Webinar Report: Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA) from the National Institutes of Health

In the third and final webinar in our postdoctoral fellowships series, we heard about some of the awards offered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US.

Moderator: Eve Marder, Deputy Editor, eLife.

Speakers: Henry Khachaturian, Extramural Program Policy Officer, NIH; and Sam McKenzie, a Kirschstein-NRSA postdoctoral fellow at New York University.

The NIH has several grants and fellowships that provide funding to early-career researchers. This webinar focused mainly on two fellowship awards: the Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual NRSA (F31) for applicants who are working towards a PhD, and the Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Individual NRSAs (F32) that support postdocs. In both cases, applicants must be US citizens or have permanent US residency. The fellowships are awarded three times a year, and the length of the fellowship depends on whether or not you have previously been funded by a T32 award from the NIH: see the link at the end of the report for more details.

The NIH is made up of 27 institutes and centers, 24 of which have direct funding authority, each with its own research focus. The agency also has more than 170 study sections that assess applications for grants and fellowships. To increase your chances of success, it is important to direct your application to the most appropriate institute and study section: Henry Khachaturian recommends contacting a Program Officer at the NIH for advice. You can then include these recommendations in a cover letter with your application, which will usually be assigned to the institute and study section you have requested.

Preliminary data should be provided with the application that shows the project’s feasibility, but this does not have to have been collected by the applicant. The project being proposed should provide substantial opportunities for learning new skills and techniques. It is also important to ensure that the project is intellectually ambitious, but not so ambitious that it cannot be performed in the length of time funding is provided for. Eve Marder recommends working out how long each experiment would take to do if everything goes well: “You lose credibility if you say you’re going to do what would take a careful person 20 years to do”.

Successful applicants also need to be mentored by an outstanding researcher. If you want to work with a researcher who is at the top of their field but lacks mentoring experience, Khachaturian recommends adding a more senior faculty member with such experience to your mentoring team. Khachaturian also emphasizes the importance of choosing a mentor who is well funded as the fellowships only cover a subsistence allowance, tuition fees and a few other expenses. Applications need to make clear how the applicant plans to cover their research costs.

As with all funding applications, you should start preparing early – Khachaturian suggests starting at least three months before the deadline. Sam McKenzie, who was recently awarded an F32, spent two weeks working solely on his application. When to submit an application is also an important judgment call. Marder suggests that if the project you’ll be working on is in a very different area to your past experience, working in the lab for six months first can make it easier to write an authoritative proposal. McKenzie found it helpful to get feedback on his ideas from people working in the lab he wanted to join. McKenzie also recommends getting hold of previous successful applications by asking your mentor or any of your peers who have been successful.

Marder believes that applying for an NRSA fellowship is a good learning experience because the application process is similar in many ways to applying for an NIH research grant: “I think it’s very important that people who want to stay in academic science start learning … how to deal with this sort of grant application as early as possible, so they can make the transition to being a successful independent scientist as quickly and as successfully as possible”.

Further information:


Watch the other webinars in our postdoctoral fellowship series: www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLOAy5WJPezEhC89zQxVvStRTjKCgT-I0C