In the final post of this three part series, I share insight from a dozen faculty who review NRSA fellowship applications on the mentor’s role in the application, metrics used to assess the strength of an applicant, who to ask to write letters, and interacting with your PO post submission. Be sure to also read Part 1 (when to submit and developing an easily reviewable document) and Part 2 (crafting strong training and research plans).

Role of Mentor(s)

A mentor should have a strong record for developing prior trainees into successful independent researchers. If your mentor is early career and has not trained others to date, include a co-mentor with a well-established training record.

  • If adding a co-mentor, clearly state what they bring, how often will you see them (once a month, join their lab meetings, etc.), and how often the three of you will meet. Be sure to state why you chose them and what specifically they bring to your training. Co-mentors who are highly accomplished with the proposed work/techniques can improve the scientific merit and add educational value to your application and training.
  • Include a network of mentors, often one for each major training goal (i.e., thesis committee, mentoring panel). Mentors should ideally be faculty with objective markers of expertise such as papers and grants in the area of training.
  • One reviewer suggested to always include a statistician as at least a collaborator.
  • Your mentor needs to state how research is going to be financially supported. If your mentor has no external funding, he or she must talk about start-up funds or other available financial sources. If a grant is expiring, how will it be renewed or attempted to be renewed?
  • Show evidence that you and your mentor put together a well written document.  If it looks like you did most of the work, that will lead to questions about whether the pairing between you and your mentor is productive or not.  It is also a concern if it looks like huge chunks of the application were simply cut and pasted from other applications. Overall, the panel wants to see a well crafted document but in a way that is obviously put together by you, yourself–with polishing help from your mentor.


Reviewers look at your background/training to confirm you are well prepared to undertake the proposed area of study.  So what metrics are they looking at when trying to determine which applicants will be successful?

  • For predocs it is your undergraduate record (GPA, school, and publications).  For post-docs it’s publications, publications, publications.
  • Reviewers want an applicant with strong potential because they do not want to fund people who have no background in science and are starting from square one.  They state there’s too little evidence that those applicants can learn and/or conduct research in the space of interest.
  • Study sections tend to look for evidence of potential.  This could include authorship on papers, letters of support that indicate research capabilities, and honors and awards to date.


  • Recommendation letters need to be tailored to the application. Strong letters from highly accomplished leaders are common, but when they are personalized and tailored to you and your proposed research, reviewers pay more attention.
  • Recommendation letters should come from someone you have interacted with who can write about you and your mentor/training environment.
  • Letters of Support are not necessary unless evident additional support is needed, especially if that support adds to the training plan. If you will be working with a core facility to conduct part of the research or working with a collaborator to gain training in a technique new to you and your lab, ask those individuals to write you a letter of support.

Contact the Program Officer (PO)

I previously provided advice to reach out to your PO prior to submission in order to start building a relationship with the institute. The faculty I spoke with also suggested reaching out to the PO post-submission.

  • When you receive your score, contact the PO. They can provide insight into whether or not you received a fundable score. If you need to prepare for a revision, they may have additional notes to share that didn’t make the summary statement. When crafting the resubmission application, be as responsive as possible to the critiques.
  • If information in the summary statement doesn’t seem to fit who you are, reach out to the PO for clarification. Sometimes mistakes do happen.

What the F? Advice for Fellowship Applicants from Reviewers. Part 1

What the F? Advice for Fellowship Applicants from Reviewers. Part 2  

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