Writing a Fellowship Application

July 1, 2019


David Kosub:             Hello and welcome to another edition of NIH’s All About Grants podcast.  I’m your host, David Kosub, with the NIH’s Office of Extramural Research.  One of NIH’s top priorities is maintaining a strong, robust, and diverse biomedical research workforce.  And one of the ways we achieve this is by supporting a variety of grant opportunities for those early in their career.  One of these types is the F series of grants, or the fellowship grants.  That’s our topic for discussion today.  We have with us Dr. Shoshana Kahana.  She is a Research Training Policy Officer within the OER’s Division of the Biomedical Research Workforce, and she’s going to tell us everything we wanted to know about F awards and F applications.  Thank you for being with us.

Shoshana Kahana:    Hi.  Thanks for having me.

David Kosub:             All right, Shoshana.  Let’s start by just having you briefly tell us what exactly is an F application and F awards.

Shoshana Kahana:    Sure.  So they’re a cluster of fellowship awards named the Ruth Kirschstein National Research Service Awards that provide individual research training opportunities to trainees at the pre-doctoral or the graduate and postdoctoral level to address our nation’s biomedical research needs. 

David Kosub:             And which individuals can be supported through these F awards.

Shoshana Kahana:    So across all of the Fs, the applicant has to be a citizen of the US, or a non-citizen national of the US.  With that said, there are some differences between the F30, F31, and F32 fellowships.  So the F30 supports integrated research and clinical training of pre-doctoral students who are enrolled in MD/PhD or other dual doctoral degree programs.  The F31, on the other hand, supports promising pre-doctoral students to obtain mentored research training to conduct either dissertation research, or well-defined research projects while enrolled in a PhD, or equivalent research degree program.  Finally, the F32 supports promising postdoctoral candidates, so folks who already have their doctoral degree, to become productive independent investigators. 

David Kosub:             All right.  Well, which NIH Institutes or Centers are the ones who actually fund all these different types of F grants?

Shoshana Kahana:    So the majority do.  Usually a really simple way to see which ICs support which FOAs is to look at the components of participating organizations, which is a section on funding opportunity announcements. 

David Kosub:             All right.  So for those just getting started out, like the main people who are going to be applying for these awards, navigating NIH can be quite cumbersome or confusing at times.  How would you recommend someone get started to look for these announcements?

Shoshana Kahana:    So I think a really good place to get an idea of the type of funding opportunity announcements or FOAs and notices is to look at releases from the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts.  These are released sometimes multiple times a day, and there’s a table of contents that is released weekly.  Also, NIH posts application instructions for all training, fellowship, and career development forms and applications.  I’ve looked through them, and they’re incredibly user friendly.

David Kosub:             Would you recommend folks start getting an ERA account, a profile?

Shoshana Kahana:    Absolutely.  Folks should work with their research administrators to establish that account.  And once that account is made, make sure to complete the profile information with the most current and updated information so that NIH can determine which policies apply to you.

David Kosub:             All right.  Well, recognizing that there is some differences between particular research disciplines, do you have any best practices that folks can learn from when they’re trying to develop an application, you know, generally speaking?

Shoshana Kahana:    Sure.  So I think it’s important to review which institutes and centers have which scientific priorities and goals, because each do have different research training, fellowship, and career development programs.  So really try to identify the specific grant programs that are offered by each institute and center.  Related to that, learn about and really try to understand the NIH application review process.  Look at successful grant applications, and understand why they were successful.  And certainly, don’t be afraid to make early contact with NIH program officers.  I think another tip would be to propose your best and most creative ideas, though do be sure that they’re not overly ambitious.  As intuitive as this sounds, find innovation and well-respected mentors and collaborators, and, in many cases, it is useful and important to have more than one.  And finally, ensure that the research you’re proposing aligns with the training goals that you’re proposing in your project.  It is important to make a coherent narrative between the research you’re proposing and your training and career goals.

