Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda Maryland, this is All About Grants.
Megan Columbus: Welcome to another edition of All About Grants. My name is Megan Columbus, from NIH’s Office of Extramural Research. Today, I’m pleased to be able to respond to a request from a listener for a discussion on writing a fellowship application. I have with me Dr. Henry Khachaturian, who is an extramural program policy officer within NIH’s Office of Extramural Research. Let’s dive right in and talk about how a fellowship application differs from a regular research grant.
Henry: So at a fundamental level, as we all know, a research grant is focused on what is being proposed to do in the laboratory at the bench, whereas a training program, like a fellowship, is really for more than just the research component of it. So there are multiple components to a fellowship that is not part of a regular research grant, and those are the applicant himself or herself, the mentor, the institutional environment, the training plan or the career development plan, as the case may be.
Megan: How does that translate when we look at the review criteria?
Henry: So in looking at the research grant review criteria we have things like significance, innovation, investigator, approach, and environment. How a fellowship is different is that the fellowship review criteria are the fellowship applicant, the sponsor, collaborators and any consultants, the research training plan, the training potential, and institutional environment and commitment. So what they have in common is that research plan. So research is important for a research grant as well as a fellowship, but there are multiple other things that are important as well for fellowships, to keep in mind.
Megan: Henry, as we’re thinking about writing a fellowship application, are there any differences between the pre-doctoral and the post-doctoral application that we should keep in mind?
Henry: So the fundamental difference between the two is that the pre-doctoral fellowship is much more of a training or learning experience than the post-doctoral fellowship. So let me explain that. At the pre-doctoral level a fellow may have some research experience or actually no research experience, so they’re coming into it fairly novice. So there has to be a plan proposed that is fit to that person’s level of research experience. And reviewers are certainly not expecting a very sophisticated research plan. On the post-doctoral level, it’s much more of a training experience to work towards independence. So at the post-doc level we’re trying to develop a scientist, so we expect much more of a sophisticated research plan compared to the pre-doc.
Megan: I think that takes us to what the applicant should be trying to highlight about themselves as they’re writing this part of the application.
Henry: So whether it’s a pre-doc or a post-doc, obviously one of the most important components of it is the fellow himself or herself. So it is not going to be easy for the reviewers to be able to do guess work in terms of what this person’s strengths and weaknesses are, and why this person should be getting a fellowship. So the onus is really on the fellow, with their mentor’s help, to talk about this on paper, so to speak. We know that applications are now electronic, but they need to put it on paper where they’re coming from, what their level of research experience is, how they’re doing academically, what their particular strengths are, what their weaknesses are that they might be wanting to take special courses or other kinds of activities to bolster those weaknesses, and how they want their reviewers to see them as, you know, their passion for doing research, so their potential for becoming a researcher. All of those things are important components that they need to think about. I know, as scientists, we often don’t want to brag about ourselves, but you really need to kind of put that shyness aside and talk about what your strengths are and even what your weaknesses are, and why should NIH fund you through a fellowship.
Megan: There are space limitations in those applications so you need to be able to say it and do it succinctly and with a good punch.
Henry: Right, exactly, your mentor will be able to help you stay to the point and convey the message that you want to convey to the reviewers, and that is, what is the added value of this fellowship to me and my career development at this stage.
Megan: What do you suggest we include in the areas of sponsors, collaborators, consultants, those types of roles?
Henry: So that’s also another important part of the review criteria: sponsors, collaborators and consultants. So what is important particularly for the sponsors is that they are well respected scientists in the field and also critically important is that they be funded. So the fellowship itself provides stipends and very little money for other kinds of things like insurance and a few other things. It does not provide substantial amount of money for research, so you have to be in a laboratory with a sponsor that is well funded, and also the sponsor needs to show that they have actually had lots of experience in training other pre-docs, post-docs, watched them become independent, so they’ve gone through the process before. So this is not the place for picking a novice sponsor. Now it is true that some beginning investigators at the assistant professor level might make wonderful mentors and wonderful sponsors; however, they may not have the funding or the experience for training. This is where we recommend that they have a co-mentor or a mentoring team with more experienced mentors on the team to balance the research prowess of the primary mentor.
