Preparation for the MDTP Prelim

You must request a preliminary warrant at least 3 weeks prior to your oral defense from the MDTP Program Coordinator.

The student will prepare a written proposal (see guidelines) and distribute it to their committee at least 2 weeks before the exam (unless otherwise agreed upon by the committee). The PI is encouraged to work with the student in development of the proposal, but the proposal should reflect the student's writing and intellectual skills.

The purpose of the following outline is to provide some guidance for students as to the form and function of research proposals. The model for the particular version used below is the NIH F31 Predoctoral Fellowship, and is designed to be a "real" grant proposal. Your goals should be to persuade a reviewing group that your research aims are interesting and important, and that you have chosen a plan of experimentation that is highly likely to return interesting and interpretable results in a reasonable time frame. You should also demonstrate that you have the background and understanding to bring this plan to fruition.

In any such proposal, clarity is key. The people who review the proposal will not all be experts in your field and you must therefore provide significant information to document the above goals to this group. In line with this idea, you should avoid unnecessary arguments and information, since they will distract from the essential arguments.

While you will actually be judged on the final version of the proposal and your defense of it, it would obviously be prudent to generate as good an initial proposal as possible for submission to your committee. It is therefore reasonable that you begin the overall outline of the proposal well before the fact and discuss the goals and approaches with colleagues before distributing the initial draft. You are therefore strongly encouraged to obtain input from other students, and particularly from your advisor, prior to distribution of the proposal to your committee.

The proposal description below contains information about the overall structure of the proposal as well as suggestions about each of the individual sections, following the NIH F31 Model. Note that one outcome from the prelim is the ability to submit a corrected version of the document as an NIH F31 for potential funding. If you have further questions concerning the proposal, contact a MDTP Graduate Advisor. If you intend to submit your prelim for a fellowship application, please be sure to indicate to your thesis committee the agency and fellowship type for which you will be applying. This will allow your committee to provide you with feedback appropriate for that agency on your proposal.

Overall Format

The proposal should be limited to no more than 15 double-spaced text pages including all tables and figures. References are not included in this page limit.


This is the critical 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 the intelligent, but inexpert, reader.

Specific Aims (2 Pages double-spaced, 11 point font, 1” margins)

This 2-page section should concisely state the major goals of the proposed research and summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the result of the proposed research will have on the research field(s) involved.

This section should also list succinctly, the specific aims of the proposed research, including any hypotheses. In short, this section should provide the framework for the Experimental Design section below, so its organization is key to the entire proposal. Try to be realistic and propose an amount of work that you are likely to accomplish in the next 2-3 years; excessively optimistic proposals suggest a lack of critical thought.

Research Strategy (12 pages double-spaced, 11 point font, 1” margins)

Background and Significance

This section should explain the importance of the problem that the proposed project addresses, and further describe how the work will improve scientific knowledge. It should provide the reviewer an understanding of the state of the field before your participation. It should necessarily cite any critical information that is either published, or known to you through personal communication. Importantly, this section should also serve to convince the reviewer that the general question chosen is an important one, and how the outcomes from the proposed work will impact the specific field of research.

Preliminary Results

Describe the progress you personally have made while in the lab. The goal of this section is to convince the reader that you have made some progress and/or that you have developed skills that will be necessary to complete the proposed work. This section presents an opportunity to discuss any preliminary studies, data and/or experience pertinent to your research plan.

Experimental Plan

Typically the sections in this part will follow in the order laid out in the Specific Aims. The goals of this section are to describe the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses to be used to accomplish described specific aims of the research project. It is important to also include a detailed description of how data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Here, your job is important to convince the reviewer that the approach you have chosen will yield interpretable results and that you really understand those approaches. If there are intermediate goals that are absolutely critical to the whole project, either defend why your single approach must work, or propose alternative "backup" approaches. Provide enough information to make it clear that you understand the technique; this does not mean an abundance of detail, but a terse description of potential problems and shortfalls in the experiment or its analysis. If there are obvious experiments that will not be done, tersely say why.

Finally, be sure to discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve each aim. As a rule of thumb, remember to continually orient the reader by explaining how each aim fits into the overall research plan.

Timetable (up to 1 page double-spaced, 11 point font, 1” margins)

While this section is not required for the NIH F31 application, we expect all students to include a section that presents a realistic estimate of when the critical intermediate goals in the proposal will be accomplished. It should also make clear when the primary approaches will be dropped and the alternatives adopted. You will want to convince the reader that, no matter what happens, you will return with a "story" suitable for a thesis in a reasonable time period.

Literature Cited (no page limit, 11 point font, 1” margins)

Using a standard format (authors' names and journal citation, including titles), list the references cited throughout the proposal. This should not only document your understanding of the state of current information, but also that you know the critical sources of information on the methods you have proposed to use. Note that this section of the proposal does not fall within the allotted 14 double-spaced pages allowed for the Specific Aims and Research Strategy sections.