Why consult a program officer?

The written program guidelines are your primary roadmap to putting together a proposal that is responsive to an agency's needs and requirements. However, agencies and programs often have practices and conventions that never appear in the written guidance. Having a preliminary conversation with the program officer can help you determine the fit of your project for the program in question, and any particular ways of pitching your project which might strengthen its review.

Faculty often feel apprehensive about reaching out to program officers for preliminary feedback. But rest assured, interacting with potential applicants is a key component of their jobs! They do appreciate, however, being approached in ways that respect their time.

How does one consult a program officer?

Some agencies, like the National Science Foundation, have implemented formal mechanisms for running your ideas past a program officer. If this is the case for the agency you are targeting with your idea, you should follow their preferred mechanism. For example, NSF encourages you to submit your "concept outline" via their ProSPCT online system. Other agencies have no formal mechanism, in which case we suggest the following steps:

  1. Do a little initial digging: For programs of interest, read the published information available and search their databases (if available) to see what the program has funded in the past. If the program still feels like a potential fit for your project, reach out to the program officer (usually listed on the program page or staff directory). The work you have done to understand the program and what they typically fund will serve you well during the conversation.
  2. Create an abstract: This should be brief (e.g., perhaps a 1 page project description). Sending a lengthy document is NOT advised. Think of this as the basis of what you would articulate in your one-on-one conversation. Keep the language general rather than overly-technical, and focus on the significance of what the work would contribute to the field. Consider including your Biosketch/CV so the PO can get a sense of your background.
  3. Email the Program Officer: Send the abstract to the PO with an indication of how you see the work intersecting with their program interests, and asking whether the project fits with their realm of funding. End with an offer to speak by phone if it is easier. When you recieve a response, read it with an eye toward what is said, and the tone conveyed. If you see signs of encouragement, ask if you can reach out by phone to follow up on the PO's thoughts. Alternatively, the PO may indicate that it is not a good fit, but often will have suggestions for other areas of the agency that might be a better fit. All of this is productive!
  4. Phone conversation: In the phone conversation, you should plan to go over your project again briefly and try to gain insight into how closely it matches the agency's priorities, and if there is advice the PO can offer on how to frame the proposal for a successful review. You may want to ask about funding rates, typical award sizes, and whether any changes are expected to the program. The PO may also be able to give you an understanding of common reasons for rejection of proposals.
  5. Follow-up: Always send a short thank-you and look for ways to keep the lines of communication open.

Face-to-Face Meetings with Program Officers

Often opportunities arise to meeting with program officers face-to-face, and you should take advantage of them.

  • Take advantage of disciplinary meetings, which program officers often attend.
  • If you will be in the DC area, ask your PO if you could have a brief meeting to discuss your project idea.
  • Regional grants conferences of federal agencies: In addition to being a great opportunity to attend sessions that will improve your grantspersonship, may allow you to meet and get feedback.

*Guidance on this page adapted from the following document. Please visit the full document for additional information and guidance on this topic.

Can We Talk? Contacting Grant Program Officers by Robert Porter. Research Management Review, Volume 17, Issue 1 Fall/Winter, pp 10-17.