Megan: Do you have suggestions for folks that may not be at institutions that have a lot of NIH funding? What does this mean for them?
Henry: What they really need to do if there’s not a lot of NIH funding at that institute but they’re otherwise good mentors and there’s a good institutional environment, there is laboratory space to do the work, perhaps they can collaborate with somebody at a more research-intensive institution. In the past, it could be across the street, but nowadays it could be literally across the country with all the communication tools that we have. So it is possible to actually collaborate across the miles, across cities, across states and have those kinds of arrangements that could actually work. Yes, it’s a more difficult challenge to make that work, but it is possible, and the reviewers will be looking to how you actually explain how this will work.
Megan: And folks could find NIH-funded investigators across the country or locally. I guess the best way for them to do it would be for them to look at NIH’s RePORT tool at report.nih.gov, because they could then do a search for their area of interest and find who’s funded.
Henry: Precisely, yes.
Megan: What about the difference between the training plan and the training potential criteria?
Henry: So they’re not unrelated. They’re two different categories. In the training plan what we want to know is, is the research of high scientific quality, does the investigator have the ability to conduct this research, is it at the level that’s commensurate with the level of experience of the trainee himself or herself, or is it too much or too little. So for example in the research plan you need to try to explain if you’re working on your mentor’s R01 grant, let’s say specific aim 2, the reviewers would want to know how much of it is yours and how much of it is your mentor’s, so you need to carefully delineate between what your mentor is doing in his or her lab and what you will be doing under that research training plan. On the research training potential, the relationship is whether, again, if the research plan is suited to your level of career development and also how is this research going to help you advance your career. So you are at a certain stage in your research experience now. If you engage in this research at the end of it, will you be a little bit more advanced in terms of working towards independence?
Megan: So now let’s turn to institutional environment and commitment to training. What’s the expectation for this section?
Henry: So the expectation there is that you’re at an institution that actually values training. Obviously, this is an easier task for research-intensive institutions because they have lots of faculty and lots of trainees, both pre-doc and post-doc. It may be a little bit more of a challenge for institutions that don’t have a lot of NIH money, but it’s not an impossible task. What needs to be shown there is that the institution is interested in training students and graduate students and post-docs, as the case may be whether it’s a pre-doc or post-doc fellowship, but they also have the faculty that can serve as mentors and collaborators and consultants. They have the laboratory space, they have the equipment, they have the supplies and they have the funding. And they have a track record of developing investigators that will go on to independent careers. As I said, this can be a challenge, but again, it can be overcome by collaborating with investigators at a more research-intensive institution, so to speak.
Megan: And so if I’m an investigator at less research-intensive institution should I call the NIH program official if I’m concerned about my environment and the support, to see how I can shore that up?
Henry: Yes, that’s definitely a very good strategy and something that we can talk about further in terms of what kinds of things you need to think about when you’re writing one of these things. I think one of the very first things that should come to your mind is contacting somebody at NIH, a program officer, to discuss both your research and your training plan to see whether your research fits within the mission of that particular institute, or get some guidance to go to another institute. And also whether you have a training plan that actually makes sense to that individual, and they can guide you whether your research plan and your training plan are not meshing together very well.
Megan: So now let’s turn to the nitty gritty of, I’m sitting down to actually write my application. What are the most important considerations I should be keeping in mind?
Henry: So there’s a number of things that you need to keep in mind as a strategy when you start writing an application. The first and foremost is before even you start writing, putting pen to the paper, so to speak, what you want to do is you want to assess your own career situation in terms of find out what opportunities there are for you for collaborations, what are, as we talked about before, what are your particular strengths and weaknesses, and what is it that you need to learn from this experience, and what is the added value if you get a fellowship, as opposed to let’s say if you don’t get a fellowship and continue doing research under your mentor’s R01 grant.
