Guide for Student Researchers and Scholars

Welcome to the Sponsored Projects Office or “SPO” as it is better known on campus. SPO is one of the two offices on campus authorized by the University to review, approve and submit proposals to external sponsors and to negotiate the terms and conditions of any awards that result. SPO focuses on government and non-profit sponsors. This includes federal, state and local government sponsors as well as private foundations. For assistance with for-profit or industry sponsors, you will need to contact the Industry Alliances Office (IAO).

What You Need to Know Before You Start

The first thing you should know is that although there are sponsors that provide funding directly to students, you should NEVER submit a proposal that will result in an award to the University without University approval.

Second, students cannot serve as the Principal Investigator (PI) or Project Director (PD) of a sponsored project awarded to the University. You must find someone on campus with “PI status” to serve as the person responsible for carrying out the project if the proposal is funded. The University of California Contract and Grant Manual provides guidance on the types of personnel that can satisfy this requirement.

After finding someone to serve as the PI or PD of the project, you should consult with this individual to determine the answers to the following questions:
  • Should you submit a proposal directly to the sponsor or does the proposal have to be submitted through the University?
    • In most cases the proposal should be submitted to the sponsor by either SPO or IAO, depending on the type of sponsor. Even when an individual will receive direct payments from the sponsor, there may be requirements imposed on the University by the sponsor at the proposal and/or award stages that will require SPO/IAO review. Always contact SPO/IAO to discuss the sponsor’s program and proposal submission requirements before submitting a proposal.
  • Is the University eligible to apply for the sponsor’s funding?
    • Some sponsors have specific eligibility criteria and only fund proposals submitted by specific types of organizations. Sometimes there also are special criteria for the type of person that can serve as the Principal Investigator (PI) or Project Director (PD) of the funded project. (Citizenship restrictions are typically not allowed except under certain rare circumstances—check with SPO for more guidance.)
  • Will this particular sponsor be interested in funding your fellowship/project.?
    • Most sponsors clearly state what their funds can be used for and how much funding will be provided. Does what you are planning to do match what the sponsor wants to fund? Will the funding be enough to support what you want to do?
  • Do you have enough time?
    • Most sponsors have submission deadlines that must be met or the proposal will not be reviewed. When a proposal is submitted through the University sufficient time also must be set aside for the proposal to be reviewed and approved internally before submission. SPO requires the proposal to be submitted for review at least four working days before the proposal deadline. Your department/unit will require time to review and approve the proposal as well.
  • Do you need to register to apply to this sponsor?
    • If you plan to submit a proposal to the the National Institutes of Health (NIH) you will need to register to use the NIH eRA Commons. See the SPO directions for obtaining an eRA Commons ID with SPO assistance.
    • If you plan to submit a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF), you can register yourself with NSF.
    • Other sponsors may have different registration requirements.

After you have addressed the above questions, you will need to prepare and submit your proposal to SPO for review and approval/submission. If the proposal is funded, you will need to understand how the award process works. The following section gives a general overview of these two processes.

Proposal Development: Where to Get Help

Step 1: The Berkeley Regional Services (BRS) or Department Research Administrator (RA) that works with your academic department or research unit is the first person you should contact. The BRS/Department RA should assist you to develop your proposal according to the sponsor’s guidelines, complete any required forms, prepare the project budget, and upload the proposal into Phoebe, the campus’ electronic proposal routing and approval system. If you do not know who this is, please search Phoebe Search by the name of your mentor and contact the associated Research Administrator listed.

Proposal Review/Approval/Submission: SPO’s Role

Step 2: After your proposal has been uploaded by the BRS/Department RA into Phoebe, the person who is listed as the Principal Investigator (PI) or Project Director (PD) on the proposal will be asked to approve the proposal in Phoebe. Usually the University requires a faculty member or someone with “Exceptional PI” status to serve as PI/PD. However, some sponsors require that the student applicant be listed as the PI/PD in the proposal. If this is the case you will need to approve the proposal in Phoebe.

Step 3: Once the PI/PD approval is obtained, the proposal will be routed for approval to the Chair, Dean, or Director of the department or unit that will administer the project if it is funded. The proposal then will be transmitted within Phoebe to SPO for review and approval. Note: Late proposals (submitted less than four days before the sponsor’s deadline) will require Vice Chancellor for Research (VCR) approval prior to SPO review.

Step 4: After your proposal has been received via Phoebe, SPO will conduct a high level review of your proposal to make sure the sponsor’s requirements have been met and that the proposal is in compliance with University policy. Typically sponsors have guidelines that must be followed exactly or the proposal will be rejected and not reviewed. SPO checks first to see of the proposal is complete, i.e., contains all of the proposal elements required by the sponsor. If the proposal is not complete, it will be returned to you and the BRS/Department RA without review. You then will need to complete the proposal and resubmit through Phoebe.

