Even in the most empirically-oriented field, there is an implicit theoretical
ground which determines what questions to ask. State this theoretical ground
as succinctly as you can.
DO NOT ASSUME THAT YOUR REVIEWERS WILL BE FAMILIAR WITH
THE THEORY IN YOUR FIELD!
If you come down on one side of a theoretical fence, say
so. Cite the previous work (yours and others) that convinces you.
Show your reviewers that you also understand the other side of the fence.
Discuss the significance of your project: What is the
significance of your proposal to the body of scientific knowledge?
What is its significance to the funding agency?
If you do the proposed research, what gaps in the knowledge
of your field will be filled? What ambiguities will be cleared up?
What further research will be made possible? This discussion should
follow easily from the review of literature and theory.
If you do the proposed research, what larger goals of
the agency will be met? Assuming that the agency is one of the National
Institutes of Health, these goals will be health-related. Will diagnostic
techniques be improved? Will more effective treatments become feasible?
Will health care be made more cost-effective?
This section should not exceed 3 pages, single-spaced.
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Part c: Preliminary Studies/Progress Report
In Part c, you will demonstrate that the research
tasks you propose are possible, feasible, and informative.
To get funding for any major grant, it is absolutely essential
to have done pilot work first. For the experienced investigator with a
well-equipped facility, this is no problem. For a new investigator, however,
it presents a chicken-and-egg problem: How do I get funding to do research
if I have to do research before I get funding?
There are several ways around this problem. First, you
can apply for grants that are reserved for new investigators: clinical
investigator awards (K series), pilot/seed money grants
or small grants (RO3). Some foundations and professional
societies also make small grants available for pilot work. When
applying for pilot project money, be sure show that you have the training
and expertise to carry out the project. Let your professional development
to date be your pilot work.
Another way to deal with the piloting problem is to do
some preliminary work that partially pilots your project: the initial development
of a measurement technique, for instance, or analysis of a few cases. The
more of this preliminary work you can complete and report the better.
In general, the larger the award you seek, the more extensive your piloting
will have to be.
Your report on preliminary work is a miniature research
article: describe your hypotheses, methods, subjects, experimental protocol,
measurement techniques, data analysis,and your interpretation of the results.
Describe what you will do differently in the proposed research based on
this preliminary work. Emphasize what you have shown to be feasible by
this preliminary work.
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Part d: Research Design and Methods
This is the actual work you propose to do. This section
must be very well organized. Use separate headings for each topic (Design,
Subjects, Data Analysis, etc.); use subheadings if they make the overall
* Start by stating your hypotheses, as you did in
the introductory section.
* Give an overview of the design ("Two groups of
40 subjects each will be randomly assigned to experimental and control
groups, each of which will be tested on four separate days...")
* Describe your subject population in detail: include
population demographics, how subjects will be recruited, inclusion and
exclusion criteria, method of sampling and assignment to groups, and expected
attrition rate. Show that you have access to enough qualified subjects
to complete the research. If you are limiting your sample to subjects of
one sex or ethnic group, you must give the rationale
for this (and it better be good). If you do not intend to include children
in a clinical research sample, this must
also be justified.
* Describe any experimental manipulations in detail.
* Describe all measurements to be taken. Include
brief descriptions of any specialized equipment or facilities to be used.
If you are using a standard test, or published questionnaire or survey
instrument, report on its reliability and validity. Describe how data will
be coded, reduced and stored. If experimental blinds are used, describe
how they will be maintained.
* Give a summary of all procedures to be used for
each group. A table may be the most concise way to summarize your protocol,
especially if you have multiple groups.
* Describe the statistical analyses to be carried
out. Be sure they are appropriate to the kind of data you are analyzing.
Don't try to bluff your reviewers on statistics. If you don't know
what is appropriate, ask a statistical consultant. It actually counts
in your favor to show you are willing to find expert consultants and include
them in your plan and in your budget. If appropriate, do a power
analysis to show that you will include enough cases to detect meaningful
* Anticipate the potential criticisms of this design,
and answer them. (Why did you choose a case control rather than a
randomized design?) Show that you understand there are alternate
ways to approach the problem, and give your rationale for the one you have
* Give an overall timetable for the entire project
period, including all funded activities, from recruiting and hiring staff
to write up the results. Be realistic here. It will count against
you if you promise to do too much too soon.
At this point your narrative (Parts a through d) will
be 25 pages, single spaced. DO NOT EXCEED THIS LIMIT. To meet the limit,
edit as tightly as you can. Use simple sentences. Remove any vague wording.
Move tables, figures and charts to the appendix if they are not essential
in the narrative.
Resist the temptation to shrink the font size, margins
or line spacing. Even when a font smaller than 12 point is allowed
-- as it is in the 398 -- the second cardinal rule of grant writing
is: Thou shalt not commit eyestrain.
Don't make your reviewer struggle to read your application; the bad feeling
that results is not worth the extra text you can squeeze in this way. (The
first cardinal rule of grant writing can be found here)
Finally, give the draft of the narrative to a knowledgeable
friend or colleague to read. Ask that person to mark the parts that are
not clear, and to comment on the overall manuscript. A prior review can
save a lot of grief during the real review, so pay close attention to your
friendly reviewer's comments.
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The Rest of the 398
This chapter covers only the narrative research plan in
the application. As you can see from the Table of Contents,
you will also have to provide a detailed budget and budget justification,
an abstract of the proposal, biographical sketches for all key personnel,
descriptions of the resources and environment (available facilities, etc.),
the use of human or other vertebrate subjects, a list of literature cited
and descriptions of any collaborative arrangements. You also will need
letters of support, copies of any paper forms, charts, questionnaires,
etc., to be used, and copies of your own relevant publications.
Most of this material needs only to be gathered and put in acceptable form.
The major exception is the budget. Preparing a grant
budget is discussed in another chapter of this
Handbook. Many prospective researchers who write otherwise great proposals
get bogged down here.
NIH has made budget preparation for the PHS 398 somewhat
easier by allowing "modular applications" for
most projects. Still, you will need a budget of your own to insure
that your project costs can be met by the award. If you are ready to prepare
your first research project budget, find someone who is experienced in
budgeting to lead you through it. You are welcome to call the Office
of Research Development, and we will work one-on-one with you.
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A Final Word
In the PHS 398 Application Packet, you will find this
message: "PHS estimates that it will take approximately 50
hours to complete this application for a regular research project grant."
This some sadistic bureaucrat's idea of a little joke.
Start preparing your proposal at least two months before its due date.
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398 Form & Instructions (in PDF Format)
Download the PHS 398 in Wordperfect or Word/Excel
Two-Minute Tip Sheet on Grant Applications
Constructing a Grant Budget
Life After the Deadline: NIH Grant
How to Apply for Funding