Megan: And should you be explicit about what I want to learn from this experience in the application?
Henry: Most definitely because your reviewers are going to look at that in terms of the added value, so why not continue doing wonderful training under your mentor’s R01 grant? How is this fellowship going to make a difference in your career so that’s what you need to keep in mind. We talked about assessing yourself and thinking about the added value. The very next thing you do, and we talked about this, is really understanding the NIH. Calling a program officer at the NIH, and the names of those program officers are at the specific funding opportunity announcements. So you need to look at funding opportunity announcements carefully and read them and then go to the contact section and pick up the phone or do an email and get in contact with somebody so you can have some dialog. It is always advisable particularly when you’re emailing a program officer is to tell them a little bit about yourself rather than just send an email and say I would like to talk to you. Tell them a little bit about where you are, what you want to accomplish, and what your research plan is. I don’t suggest that you send them a long treatise about what you want to do or even have an attachment. I would suggest keeping it to 1 or 2 short paragraphs so they’ll actually get to it, as opposed to skipping over it and going to the next email.
Megan: I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they’re actually concerned about calling NIH. That somehow their naiveté about the organization and about how this works might count against them. Could you speak to that?
Henry: I can say that that’s absolutely not true. You really need to get over this intimidation factor and pick up the phone and call or preferably nowadays, at least introduce yourself through an email and ask if you can continue, you can follow up with them with a phone conversation. We’re here to help you. That is our job, and most of us really like to interact with people. We go to regional seminars, we go to scientific meetings and we go to booths for the very purpose of interacting with students and post-docs. We’re very open to those kinds of things. It is true that we’re very busy, so you may have to start with an email, and you may even have to remind us maybe the next Monday again through an email, but don’t think that you’re bothering us because we actually do appreciate the reminder.
Megan: So be tenacious?
Henry: Yeah, be tenacious. And frankly if you get a program officer that is not being let’s say for a lack of a better phrase, very helpful, you can always call somebody else and contact somebody else. You can even ask them politely if there’s another person that’s more, that I should speak with that is more appropriate to my research area. Yeah, be tenacious, and try to get hold of us.
Megan: So let’s get back to some of the considerations about actually writing. How long should I give myself to write the application?
Henry: So a good rule of thumb for any application, but particularly when we’re talking about fellowships is about three months. Earlier is better. You definitely don’t want to wait until the last month, because don’t forget, that while you’re writing your application your institution actually has to administrate and submit that application, so they will often require one or two weeks before the application deadline, so be cognizant of that. So continuing in that vein, what you want to do initially is to sit down with your mentor and plan how you’re going to manage writing this application so you want to give your mentor enough time; you work with his or her schedule. You want to work with the schedule of your referees, any collaborators and consultants, so you want to give everybody a heads-up well ahead of time so that you don’t end up going to them at the last minute asking for a letter of recommendation or a letter of collaboration or consultation. So those are all good rules and it saves you a lot of headache later on by sitting down and planning very early on. In terms of actually sitting down and writing, one of the very first things you need to do is think about so what is the hypothesis that you want to propose. At this stage of your career, particularly for a fellowship, you’re not going to go on a fishing expedition, so to speak. You’re not going to be looking for problems by making some observations. You have to have a solid scientific hypothesis, and reviewers are going to be looking for that, so in other words, what are you learning, what are you trying to accomplish through this research? So you want to start by developing a hypothesis, perhaps several hypotheses and then choosing the best one, and then honing it down into does this hypothesis actually make good sense, can I develop specific aims based on this hypothesis, and then can I base my experiments to either prove or disprove the hypothesis? So that’s the way you really need to start your application. Another important thing to keep in mind when you’re writing a fellowship or a career development award, or anybody who is not as sophisticated a researcher as someone who writes an R01 grant, is you don’t want to propose too much. Often young investigators think about all the ideas that they have, and they obviously are eager to put all of those things on paper and show that they know all this stuff. What you have to keep in mind is that these fellowships are limited in duration, for pre-doctoral fellowship the eligibility duration is for 5 years. For a post-doc , it’s for 3 years. In reality, most fellowships are for two or three years, no longer. So you need to be thinking about how much you’re proposing and can you actually accomplish all of those specific aims in the allotted time. So it’s very unlike an R01 grant when you’re writing a fellowship in terms of being reasonable in what you’re proposing and can you accomplish your objectives. The other obvious kinds of things that bear mentioning are things like writing a highly organized application, using charts and graphs and walking the reviewers through your application so that they understand what is it that you’re trying to tell them.
