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Agency for Healthcare Research Quality

Essentials of the Research Plan

The research plan is the main part of a grant application describing a principal investigator's proposed research, stating its importance and how it will be conducted. A typical research plan has four main sections:

A. Specific Aims
B. Background and Significance
C. Preliminary Studies and Progress Report
D. Research Design and Methods

The research plan should be written to address the following questions:

  • What do you intend to do?
  • Why is the work important?
  • What has already been done?
  • How are you going to do the work?

Specific Aims

The specific aims is a formal statement of the objectives and milestones of a research project in a grant application. The purpose of this section is to clearly and concisely describe what the proposed research is intended to accomplish.

  • Should include specific research objectives.
  • Should be hypothesis-based.
  • Objectives should be obtainable within the proposed timeframe.
  • Study aims should fit together in an overall framework.
  • Study should be well-focused rather than broad and diffuse.

One page is recommended for the specific aims section.

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Background and Significance

The background and significance section states the research problem including the proposed rationale, current state of knowledge and potential contributions and significance of the research to the field.

  • Critically evaluate existing knowledge, including background literature and relevant data.
  • References should reflect an updated knowledge of the field.
  • Specify existing gaps that the project is intended to fill.
  • Discussion should convey the importance and relevance of the research aims.
  • Highlight potential policy or practice impacts.
  • Highlight why research findings are important beyond the confines of the specific research project (e.g., significance; how research results can be applied).

Two to three pages is recommended for the background and significance section.

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Preliminary Studies and Progress Reports

The preliminary results section describes prior work by the investigators relevant to the proposed project. In a new application, the preliminary results are important to establish the experience and competence of the applicant to pursue the proposed research project and to provide support for the study hypotheses and research design.

In a competing renewal application, this section becomes a progress report, describing studies performed during the last grant period. The progress report should include a summary of the previous application's specific aims and importance of the findings.

  • Discuss how previous work leads to the current proposal.
  • Emphasize how the previous work demonstrates feasibility of proposed methods.
  • If you do not have the required expertise for a specific methodology, enlist a collaborator or consultant (include a letter of support or agreement—Section J of the Research Plan).
  • Accuracy and overall presentation are important in figures, tables and graphs.

Six to eight pages is recommended for the narrative portion of the preliminary studies and progress report section.

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Research Design and Methods

The purpose of the research design and methods section is to describe how the research will be carried out. This section is critical for demonstrating that the applicant has developed a clear, organized and thoughtful study design.

  • Should provide an overview of the proposed design and conceptual framework.
  • Study goals should relate to proposed study hypotheses.
  • Include details related to specific methodology; explain why the proposed methods are the best to accomplish study goals.
  • Describe any novel concepts, approaches, tools or techniques.
  • Include details of how data will be collected and results analyzed.
  • Consider required statistical techniques.
  • Include proposed work plan and timeline.
  • Consider and discuss potential limitations and alternative approaches to achieve study aims.

Do not exceed 25 pages for Items A-D, including all table and figures.

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Current as of February 2005

Internet Citation:

Essentials of the Research Plan. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.

AHRQ Advancing Excellence in Health Care