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| Funding Your Research: How to Apply for an NRSA
Co-Sponsered by Career Services and the Office of Postdoctoral Programs
This presentation was given by Laura Stark Malisheski, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow in Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania
Poll: How many of you are graduate students? How many are postdocs?
How is your research funded? You may be on a training grant, or being paid through your advisor's grant. However, the most motivated, independent and goal-oriented students apply for their own funding, and you're here to find out how.
A. What is an NRSA?
The National Research Service Award (NRSA) from NIH is a common avenue for obtaining your own funding. The individual NRSA is a small grant application, very similar to the R01s that PIs write to support their lab, except the scope is much smaller and you don't have to write a detailed budget. It's primary purpose is to ensure the TRAINING of independent research scientists to carry out the nation's biomedical and behavioral research agenda. The NIH awards individual NRSAs to the most promising applicants to support full-time research training.
B. Why apply?
Grant-writing experience - necessary for successful academic research career.
Track record - looks great on your CV; you are a serious researcher; you have a proven track record for funding your research!
Plan your project - helps you crystallize your thoughts and ideas into a concrete plan, as well as setting forth specific goals toward the completion of the research project
Scientific Review - The scientific review by a board of experts in your field gives you an understanding of the rigors required in scientific research, and gives you first-hand experience in the review process.
Independence ! You will have brought in your own money, and this project is your baby!
Financial benefits - Stipend: NRSA's set the standard for stipend levels at Penn. Tuition and fees are covered. In addition, there is an institutional allowance that can pay for health insurance, travel to meetings, research supplies, books, etc.
II. Structure of NIH
A. Organization of institutes
NIH is one of eight agencies that make up the Department of Health and Human services. NIH awards, by far, the most grant money to US Universities to support biomedical research.
There are 25 Institutes and Centers under the umbrella of NIH. Each has its own mission.
One of these is the Center for Scientific Research (CSR), where all NIH grant applications go first for assignment to an Integrated Review Group (IRG). Each IRG is composed of several, more specific Study Sections. The CSR and the IRGs are INDEPENDENT of the funding institutes. We'll talk about review process in more detail later.
B. Who is eligible for an individual NRSA?
All applicants must be US citizens or non-citizen nationals
Postdoctoral (F32) - Must have PhD, MD or equivalent. All NIH institutes accept postdoctoral NRSA applications. Receipt dates April 5, August 5, December 5.
Predoctoral (F31) - Must have baccalaureate degree and be enrolled in a PhD program.
All NIH institutes will accept applications from minority and disabled students (see Program Announcement) - Receipt dates May 1st and November 1st.
Four of the institutes award F31s to other grad students.
NIMH - National Institute of Mental Health
NIAAA - National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
NIDA - National Institute on Drug Abuse
NINR - National Institute of Nursing Research
So, if you are a graduate student who is not a minority or disabled, you can apply to any of these 4 institutes, make sure your project is relevant to the mission of the institute.
Receipt dates April 5, August 5, December 5.
C. Success rates of NRSAs
For Postdoctoral Individual NRSAs, the average success rate for all of NIH is 38.6%; 1989-1998
For Predoctoral NRSAs: As an example, NIMH funds about 30% of submitted proposals, and about 30% of those go to graduate students. Therefore, there is an approximately 10% success rate for predoctoral proposals.
The success rate for all NIH grant applications is approximately 25-35% in the last decade. NIH receives about 40,000 each year!
III. Essential Preparation Strategies
Give yourself lots of time!
NIH estimates it will take 20 hours to fill out the forms, not including the time to formulate the research plan.
It takes much more time to complete entire application process! Two months is best.
You can download the directions and forms at:
http://grants.nih.gov/grants/funding/funding.htm (click here). READ THE DIRECTIONS! If your proposal is in any way incomplete, they will send it back to you unreviewed.
Get letters of reference
You need at least 3. Your references should know you well and be able to describe your work and research potential. These letters will be confidential. Also, give them plenty of time! Your sponsor does not serve as one of these references. He or she will write a non-confidential reference as part of the application.
Make sure your human subjects and vertebrate animals assurances are in order!
You may be able to get a waiver but must submit approval from IACUC within 60 days of submission.
Formulate the research project
Before you dive into to the intense writing, come up with a basic outline of hypotheses and experiments you will propose.
Decide WITH YOUR SPONSOR (PI) which institute is most relevant to support your project.
You should request this in your cover letter. Make your decision based on:
Always make a contact before you apply!
Call the institute and talk with the staff there - they're nice and they especially like talking to fellows who are young and enthusiastic.
Program officers can help you understand how you can best gear your project toward what is likely to be most interesting and exciting (i.e. fundable!) to study sections and institutes. They will also help you navigate your way through the pitfalls of preparing your proposal.
Choose an IRG and study section - consult with your sponsor
Request a particular IRG and study section in your cover letter. Also request the Institute you think is most appropriate to fund your project. If you don't, CSR Referral Officers will read your abstract and direct it to the best of their abilities. You're better off making the decision!
