The Award Lifecycle

Writing Strong Aims and Objectives

In many ways, your objectives or Specific Aims (using NIH terminology) are the most important portion of your proposal. They allow the reviewer to see, in a brief overview, exactly the work you propose to undertake.
The Aims and Objectives might be a separate document or they might be a portion of the longer research plan. You should format them however—and precisely as—the sponsor specifies. Typically, though, they are organized as follows:

  • a brief recap of the problem statement and its importance,
  • define the over-arching hypothesis to be tested, and
  • develop that into 2-4 smaller working hypotheses that will allow you to address the larger question.

One way to develop this section is with four distinct paragraphs:

1. Introductory Paragraph

  • This paragraph should begin with a restatement of the problem to catch the readers’ attention. 
  • Follow up with a very brief (one to two sentences) of the literature, outlining what is already known about this problem.
  • This should lead the reader to what is unknown about the problem.
  • The concluding sentence should indicate why this lack of knowledge is important. What are we prevented from doing, or knowing, or understanding because of this missing information?

2. The W’s Paragraph—who, what, when, and where

  • Begin by outlining the long-term goal of your research, briefly outlining your long-term research plans. (You have a document to work from. You might well have written it for your own use and for working with your Research Development Specialist.)
  • Then, recap the objective of this proposal, clearly identifying it as a step toward your long-term goals.
  • Next, identify this work’s central hypothesis, as clearly and with as much focus as you can bring to it; proposals frequently fail at exactly this point in the process. Explain the rationale for the hypothesis. 
  • Finish with an argument as to why this research question and this research team are precisely the right ones to bring to the work.

3. Getting Down to Business

Briefly detail the smaller aims that will allow you to test your central hypothesis. If possible, cite primary and secondary measures. These aims should be supportive of each other but not entirely inter-dependent. If one fails early on, you do not want your entire project to fail. There should still be something you can pull from the research.

4. The Payoff

  • Begin by outlining how this proposal (its question, its methodology, its instrumentation, etc.) is innovative. This is another sentence that causes proposals to fail. Please do not confuse “innovative” with new-to-you; a thorough knowledge of the literature is essential here. 
  • Outline your expected outcomes, clearly identifying the impact the study will have on the population at large. We often call this the “So, what” question. What gets better because of the work you are undertaking?

Types of objectives: 

The Foundation Center describes the following 4 types of objectives:

  1. Behavioral - A human action is anticipated.
  2. Performance - A specific time frame within which a behavior will occur, at an expected proficiency level, is expected.
  3. Process - The manner in which something occurs is an end in itself.
  4. Product - A tangible item results.

Additional descriptions and examples are available on the Foundation Center website.