8 Elements of a Successful Preliminary Application

Successful preliminary applications all share the same eight elements. We'll go through each of these and share strategies for how to include each one in your one-page Advance-CTR Pilot Project preliminary application. 

1-2. What Is the Question and Why Is It Important?

These are the two most important sentences in your application. Be clear about the area of research you are studying and explain why it is important to answer this question. Think about the "So what?" aspect: 

"We propose to determine the mechanism of sepsis-induced acute lung injury (Area of research). This work will result in new approaches to treatment of sepsis (So what?), the most common cause of mortality among hospitalized elderly patients." 

Reviewers read many proposals. This is your opportunity to show them something new, and compel them to read the rest of your application. 

3. Background Research

Describe what is already known in a few sentences. Make sure you succinctly capture the previous research that is most pertinent to your project. 

Next, assess the rigor of the previous research. Is the statistical analysis sound? Is there recognition of error and intellectual honesty? Has there been redundant experimental design or avoidance of logical fallacies? This will provide you with the opportunity to identify questions that have yet to be answered. Provide references to back up your claims, but don't be exhaustive. 

This is your opportunity to show that your proposed work will fill gaps in knowledge. 

4. Hypothesis or Discovery

Just like with background research, succinctly state your hypothesis to be tested. If you are proposing "discovery science," then explain what will be explored. For example:

"We hypothesize that gram negative bacteremia causes inflammasome activation in lung epithelial cells." 

"We will determine methylation of XXX in premature infants." 

5. Specific Aims

The number of specific aims outlined here should be proportional to the available resources and duration of the proposal. Aims should directly address the hypothesis and area of discovery. 

TIP: A schema illustrating how the aims will address the original question can be very helpful if there is space.

For example:

Specific Aims Schema


6. Research Strategy and Approach

Keep in mind the differences in what reviewers are looking for in your research strategy and approach between the one-page preliminary application, and a multi-page, full application. The preliminary application should provide reviewers with a concise and straightforward description of your strategy and approach. Your writing should be streamlined so that reviewers can easily grasp the information. The full application is where you will have the opportunity to thoroughly explain your plan, add more details and emphasis, and anticipate reviewers’ questions. 

For example:  

“ We will use a multi-pronged approach using patient plasma samples, cultured cells, and mouse models.”

“We will conduct a case-control study of 30 cancer survivors.”

“We will perform single cell RNA-seq on monocytes from septic mice.”

“We will use the All Payers Database to determine antibiotic prescriptions to elderly nursing home patients.”

7. Expected Outcomes and Alternative Approaches

This section should include a few sentences that 1. Describe your expected outcomes, and 2. Describe what you will do if the outcome is different than expected. 

"We expect that hospitalized patients over the age of 65 will have monocyte inflammasome activation. It is possible that confounding co-morbidities will also result in monocyte inflammasome activation. To test for this, we will control for urinary tract infections and diabetes control." 

8. Future Studies

This is the final section of your one-page preliminary application, and also the most important section to the reviewers. In this section, you must demonstrate HOW you will use the data from your study to support funding for future research. 

Reviewers want to know that your project will be a good investment, one that will yield data that will lead to further funding, discovery, and ultimately — translation to patients and/or the greater community. Show reviewers that you are thinking beyond your pilot study and have a vision for how the award will fit into your larger research goals. 

"We will present the results of this study at the annual meeting of the Association for Silliness, prepare a manuscript for the Journal of Silliness, and will use these results as the basis for an R21 proposal to the NIH."