Familiarize yourself with the CRITERIA the reviewers will use for evaluation
Candidate - academic performance, research experience, commitment to research career, reference letters
Sponsor and Training Environment - your sponsors qualifications as a mentor, his/her research expertise, and his/her plan to train YOU specifically. Sponsor should not just list equipment and seminars available to you - tailor a training plan, outlining courses you will take, techniques you will learn, etc.
Research Proposal - you may read that training potential is the most important criterion, but remember that the reviewers are scientists, and they're really going to be most interested in the RESEARCH PROPOSAL. You should put your greatest effort into developing a stellar research proposal.
Training Potential - emphasize what *new* training you will gain, e.g. new institution, new techniques, new research questions
IV. Pointers on the "Front End" (everything but the research training proposal)
Don't leave this until the last minute - it is very important! Most of this is self-explanatory, but a few points need emphasis.
Reviewers' first impression, should encapsulate your project, should be memorable but not cutesy. Avoid vague, non-descriptive titles.
Should be a complete concise summary of all aspects of your research proposal, including rationale, hypotheses, techniques, overall experimental plan, and significance. Clearly state here how your project relates to the mission of the particular institute.
Serves many purposes:
Goals for Fellowship Training and Career
They want to train productive, independent scientists. Your statement should clearly reflect your potential for contributing to biomedical or behavioral science through an independent research career. Also describe your short-term goals for the fellowship period - what new experience will you gain?
V. Writing the Research Training Proposal
Tips on Content
Should be relevant to the mission of the particular institute
Hypothesis Driven!!! - Outline the hypotheses in the Specific Aims - Do not present your proposal as a fishing expedition.
Make sure your proposed experiments test the stated hypotheses.
Make your background literature review concise, relevant, and able to stand on its own without requiring reviewers to refer to other sources. Be complete and up-to-date. If a reviewer is in your field, he or she will not be impressed if his or her relevant work is not cited!
Describe basic methods for data collection and analysis, including statistical analysis
Describe potential problems, methodological or unexpected outcomes - outline your plan for ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES if your initial attempts don't succeed.
SCOPE of your proposal is important - biggest danger is being over ambitious - a small, focused project is better. You also want to show that you have vision and that you can plan an entire project (not just the first step). Work closely with your advisor on this.
Work with sponsor as you write. You must write the proposal, but together you should both edit and critique proposal over several rounds. You will also have to describe this process in the application.
Get input from others - read other proposals, have others read yours. Your friends and coworkers will not be as critical as people who don't know you as well. It's best to get the criticism before you send the application!
Tips on Style, Presentation
Convey your ENTHUSIASM - if you're excited about the project, your reviewers will take notice and be more excited about it too
Make it readable! Break proposal into logical sections with concise headings - spaces between sections, BOLD important points. Remember that study section members have many grants to read and they will be very tired. You want yours to stand out as well written, well organized, and easy to read. Also, make it easy for reviewers to find the important points.
FONTS - Sans serif like Helvetica are easy on the eyes. Font size 10-12. Refer to directions for explicit rules, and don't try to squeeze in more text! If you don't comply exactly, they will send back your proposal unread!
Insert graphics or relevant preliminary data, such as gels, physiology traces, group data. Show them you that know what you're doing, and that you can do at least the basic experiments proposed. Make sure graphics are clearly labeled, relevant, and will photocopy well.
Get the Signatures
Once you've completed and assembled everything - your package must go to your Business Administrator and then to Research Services for signatures. They are overwhelmed before a major grant deadline, so give them time, as well!
VI. The Review Process - Understanding the Black Box
NIH has a dual review process. The initial review of scientific merit (by Study Sections) is INDEPENDENT of the review of fiscal merit (by Institutes).
The Path of your application through the Review Process
VII. What if your proposal does not get funded?
Go through normal cycle of disappointment, denial, anger, and empowerment!
Talk with your sponsor, carefully review the criticisms in the Summary Statement together
Call the Program Officer at the assigned institute. Find out why the proposal did not get funded, and what can be improved for resubmission.
RESUBMIT! Specifically address each of the reviewers' criticisms. You will also need to summarize the substantive changes made in the resubmitted application, and denote within the proposal where changes have been made. A resubmitted proposal without substantive changes will be returned unreviewed!
VIII. What if your proposal DOES get funded?
Select a start-date in consultation with your sponsor, business administrator, and the funding institute
Sign an activation notice
Determine, with certainty, how many years you have been awarded funding. You may have applied for three years, and been awarded only two. NIH will not remind you to send in a competing renewal application!
If you are a postdoc, you must sign a Payback Agreement. For the first 12 months of support, you must pay back an equal number with biomedical research or teaching. The second year of postdoctoral work will cover this payback.
Each year you must write a progress report
For more information, refer to our List of Resources for NRSA's (click here)
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