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How to Write a Clear, Compelling Specific Aims Page

By: Emily Ortman, PhRMA Foundation Head of Communications November 3, 2023

The specific aims page is the foundation of your grant application. Learn how to create strong research aims.

You have an idea for a research study. Now how do you take your idea and turn it into a grant proposal? Start by developing your specific aims page, a standalone, one-page document that succinctly conveys your research idea.

David Veenstra, PharmD, PhD

In a recent PhRMA Foundation webinar, David L. Veenstra, PharmD, PhD, professor in the Comparative Health Outcomes, Policy & Economics (CHOICE) Institute at the University of Washington, provided his advice on crafting specific aims based his experience writing and reviewing grants, including as PhRMA Foundation reviewer.

“That specific aims page is the single most important page in your proposal,” he said. “It is THE thing that reviewers will read.”

The specific aims page is a tool to help you organize your thinking. “A lot of people think they know what they want to work on or what the problem is, but until you start writing it down, only then does it become more clear to yourself,” Veenstra said.

Do not hesitate to start your aims page, even if your ideas are not fully formed. “I see people, especially early in their careers, who are afraid to start writing down their ideas,” he said. “Maybe you don’t know exactly what your idea is, and that’s OK. Just start writing stuff down — it’s a good way to get rolling.”

Your research questions and aims will likely evolve substantially as you share your aims page with your collaborators and mentors. “Aims come and go,” Veenstra said. “You might change the number of aims. You might completely throw some of them away and add new ones. That’s totally fine.”

While there is no one right way to create a specific aims page, Veenstra said he typically recommends the following structure:

  • What is the problem? (paragraph 1)
    • Get to the point — less background information, more focus on the problem.
  • What is your general approach to tackle this problem? (paragraph 2)
    • Explain why your methods are the right approach, but not in too much detail.
  • Who are you? (paragraph 3)
    • Keep it brief — one or two sentences.
  • What is your overall goal? (paragraph 3)
    • Pull back and look at the big picture before transitioning into your aims.
  • What do you hope to learn? (Aims)
    • What’s some of the best advice Veenstra ever got? “Don’t tell me what you are going to do, tell me what you want to learn. Those should be your aims.”
  • How will you do this? (Aims details)
    • Describe your methods for achieving your aims.
  • What are your hypotheses? (Aims details)
    • Orient the reviewer to what you are trying to accomplish.
  • How would your results be used? (summary paragraph)
    • Sell your proposal by highlighting the implications of your research.

Your aims can and should build on one another. However, if your aims are reliant on one another, you must make sure you explain what you plan to do if one of your aims fails, Veenstra said. “The fatal flaw in some proposals is that if Aim 1 fails, you cannot do Aim 2.”

Make reading and understanding your proposal as easy as possible for reviewers. Your aims page should be well organized with good use of white space, bold, and underline.

Be concise and do not include a single word that is not needed so that you stay within the one-page limit. “I’m a stickler for this in particular and a lot of people I work with are too,” he stressed. “Don’t waste words or you’re wasting the reviewers’ time.”

Watch the complete webinar.

Additional Resources