Money Matters

Some fifty dollar bills

When social psychology graduate student Wynne E. Norton thinks of her future, she envisions a successful research career. A training grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is helping her transform that dream into reality. Thanks to the grant, the University of Connecticut student is about to start collecting her data for a project testing interventions to reduce college students' risk of contracting HIV.

The Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards for Individual Predoctoral Fellows, known informally as "F31s," are designed to help students like Norton get the training they need to become productive researchers. A related grant program, the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards for Individual Predoctoral Fellowships to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research, targets students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Aimed at students at the dissertation stage of their education, F31 grants provide up to five years of support for a training program and dissertation research project in an area of interest to a particular institute at NIH, though not every NIH institute participates in both F31 programs.

The grants provide partial tuition and fees, a stipend to help defray living expenses-which were almost $21,000 for the 2006 fiscal year-and an allowance for such costs as books, travel to scientific meetings and insurance. The number of grants awarded depends upon each participating institute's research priorities, the availability of funding and the number of meritorious applications received.

ADVICE FOR APPLICANTS

Successful applicants and NIH officials have plenty of advice to share for those interested in applying for an F31:

  • Contact the institute you're interested in. To find out if an NIH institute is interested in your idea, send a one-page research prospective to the institute's program officer, suggests Mark Chavez, PhD, associate director for research training and career development in the Division of Adult Translational Research and Career Development at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). If your idea's not quite right, the program officer can refer you to a different institute or suggest ways to modify your proposal. Don't be too intimidated to call, adds Chavez. "Interacting with applicants is the part of the job that most of us enjoy most," he says.

  • Review successful applications. To see what she would be getting into, Norton searched NIH's Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects database at www.crisp.cit.nih.gov, which offers information on all NIH-funded biomedical research. She then contacted people with research projects similar to her own and asked for copies of their grant applications. Current or former students in your department may also have applications you can study.

  • Take advantage of NIH resources. There's a wealth of information about how to write F31 applications online, notes Mimi M. Ghim, PhD, deputy coordinator of research training in the Office of Science Policy and Communications at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In addition to the NIH-wide site on F31s at http://grants/nih.gov/training/nrsa.htm, the most helpful include an NIH-wide site dedicated to grant-writing in general (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/resources.htm) and institute-specific sites, such as www.nida.nih.gov/researchtraining/traininghome.html.

  • Be clear, concise and coordinated. At the heart of an F31 application is the research project. Describe your hypothesis and how you're going to test it. Be sure your study has enough participants to answer the question you're posing, says Chavez, noting that no one's expecting you to solve a large-scale problem.

Equally important is the training plan, which should "show how you're going to develop the skills you need to move on to the next stage of your research career," says Chavez. He urges applicants to list specific courses they plan to take or experts they plan to consult.

Make sure everything-your research proposal, your training plan and the information provided by your faculty sponsor-matches, says Mercedes Rubio, PhD, assistant director of individual research fellowship programs at NIMH. Your faculty sponsor should elaborate on what you say about your training plan, for instance. And don't skimp on the details of how you will safeguard any human subjects, adds Chavez, noting that many applicants often have adequate plans but don't describe them in enough detail to allay reviewers' concerns.

  • Get feedback. "Think of the application process as a marathon rather than a sprint," says Luis I. Garcia, a sixth-year clinical psychology student at George Washington University. At different stages of that marathon, he sought feedback from his fellow students, his faculty adviser and his NIH program officer. Some departments encourage students to present their proposals at brown-bag lunches or even offer grant-writing classes to glean advice and criticism on their proposals.

  • Follow the rules. The lengthy instructions for F31 applications get very specific, right down to the number of letters and lines per inch. "I'd print my applicationout and hold a ruler up to it and count," remembersNorton.

  • Don't give up. Garcia first applied for an F31 in 2003, with no luck. In 2004, the NIH peer reviewers gave his application a much higher score, but the institute he had applied to lacked sufficient funding to give him a grant. In 2005, he transferred his application to a different institute and finally won a grant. "This is a very competitive time," says Rubio, noting that stories like Garcia's are common. If you don't succeed at first, ask the program officer for advice on improving your application, address the reviewers' concerns and try again, she suggests. And try not to take criticism personally, adds Chavez. "It's almost impossible not to feel bad if your application doesn't get funded," he says. "But the sooner you develop a thick skin, the better."


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

“Think of the application process as a marathon rather than a sprint.”

Luis I. Garcia
George Washington University