Grant Writing

Specific Aims

Strategies for Writing the Specific Aims

The Specific Aims document is one of the most important parts of a NIH grants submission – it’s also one of the most difficult to write. This may be the only document read by reviewers and it’s the one generally used to assign study section members. The Aims page needs to be written as a standalone document; and it must answer the following questions: What’s the problem, why should we care and how will you fix it?

Listen to this Podcast on Specific Aims. Samples of funded and unfunded aims pages are included.
Tips from Johns Hopkins reviewers (PDF).

Consider organizing your aims (but don’t use headers) into:

  1. Introduction – Grab their interest quickly and explain why funding your proposal will help NIH achieve their goals and be a good use of tax payer money. Explain what is known and what is missing that is holding back the field, what knowledge gap will you fill. Conclude with why the missing information is important to the agency.
  2. What, Why, Who paragraph – Clearly state your hypothesis and link it to the objective. Emphasize the product not the process. What will become possible after the research is completed.
  3. Specific Aims Paragraph – Think of your specific aims as headlines, succinct and attention grabbing. Use action verbs (test, analyze, prove) not descriptive verbs (compare, investigate, describe). Ideally, the aims should result in something you can measure. Your application should have only two to three specific aims.
    1. Too many aims will be seen as overambitious.
    2. More aims give the reviewers more content to find fault with.
    3. Do not go into the experimental details of each aim – stick to the big questions you will be answering and leave the details for the grant itself.
    4. Be aware that some reviewers get hung up on wanting to see a hypothesis stated in the specific aims so consider when this might be applicable in your writing.
    5. One aim should not depend upon another aim, they should be independent.
  4. Impact Paragraph – There should be at least one important expected outcome for each of your specific aims. Show how the research will impact the field and why this work must be done now and that you are the best person to do the research. If writing an R01 be sure that it is clear that you are independent as you lay out the rationale for your work on the specific aims page. Consider stating a long-term goal of your work (that is really a concrete and specific goal) to help highlight the significance and provide context.

Additional Resources

NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease has an excellent resource that includes a checklist.
Introduction to the Specific Aims page of a grant proposal , Acad Emrg Med 2018 sep 25 (9) 1042-1047 Andrew A Monte and Anne M Libby
Bioscience Writers The Anatomy of a Specific Aims Page