writingCommunicating to the reviewers your ability to succeed in science and the support you have around you to make that happen is a crucial component of a fellowship application. Often, your mentors, collaborators, or course instructors convey this via reference letters or letters of support. But what is the difference and how do you determine who to ask to write each type of letter?

Reference Letters

NRSA fellowship applications must include at least 3, but no more than 5, reference letters. Those asked to serve as a referee should be able to speak to an applicant’s qualifications and potential to be a successful scientist as well as to the training program that will guide them to that goal. Applicants may want to consider asking previous research mentors, current collaborators not listed as senior/key personnel in the application, or course instructors to write a letter. The mentor/co-mentor(s) listed in the application may not submit reference letters. They share their commentary on the applicant’s qualifications, abilities, training, and future plans in the Sponsor/Co-Sponsor statement. In addition, any other senior/key personnel listed in the application may not serve as a reference.

Once an applicant has developed a list of 3-5 reference letter writers, the applicant should then reach out to those individuals to ask them to write on their behalf 6-8 weeks prior to the application due date—earlier if possible. Once a referee agrees to write, the applicant should send instructions on how to submit the letters, which are submitted directly to the NIH. In the instructions, applicants will need to provide their name as it appears in Commons, eRA username, and the number of the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) to which they are applying.  It is helpful to also include specific highlights the applicant would like the writer to focus on regarding their abilities, potential, and training as a scientist. Providing an updated applicant biosketch or CV is helpful. Additionally, the applicant could offer to write a draft of the letter. In that instance, be sure to leave humility at the door and boast about your accomplishments and abilities. Also, make sure each letter you write has a slightly different voice to it so they don’t seem like they were all written by the same person.

Applicants are not able to view reference letters but will receive an email and/or be able to log-in to the eRA Commons system to confirm each letter has been received. The list of reference letter writers should be listed in the application’s cover letter with the writers’ names, titles, and affiliated departments and institutions included.

*Helpful Tip* Make sure the referees have the correct FOA. Fellowship FOAs update on an almost annual basis. It is helpful to confirm you still have the correct FOA a week or so prior to submission as there may have been an updated FOA released since you originally reached out to your letter writers. If a new FOA has been announced for the application cycle to which you are applying, you will need to update your referees. Without the correct FOA, submitted letters will not be associated with your application in eRA Commons. If letters are submitted under the wrong FOA, the eRA Commons help desk can assist in associating the letter with the correct FOA/application as long as the letter was submitted on time.

For additional guidance on reference letters, visit the NIH Reference Letter webpage.

supportLetters of Support

According to the NIH fellowship instructions (Forms F), letters of support should be submitted by those collaborators, consultants, or advisors who plan to contribute to the scientific development of the applicant or contribute in the execution of the applicant’s planned project and research training. A collaborator in a neighboring lab or at another institution, the director of a core institutional resource that will be used (i.e., mouse facility or biobank), or a scientist who may train you on a specific technique are examples of those an applicant may want to request a letter of support from. The letter should include specific details on how the individual (or resource) will contribute to the fellow’s project and/or training. It is often helpful and expedites the process if the applicant drafts the initial letter.

Letters of support are not a required component of an NRSA fellowship application. However, those who do plan to submit them may include up to 6 pages of letters of support which are compiled into one PDF and uploaded as a single application component.

Those planning a career in academia will continue to draft these types of letters for their future K, R, and a multitude of other grants, so no better time than now to get comfortable with the distinction between the two and how to write each. Best of luck!

Additional References from NIH

Difference Between Reference Letters and Letters of Support

NIAID Overview of Letters of Support

NIAID Overview of Reference Letters

“All About Grants” Podcast: Letters of Support

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