SPO also makes sure that nothing is promised in the proposal that the University cannot deliver if funded and ensures that the project costs in the budget are allowable. SPO also makes sure that the Facilities and Administration (F&A) and fringe benefit rates used are appropriate. See the following explanation:

  • F&A refers to what it costs the University to house and administer a sponsored project. See the FAQs below for more explanation on F&A. See What are F&A Costs? for a comprehensive explanation.
  • The term “fringe benefits” refers to what a University employee receives from the University in addition to regular pay. The types of fringe benefits provided depend on the type and status of the employee. When a sponsored project pays for an employee’s salary, a percentage of that salary (based on the type of employee) is charged to the sponsor for the associated fringe benefits. See Salary and Benefits for more information on how the University charges external sponsors for fringe benefits.

Step 5: SPO will notify you if the F&A or fringe benefit rates have been misapplied or miscalculated or if any of your project costs are unallowable based on sponsor policy. However, if the budget prepared by the BRS/Department RA underestimates or overestimates your project costs in the proposal budget, SPO is not responsible for identifying or correcting these errors.

Step 6: After SPO has reviewed and approved the proposal, the proposal will be submitted to the sponsor by SPO. In rare cases the Department/Unit may be allowed to submit the proposal to the sponsor independently but only after SPO has given approval. If the proposal is being submitted electronically through a dedicated portal provided by the sponsor, the BRS/Department and SPO will need to work together to ensure the proposal is submitted without error. Student applicants should monitor this process and be prepared to work with the BRS/Department RA to make any proposal corrections that are requested by SPO.

The Award Process

If the proposal is funded (the sponsor’s review process can often be lengthy), an award document will be issued by the sponsor to SPO. Awards may take the form of a fellowship, grant, contract, or cooperative agreement, depending on the type of activity being funded and the needs of the sponsor. The award will be made to the University. Note: Should the award document be sent directly to the student, the student should provide the award to SPO as soon as possible. Failure to do this will delay the setup of your award.

After the award is received, SPO will negotiate the terms and conditions with the sponsor’s representative. If the sponsor’s terms conflict with University policy, the negotiation process can be lengthy. Although this can be frustrating, it is necessary to ensure that the University does not agree to any terms that undermine the University’s free and open academic environment or restrict the PI’s and/or the student’s right to publish, develop and license intellectual property, and/or choose personnel to work on the project without citizenship restrictions.

After negotiations conclude, SPO will sign and accept the award on behalf of the University. The award will then be transmitted to the Contracts and Grants Accounting (CGA) Office. This transmittal process takes 24 hours once the award is in the system. During this 24-hour period, a “restricted fund” will be automatically set up in the University’s financial system. This fund will allow the PI/PD to begin spending project funds as soon as the BRS/Department RA provides CGA with a final and approved project budget. Note: Because the fund is restricted, the funding can only be spent on the sponsor’s project.

“Post-Award” Phase

Responsibility for managing the project according to the terms and conditions agreed upon by SPO and the sponsor falls on the PI/PD. The BRS/Department RA is responsible for helping the PI/PD manage the project funds and works with the Contracts and Grants Accounting (CGA) Office to submit financial reports and invoices to the sponsor.

