What is an NRSA?

Advice from former postdoc at Penn

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.

Why apply
Preparation strategies
Writing the training proposal

Understanding the review process
What if you don't get funded?
What if you do?

Why apply?

  1. Grant-writing experience - necessary for successful academic research career.
  2. Track record - looks great on your CV; you are a serious researcher; you have a proven track record for funding your research!
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. Independence ! You will have brought in your own money, and this project is your baby.
  6. 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.
Structure of NIH
  1. 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.

  2. There are 25 Institutes and Centers under the umbrella of NIH. Each has its own mission.

  3. 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.

ho is eligible for an individual NRSA?
  1. All applicants must be US citizens or non-citizen nationals

  2. Postdoctoral (F32) - Must have PhD, MD or equivalent. All NIH institutes accept postdoctoral NRSA applications.

  3. Predoctoral (F31) - Must have baccalaureate degree and be enrolled in a PhD program.

  4. All NIH institutes will accept applications from minority and disabled students.

    Four of the institutes award F31s to other grad students.

    • National Institute of Mental Health
    • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
    • National Institute on Drug Abuse
    • 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.

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.

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:

  • mission of the institute
  • what kinds of projects are "hot" (fundable)

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
TitleReviewers' first impression, should encapsulate your project, should be memorable but not cutesy. Avoid vague, non-descriptive titles.
Description (abstract)

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:
  • Along with the requests in your cover letter, CSR Referral Officers will use the Description to assign your proposal to the appropriate IRG, Study Section, and funding institute.
  • Some members of the Study Section will not have to read the whole proposal. They may only read the abstract, and they will still have an impact on the rating of the proposal.
  • If an award is made, the abstract will go into NIH's CRISP database, and will be accessible to the public. Therefore, make the abstract understandable to a wide audience.
Goals for Fellowship Training and CareerThey 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?

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!

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


    - CSR receives your application

    - A group of Referral Officers (all PhDs) read your abstract, consider your requests, and assign your proposal to a Study Section, and to an Institute for a funding decision.

    - 4-6 weeks after you submit the application, you will receive a postcard noting these assignments. You can appeal these decisions if you feel the assignments are inappropriate.

  1. Initial Review

    - Study sections are comprised of a panel of non-federal scientists who review your application for its SCIENTIFIC MERIT and TRAINING POTENTIAL. They are NOT affiliated with any of the institutes at NIH. - A Scientific Review Administrator (SRA) organizes the study section, assigns primary and secondary reviewers, and sends your application to them for careful review. Any reviewer with a conflict of interest is obligated to refuse to review that application. - The members of the Study Section will meet at CSR and discuss each application. Unlike more advanced grant applications, NRSAs are not "streamlined" or "triaged" - each is read, discussed, and rated. - The Study Section will rate your proposal based on the CRITERIA described in Part III. -You will receive a postcard with your PRIORITY SCORE and the name of the Program Official at the assigned Institute.

    The Priority Score is ranges from 100 to 500, 100 is best. As a very general guideline, if you have a priority score between 100 and 130 (or so) you'll probably get funded. Priority scores around 150 to 180 are in a grey area. Call your Program Official to discuss your priority score. Try to determine where your score lies amongst the rest of the applications.The SRA writes a Summary Statement that includes the written reviews by the primary and secondary reviewers, as well as some points of discussion from the meeting. that will go back to the applicant and on to the assigned institute for the second level of review.

    You will receive the Summary Statement. You should carefully consider all the criticisms, and if there are any misunderstandings or misinterpretations, call your Program Official! When I applied for my postdoctoral NRSA, one of the reviewers criticized me for proposing an experiment that was premature. I agreed with the criticism - I had never proposed to do the experiment! I informed my Program Official of the misunderstanding, and I ended up getting funded.

  2. Secondary Review

    - The SRA will also forward the Summary Statement and Priority Score to the appropriate Institute. - For NRSA fellowships, institute staff review the reports of the study sections and establish funding priorities.

    - Many different study sections send their reports to one institution, and priority scores and percentile rankings help the institute staff compare all applications

    - The Director and Staff of the institute make final funding decisions.

    - Note that this process is similar to that used to determine funding priority for R01s, except that for R01s, an Advisory Council of non-federal scientists will assign funding priorities and forward their recommendations to the Institute Staff for final funding decisions.

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!

What if your proposal DOES get funded?

  • Celebrate!

    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 a non-competing renewal, it's easy! Short summary of your results, plans for the coming year, and publications resulting from the previous year's funding.

    -For a competing renewal, you must resubmit an entirely new full application, with a greater emphasis on the Preliminary Results section (i.e. incorporate the progress report into the new application.) Your competing renewal application will compete with resubmissions and new applications.