David Kosub:             All right.  Well, in the application, there’s references to sponsors, and I guess equivalent to like what a mentor might be.  What is their role exactly, and how do they play into the application process?  How different should the application be compared to the mentor/sponsor’s research area?

Shoshana Kahana:    Sure.  So above all else, the mentor is really someone who will make a long-term commitment to your career.  As you work with your mentor or sponsor throughout the process, he or she should really be advocating, encouraging, and providing guidance to your research, really helping you with your professional development and advancement.  A good mentor will help you to define your research and career goals and to develop a scientific network.  The best way to describe the similarity and difference between an F applicant’s proposal and a mentor’s research is that they should be related and linked, but not overlap.  Reviewers will really want to see that an applicant’s proposed research project is sufficiently distinct from the sponsor’s work.  The sponsor and applicant should really describe the roles and responsibilities that each is undertaking, including what they each uniquely contributed to the research plan, the portion of the research ideas and plan that was originated by the applicant, and also the relationship between the proposed research plan and unfunded or funded research projects that were previously led by the sponsor.

David Kosub:             All right.  Well, building out that research plan, if someone was wanting to propose something with clinical research aspects to it, what should they be considering for their application?

Shoshana Kahana:    So good question.  It’s important to state that NIH encourages fellows to receive training in clinical research, and they are permitted to propose research experiences in a clinical trial led by a sponsor or a co-sponsor.  However, NIH supported fellows are not permitted to conduct a clinical trial independently.  And the reason why that is is because a fellow or a trainee may not yet possess the skills or knowledge to independently lead a clinical trial and to navigate all of the components and complexities involved in a clinical trial.  In addition, it’s important to note that neither fellowship nor training grants include sufficient research funds to support the majority, if not all of clinical trials.  So NIH’s expectation is that the individual receiving support for the clinical trial, often the sponsor or the mentor, will assume responsibility and oversight of the trial.  The fellow can certainly participate with the sponsor in some or all of these activities as part of the training, and it’s important that both the mentor or sponsor and the applicant delineate each of their unique roles in a clinical trial. 

David Kosub:             All right.  So now, let’s say someone applied.  They navigated NIH.  They wrote their application.  They submitted it to us.  What’s going on behind the scenes?  What is NIH doing?  How are we reviewing these applications?  What are we looking for?

Shoshana Kahana:    So I would probably emphasize four things that I’ve seen assessed.  First is the high-quality academic record of the candidate and the future potential for a research career.  Second is the commitment of the primary sponsor, the co-mentors, or collaborators to the candidate’s career.  Third is the quality of the proposed research and how distinct it is from the primary sponsor’s.  And fourth is the commitment of the institution to the candidate’s success.

David Kosub:             All right.  Well, in some cases, folks may not be scored well and thus not be funded.  What advice would you have for someone if that comes down?

Shoshana Kahana:    So the first thing is not to take the review personally, as hard as that might be, and to realize that you can resubmit the application, addressing the concerns raised, or propose a brand new idea.  The opportunities are still there.  From a practical standpoint, discussing the merits of the review with your mentor or sponsor will be critical.  Perhaps one of the most important things to do would be to reach out to the program officer who was assigned your grant.  Discussing your application with him or her and whether it is consistent with the priorities and research interests of the institute and center is invaluable.

David Kosub:             All right.  Well, before we go, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave with folks who are considering applying for an F award?

Shoshana Kahana:    Give yourself enough time to commit to the process, particularly if this is your first time.  NIH also has a lot of online resources to help F applications navigate the application process.  Don’t be intimidated by reaching out to NIH for further clarification on questions you may have.  I think finally, to the extent that you can, enjoy the process.  Enjoy seeing your research proposal develop and flourish and meeting new colleagues and mentors as you prepare the application.

David Kosub:             Wonderful.  Thank you, Shoshana.  This has been a great opportunity to hear more about these F applications and F awards.  And as she referenced, there’s a lot more information that’s available online.  Just search for the NIH’s research training and career development webpages.  This has been David Kosub with NIH’s All About Grants.  Thank you.