If the National Institutes of Health (NIH) hadn't helped pay off the $58,000 psychologist Jerri D. Edwards, PhD, owed by the time she finished graduate school, Edwards might have had a harder time fulfilling her dream of becoming a researcher.
"Without the program, I would have had to get a teaching position right off the bat," says Edwards. Instead, she spent three years doing postdoctoral research on cognitive training techniques with older adults. Today she is debt free and an assistant psychology professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
"The program gave me time to get my research started," she says. "I'm a lot further ahead than people who weren't able to take time out."
For early-career psychologists like Edwards, loan-repayment programs like NIH's or the Health Resources and Services Administration's National Health Service Corps bring financial freedom, more options and greater peace of mind. For the government agencies that sponsor them, these programs are a way of increasing the number of researchers and getting clinicians into underserved areas.
The NIH Loan Repayment Program's aim is to attract health professionals to careers in clinical, pediatric, health disparities and contraception and infertility research. There's also a program for clinical researchers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Participants commit to spending at least half of their time for two years on nonprofit- or government-funded research. In exchange, NIH repays half of participants' educational debt-up to $35,000 a year-and provides funding to offset taxes owed. Participants can also apply for renewals.
The program requires candidates to have U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status, a doctoral-level degree and debt equivalent to at least 20 percent of their base salary. That debt can include loans for tuition, educational expenses and reasonable living expenses incurred during undergrad-uate or graduate school. Applicants for this competitive program must submit their applications online. (The next application cycle is expected to open in September.) A group of scientists from outside NIH reviews the applications, assessing how likely applicants are to pursue research careers and how well the research environment they're in will prepare them for such careers.
For Edwards, the program has brought psychological as well as financial benefits.
"Having that kind of debt is stressful," says Edwards. "I can't express what it's like to have had $58,000 in debt hanging over my head just three years ago and to now have none."
Because her father died when she was 16 and her mother was a homemaker, Edwards was responsible for funding her own education. She managed to hold down jobs during her undergraduate days, but couldn't keep that up while earning a master's in experimental psychology at Western Kentucky University and a PhD in developmental psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
After getting her degree in 2000, Edwards started a postdoctoral fellowship at the university's Center for Research on Applied Gerontology. That's when she heard about the NIH program. The three years of funding gave her nearly $30,000 and the impetus to pay off the rest. Instead of worrying about debt, Edwards is now free to focus on research. Her goal? Finding ways to help older people with everyday tasks like driving.
For more information about the NIH Loan Repayment Program, visit www.lrp.nih.gov.
… AND PRACTITIONERS
Although the NIH program targets researchers, the National Health Service Corps uses loan repayment as a way of improving the health of the approximately 50 million Americans who live in communities without access to primary care.
The program accepts fully trained primary-care clinicians, including health-service psychologists, other behavioral health professionals and medical and dental professionals. These practitioners provide two years of full-time clinical service at approved sites in underserved areas ranging from inner-city Baltimore to Washington state's "apple country."
In exchange, they receive up to $50,000 of repayment for government or commercial loans for undergraduate or graduate tuition, other educational expenses and reasonable living expenses incurred while earning their health profession degrees. Participants also receive a salary and benefits from the community sites where they work.
Applicants must be U.S. citizens or nationals who have completed their training and other clinician requirements. Health-service psychologists have additional requirements: They must have a doctoral degree from an APA-accredited institution, a minimum of one year of postgraduate supervised clinical experience, a passing grade on the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology and the ability to practice independently. The program also looks for clinicians who are likely to remain in the "health professional shortage areas" they served even after their commitment is finished.
The first step in the process is to get a job at an approved site. Applicants must be at least in the final stages of negotiating a contract with a site by the time they submit an application. Applications must be postmarked by March 31.
Angela E. Steep, PsyD, had her eye on the program even before she headed to graduate school at the Florida Institute of Technology and amassed $70,000 in debt. Now she's a behavioral health consultant at Cherokee Health Systems in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, addressing patients' biopsychosocial needs alongside primary-care -physicians. And because Cherokee Health System is a participating site, she'll be receiving $25,000 in loan repayment this year and next. She plans to apply for a third year that will completely eliminate her debt.
"I'm one of the rare lucky ones," says Steep. "I'd still be where I am today with or without the loan repayment. That was just icing on the cake!"
For more information about the National Health Service Corps, visit http://nhsc.bhpr.hrsa.gov.
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.