What the F? Advice for fellowship applicants from reviewers. Part 1
To craft the strongest fellowship application, know what review criteria are in place. A good place to start is Section V. Application Review Information of the program announcement for the technical definition of the review criteria. However, another great source of insight is to ask advice from faculty at your institution who sit on study sections for fellowships . I chatted with a dozen faculty on this topic from my institution and compiled their advice in a three part series. Below is Part 1. Also check out Part 2 on training and research plans and Part 3 on the mentor’s role, letters, and interacting with the PO.
Submit Early in Career
These awards are training grants. Their purpose is to support your training. As such, it is better to apply early rather than wait until your third or fourth year. By then you’ve (hopefully) already collected data so why do you need this training?
- Reviewers usually want to see that pre-docs have passed their qualifying exams. Postdocs need to submit within their first year.
- Sufficient time should be available to complete the aims. You can’t be too junior (not competitive) or too senior (not enough time left to warrant support).
Give Yourself Enough Time to Write and Receive Feedback
- Successful grants require good ideas, good grantsmanship, and good luck. Start early and have your mentors and collaborators review your grant and edit relevant sections (often only a few paragraphs per mentor). If prospective mentors are unresponsive or too busy for this then they are likely also too busy to be a good mentor, so seek out mentors who are accessible and accomplished in the desired area of training.
- There are lots of non-science components that need be superb in order to out compete others. If you start writing early, you’ll have time to craft well-written statements.
- Participate in a mock study section if available.
- Learn from others. Many institutions have a funded grants library. By reading others’ applications you can pull together models of successful elements that make a grant stand out.
- Edit, edit, edit.
Instructions are Important
Take time to read through the application instructions. When applicants don’t read the instructions very carefully it can be frustrating.
- Sometimes applicants state future career goals that don’t align with the purpose of the fellowship award. They’ll state they want to teach or work in policy, but the purpose of these awards is to develop researchers. It is ok if you to want to teach or work in policy, but you must integrate those goals with a career in research.
- Look closely at what the NIH expects for Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR). Make sure your training plan aligns with their requirements. Clearly state how each topic will be covered and how often. Highlight faculty participation in RCR training. Reviewers are seeing training in RCR and for equity & diversity become more and more important pieces of the application.
- A tip from me. Pay close attention to page limits, font sizes, margin requirements, etc. Failure to do so could cause your application to be rejected before it ever gets in front of reviewers.
Simplify, Simply, Simplify
Simplify as much as possible. Whatever you think is simple, multiply that by 10.
- Make it easy for the reader. Highlight important pieces. Use the same terms and vocabulary throughout the application (call training opportunity A the same thing throughout every document).
- Reviewers are unlikely to be an expert in your exact “thing,” so make it easy for them to understand. Convey which areas you have expertise in and which part is new that you’re going to get training in.
- What is the gap in the field? What are you going to bring to it that is special or beyond what people think they know about it?
- Be precise and crystal clear. Don’t use too many acronyms. When a reviewer reads an application that is not clear, it shows lack of training from the mentor, which makes reviewers wonder how engaged the mentor will be throughout the training.
- Know the big picture of why you’re doing this and convince study section its important.