May 18, 2017

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The PDS Narrative
a newsletter from
Proposal Development Services
Office of the Vice Provost for Research

This issue of the PDS Narrative highlights the benefits of contacting a program officer early in the proposal development process and shares some tips on how to prepare for that communication. We also feature Deborah Rocha, Research Development Specialist, the second of our team members to be introduced in this newsletter.

Communicating with your Program Officer

At public and private funding agencies, the program officer's job is to make sure the organization is funding the best research projects, career development, and research training in their interest area. An important part of this is advising applicants and guiding them through the grant application and funding process. Intimately familiar with their agency's mission, and current and future funding priorities, program officers know what will make a proposal successful for their particular program.

It is valuable to be in touch with your program officer prior to writing your grant proposal. Pre-proposal communication with the PO can significantly reshape a research design or save an investigator from submitting a proposal that will not meet the agency's funding priorities. Either way, communicating with a program officer before crafting a proposal will save that most valuable of faculty resources -- time!

Here are some reasons to contact your program officer:


  • Request early feedback on your statement of scientific aims upon which the proposal will be built, improving chances of a favorable review
  • Get clarification on specific grant requirements or instructions, ensuring compliance with the agency's regulations
  • Request help assessing the fit of your application to the specific request for proposals or funding opportunity announcement, or a recommendation for a more appropriate program
  • Assess the best grant mechanism for your research and career status
  • Discuss new topics that the agency may be interested to fund
  • Help ensure that your proposal is submitted to the most closely matched reviewer category, the one most likely to highly rank your research
  • Request advice on resubmitting a proposal that has been declined
  • Offer to serve on a review panel, an invaluable experience at all career levels
Contacting a program officer doesn't need to be an uncomfortable task. Do the background research needed to prepare yourself to speak with your program officer. Study the agency mission, program guidelines, and look up recent awards. Being prepared with this information will naturally help allay any anxiety you may have. It will also ensure you convey respect for the PO's time and expertise. (Consider how pleasant it is when a student comes to meet you with well-prepared, well-researched questions.) Keep your interaction professional and be specific with your request.

Unless you just have a simple question, to clarify a program guideline for example, don't make the initial contact with your program officer by phone. It's best to first send an email to introduce yourself and your topic. Attach a summary of your scientific aims, research objectives, research plan or potential proposal ideas -- a maximum of two pages. At the end of the email ask the program officer to call or email you back in a few days, mentioning times and days when you will be available (or unavailable). If you haven't heard back in a week or so, send another email. It's OK to follow up; program officers are busy, too. 

In Can we talk? Contacting Grant Program Officers, Robert Porter, PhD., former Director of Research Development at the University of Tennessee, shares a sample coaching script to help investigators prepare a successful encounter with a program officer, as well as background on why the relationship between PO and investigator is so important. A very useful read, it also includes a sample pre-abstract of the type that might be shared in the initial email to a program officer.

A funding opportunity announcement will usually identify the program officer(s) that should be contacted, or you can easily search the agency's online staff directory. If you're not applying in response to a specific RFP or you can't determine the specific program officer, try searching the online awards database for the agency (e.g., NSF, NIH, and drilling down to information about the program officer. For additional questions about contacting your program officer, feel free to contact us at

Introducing: Deborah Rocha, Research Development Specialist

The next few issues of the PDS Narrative will feature Q&A with our PDS team members. 

What do you enjoy most about working in PDS? Most who put themselves through the task of writing a grant proposal do so because they are particularly enthusiastic about the project they want to fund. When invited to participate, I enjoy the opportunity to engage PIs and their teams in that zeal, to ask questions, help fill gaps and refine the message of the proposal.

Where were you prior to joining PDS? Prior to joining PDS in November 2013, I was Grants Writer for the IUB Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, where I developed an interest in the kind of work I do now.

Among the experiences you bring to your work at PDS, which are the most valuable? As much as I enjoy wordsmithing, the structured and detailed thinking I developed as a student of Mathematics and Systems Science gave me an appreciation for detail that is quite valuable in my current work. As a research assistant at the Los Alamos National Lab I had the opportunity to apply math and general systems principles to diverse projects that gave me an appreciation for interdisciplinary work in action as well. At PDS I have opportunities to utilize these interests and skills in great new ways. 

What are your favorite agency or grant programs to work on? I’m not sure I have a favorite. I like the variety as much as the familiarity of revisiting more mainstay funding agencies. 

What is your favorite proposal component to work on? Why? The narrative, because words matter always and in a particular way in a grant proposal. It’s rewarding to work with a PI or team to help refine project goals, develop an argument for funding a project, and wordsmith the overall message. I’m told my affinity for detail and terse messaging is particularly helpful in honing the very constrained parts of a proposal such as specific aims and summary pages. 

What is a favorite tip you share with PIs that they seem to find most helpful? An important part of what we do at PDS is remind clients of things easily overlooked when under the pressure of proposal writing. One is that proposal reviewers are as busy as they are, and reading a stack of proposals on top. Subtlety, therefore, isn’t typically rewarded in proposal writing. The easier proposal authors make it on the readers/reviewers to understand their project and their argument for supporting it by being straightforward and clear, the better the chances for good reviews. And that’s the ultimate goal. 

What are your favorite spare time activities? Family time is the best, around a board game, movie, or out in town. On my own I enjoy herb gardening, cooking, and curling up with a book.


Proposal Development Services offers grantsmanship and proposal management support to IU Bloomington faculty applying for external research funding. Learn more about our services on the OVPR website, or request to work with a PDS specialist at