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Reference Letters

Alert: For due dates on or after January 25, 2025, NIH is updating the instructions for reference letters to better assist reviewers in understanding the candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and potential. Learn more about upcoming changes.

Some types of programs, such as fellowships and some career development awards, require the submission of reference letters by the referee. Referees must submit these letters by the application deadline in order to be considered with the application. Applications that have fewer than the required numbers of reference letters will not be reviewed. 

Each funding opportunity will indicate whether Reference Letters are required.

A reference letter is not the same as a letter of support. See Reference Letters vs. Letters of Support: What’s the Difference?

Selecting a Referee

  • At least three, but no more than five, reference letters are required unless otherwise specified in the funding opportunity.
  • The letters should be from individuals not directly involved in the application, but who are familiar with the fellow/candidate's qualifications, training, and interests. Note that for postdoctoral grant applications that require submission of reference letters, a letter from the fellow/candidate's predoctoral thesis advisor is not required.
  • The sponsor/co-sponsor(s) of the application cannot be counted toward the three required references.
  • Resubmission applications do not need to use the same list of referees but do require new reference letters from all referees chosen.
  • Make sure you include a list of referees (including name, departmental affiliation, and institution) in the cover letter of the application so NIH staff is aware of planned reference letter submissions. 

Instructions to Provide to Referees

Fellows/candidates should provide their referees with the appropriate instructions. Remember to include your name as it is shown in your Commons account, your eRA Commons username, and the number of the funding opportunity (e.g., PA-21-048) to which you are applying.

Referees must submit letters directly to the eRA Commons at: Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer

Reference Letter Submission Process

  • Referees must submit reference letters through the eRA Commons Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer by the application due date.
    Note: Referees DO NOT need need to login to eRA Commons to submit their letters.
  • Referees must provide the following information with their reference letter:
    • PI’s (fellow/candidate’s) eRA Commons username.
    • PI’s first and last name as they appear on the PI’s eRA Commons account.
    • Number of the funding opportunity (e.g., PA-21-048) to which you are applying.
  • Referees and the fellow/candidate receive confirmation emails from eRA Commons upon reference letter submission.
    • The confirmation sent to a referee includes the mentee and applicant’s names, a confirmation number, and the date the letter was submitted.
    • The confirmation sent to a fellow/candidate includes the referee’s name and the date the letter was submitted.
  • The eRA Commons links the reference letter up with the application based on eRA Commons username and funding opportunity number.
  • The fellow/candidate is responsible for reviewing the status of submitted reference letters and contacting referees to ensure that letters are submitted by the due date.
    • The fellow/candidate may check the status of submitted letters by logging into their Commons account and accessing the “check status” screen for this application.
    • While the fellow/candidate is able to check on the status of the submitted letters, the letters are confidential and the fellow/candidate will not have access to the letters themselves.
  • Contact the eRA Service Desk Link to Non-U.S. Government Site - Click for Disclaimer if you need assistance submitting your reference letter.