Megan: That clear communication I think is going to be really key.
Henry: It is very important. So you don’t want to fill your application with lots of jargon and, you know, using every last line and every last corner of your application with words and jargon. That is not going to be as impressive a very organized, maybe chart-driven or graph-driven and well highlighted with good headers and some white space so that reviewers really can be walked through the process, rather than having to decipher what you’re trying to say in a densely written application.
Megan: I think that goes for any kind of NIH application.
Henry: Yes, definitely. But it is very important for a beginning investigator, particularly fellows, to pay attention to this because this is their introduction to NIH, so they really need to put their best foot forward and impress the reviewers that they know all these things. So in terms of the actual writing you want to balance technical and non-technical, things like abstracts should be fairly non-technical. You can get into the more technical stuff when you’re describing your experimental approach. Keeping in mind that many of the scientists that are sitting around a review table are going to be looking at your abstract first, and they may not have the depth of expertise that you and your mentor have, so you need to convey to them a sense of what you’re trying to do without using a lot of technical jargon.
Megan: And the abstract will, if you’re funded, end up being a public record that people can look at whether or not they’re scientists.
Henry: Right. That’s also true. So as soon as your application is funded that’s going to be a public record and people who come to NIH, like yourself, to see what is being funded, they’re going to see your abstract, and they’re going to know that you’re being funded through NIH. The components of application that you need to really be paying a lot of attention to are these: first and foremost, the candidate’s qualifications, career goals, training plans, there has to be a statement by each mentor, collaborator, and consultant. My suggestion is that, as an applicant, you should make it a point of looking at those and making sure that what they’re saying, what your mentors are saying, it actually jibes with what you’re actually putting down in your own statement and in your own application. The worst thing for a reviewer is to pick up those two pieces of write-ups and see that there’s really not much of a correlation. You’ve done your thing, your mentor has done his or her thing and you really don’t seem like you’ve actually communicated with each other.
Megan: So you want to show that tight relationship, even within your application.
Henry: Even within the application. Reviewers are not going to make an assumption that you have a good rapport with your mentor. They want to, again, see it on paper, so to speak. You want to pay attention to institutional environment and commitment. Again, if your department chair is writing that commitment statement, you actually want to read it. Don’t forget this is your application. The information that is being put in the application, your name is on it so you want to make sure that you’re aware of all the components of it. Then, last but not least, the specific aims and the research strategy, you obviously need to pay particular attention because at the end of the day everything being equal, your research has to carry the day.
Megan: So now that you’ve helped us write an extremely tight, solid application, it’s been submitted, it’s gone through review, and I receive back my summary statement, which is the reviewers’ comments. What is the overall impact merit mean for the summary statement in the context of a fellowship application?
Henry: So, to put it simply, overall impact for a fellowship means the likelihood that the fellowship will enhance your potential and commitment for a productive, independent research career. Now I know that’s a lot, but that’s what the reviewers are looking for. There are some differences between, as we talked about, the pre-doc versus post-doc. The potential to become an independent scientist is not as apparent at the pre-doc level. What the reviewers are looking for is the impact on your career and your potential to develop into a scientist. At the post-doc level, they really are going to be looking at the impact of this fellowship and your potential to develop into an independent researcher. So that’s a fairly tall order, and you need to keep that in mind because reviewers are going to be looking for that in their overall impact score.
Megan: Thank you so much for joining us Dr. Khachaturian. For NIH and OER, this is Megan Columbus.
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