SPO’s role at the “post-award” stage is to interact with the sponsor to obtain the sponsor’s prior approval for changes in the project’s scope of work, personnel effort, and/or budget if such prior approvals are part of the award’s terms and conditions. SPO also should be contacted if the PI/PD wants to ask the sponsor for more time and/or funding for the project or if the PI/PD wants to give some of the funds received to another organization in the form of a subaward. Note: The PI/PD must request a subaward be established even if a subrecipient was listed by name in the funded proposal. See Subaward Process at Berkeley for guidance.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is the definition of a “sponsored project” and how does it differ from a “grant”?
    • “Sponsored projects” are short term activities (typically lasting one to five years) related to research, instruction, training, service, or other scholarly activities that fit the University’s mission and are all or partially funded by an outside organization known as a “sponsor.” People sometimes use the term “grant” as a generic term for a variety of different award mechanisms used to fund sponsored projects. These award mechanisms include: fellowships, contracts, and cooperative agreements. Each of these award types has different requirements.
  1. How do I find the right sponsor?
    • Sponsors only fund proposals for sponsored projects that relate to their interests or mission/s. There are formal and informal ways to identify sponsors that might be interested in your sponsored project. See Funding for a link to Pivot, an external funding search engine, as well as guidance and other information such as Finding External Funding. Pivot is a subscription service paid for by the University that can help you identify and narrow down your funding options. When searching, pay particular attention to the eligibility criteria for a particular funding program. Also look at the level of funding that will be provided if your proposal is successful.
  1. How can I learn how to write a competitive proposal?
    • There are many books and websites that give guidance on how to write a successful proposal. Proposal Writing Resources has a few to consider. However, the best advice for writing a successful proposal is to READ THE APPLICATION GUIDELINES provided by the sponsor. Every sponsor had rules about what they will and will not fund and the way the proposal should be organized. Have a good idea that matches the sponsor’s priorities, follow the sponsor’s rules, and your proposal will be competitive. Students should also tap the knowledge and experience of their advisor/s when preparing a proposal. Sometimes what is written in the sponsor’s guidelines is not the whole story. Someone with experience writing and reviewing proposals for a particular sponsor can provide invaluable insight into the workings of the sponsor’s decision making process.
  1. Why does SPO have to review/approve my proposal before it is submitted?
    • The sponsor will award the funding to “The Regents of the University of California,” and the University will be responsible for managing the project and the funding according to the sponsor’s requirements. Therefore, the University wants to ensure that all proposals submitted and all awards received are acceptable. SPO makes sure that whatever is included in a proposal can be honored if the proposal is funded. SPO also makes sure that whatever award terms and conditions the sponsor imposes on the University can be carried out without violating University policy.
  1. Who is my SPO contact?
    • Remember, the first person you should contact for assistance with a problem or question is your BRS/Department RA. If you need to contact SPO, and you are unsure which SPO Contract and Grant Officer (CGO) is assigned to your department/unit, go to the SPO Staff List (on the SPO website top menu, click “About SPO” then click “Contact Us - Staff List”). Type the name of your department/unit into the search box just above the chart. This will generate the name of one or more CGOs assigned to your department/unit. The recommended way to contact a SPO CGO is by email.
  1. What happens after my proposal is submitted?
    • After the proposal is submitted, the sponsor will decide which proposals to fund. This can be a very competitive process, and the sponsor can take up to six months to make a decision. Not every proposal is funded the first time, and some proposals are never funded even after the proposal has been revised and resubmitted. That is why it is important for a student who will only be on campus a short time to plan ahead and have other funding options in mind.
  1. Who decides how much F&A to charge?
    • UC Berkeley negotiates its Facilities and Administration (F&A) rates (as well as its fringe benefit rates) with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). F&A rates are typically negotiated to cover a period of several years and are specified in an F&A rate agreement with DHHS. Fringe benefit rates are negotiated on a year by year basis. Once these rates are negotiated and approved, the University can charge external sponsors for its F&A and fringe benefit costs, unless the sponsor prohibits or only partially pays for such charges. See Facilities and Administrative (Indirect Cost) Rates for more information on F&A rates.
  1. What are subawards/subcontracts?
    • When an organization receives an award to support a sponsored project directly from a sponsor and wishes to transfer a portion of the funds received to another organization so that organization can carry out a portion of the scope of work, this type of transaction is termed a “subagreement.” Note: when sponsored project funds are transferred from one UC campus to another, the award mechanism used is a Multi-Campus Award (MCA). SPO processes incoming subagreements from other organizations and issues outgoing subagreements to other organizations.
  1. What can I do if I know that my award is pending, but the paperwork has not arrived yet?
    • The solution to this problem may be a “fund advance.” A fund advance allows the PI/PD to begin charging project costs to a University fund prior to the receipt of the award. See Fund Advance Request for guidelines and restrictions for obtaining a fund advance.
  1. Why is it taking SPO so long to set up my award?
    • Because students will only be at the University a relatively short time, the common delays associated with setting up an award can be very frustrating. Unfortunately, the transfer of funding from one organization to another requires more than a handshake. The needs of both the sponsor and the University must be taken into consideration. When the sponsor requires terms and/or conditions in the award agreement that the University cannot agree to because it violates University policy, California State Law, or what is in the long term best interest of the University project personnel involved, SPO tries to negotiate out the problematic terms. The back and forth to explain the University position and come up with a compromise that satisfies both parties can take time. (See the FAQ above on fund advances as a possible solution to award set up delays.)


The Sponsored Projects Office is not the first office you should consult about preparing a proposal to an external sponsor. Always begin by consulting with your advisor and obtaining help with proposal development from the BRS/Department RA supporting your department/unit. The BRS/Department RA will help you develop your proposal. SPO then will work with your BRS/Department RA to ensure that your proposal meets sponsor and University requirements prior to proposal submission. Remember never submit a proposal directly to a sponsor if the awarded funds will be managed by the University unless you receive prior SPO approval.

This guidance is not designed to be all inclusive. If you have a question related to sponsored projects, your first move should be to contact your BRS/Department RA. You also can use the SPO website to find information on many other topics related to sponsored projects. If you are unsure where to find the information you need, enter a search term in the box in the upper right corner and click the magnifying glass.