What the F? An Introduction to the NRSA Fellowship
In fiscal year 2020, NIH awarded approximately $180 million to support pre- and postdoctoral trainees through its National Research Service Awards (NRSA) individual fellowship programs.
What exactly is an NRSA individual fellowship and why should you apply for one? I’ve managed predoctoral fellowships for five years and have advised dozens of students at an R1 university with their submissions. Here’s an overview of these awards and my suggestions for why you should apply for one.
Fellowship awards provide financial support to students enrolled in doctoral programs and those who have recently graduated with a doctoral degree (PhD, MD, PharmD, DDS, etc.) who decide to further their scientific training through a mentored opportunity with a faculty sponsor in order to pursue an independent research career in academia.
NRSAs typically include funding for tuition, a stipend (living expenses), and an institutional allowance, which is often used to cover the costs of health insurance, student fees, travel to scientific conferences, and/or conducting research.
The NIH offers a variety of fellowship awards, but this post focuses on those intended for the singular pre- or postdoctoral experience. Those opportunities include the F30, F31, F31-Diversity, and F32.
NRSA Individual Fellowships for pre- and postdoctoral trainees
NRSA fellowships support the unique training pathway of an individual trainee. Unlike R01s or similar research grants awarded based on scientific merit, fellowship awards value the training plan as much as, if not more than, the scientific merit of a trainee’s research project. Good science needs to be presented, but a thoughtful and intentional training proposal that highlights your plans to engage in educational, professional, and scientific training activities is essential. A commitment from your mentor and institution stating how they will support your training is also required.
Some individuals apply for fellowships because the financial support is critical to them being able to complete their training. However, if you are in a fortunate situation where your training experience is fully funded by your mentor and/or training program, there are still benefits to applying for an individual fellowship.
Becoming an independent researcher means submitting grants. Lots of them. All the time. Writing a fellowship provides you with your first opportunity to learn how to read a funding announcement, pace your writing, write persuasively, and gather and incorporate feedback.
If you’re new to your research project (and if you’re a grad student or postdoc, you probably are), writing a fellowship application gives you the opportunity to read up on the background, synthesize the existing knowledge with your current work, and share where your preliminary data may lead. Even if your application doesn’t succeed, the process of writing it will lead to a better understanding of your science.
This is also an opportunity to refine your career goals and determine the additional training needed to obtain them. This may lead to a discussion with your mentor about what opportunities they are willing to support. How much time are they willing to let you be away from the lab to participate in career development training? Does your mentor have funds available for you to travel to professional conferences? How and where can your mentor provide you with networking opportunities?
Submitting a fellowship may be your first opportunity to develop a relationship with a Program Officer (PO) and/or Grants Management Specialist (GMS) at the NIH. A GMS once told me that they want to build relationships with trainees so they can invest in them and their science and, hopefully, follow them into their K and R01 funding.
If your fellowship isn’t funded, it’s an opportunity for you to gather feedback on your science and refine your writing style in a resubmission or in future grants. You can still list it on your CV to let future employers know you took the initiative to seek funding and gained skills in grant writing.
Prior success often indicates future success, and if your fellowship is awarded, it is a first step in demonstrating you can write an effective NIH grant application. Now go determine which opportunity best supports your training and start writing. Good luck!