How to Kick-Start your NIH F31 (National Research Service Award-NRSA) Pre-doctoral Application Process
Applying for an F31 is like making plans to travel by car to a place you have never been before, you ask questions about what to expect, the weather, and what clothes to take. Like a vacation adventure that takes you beyond your comfort zone, a tour guide can help make the trip more pleasant. The 3 steps in this “tour” guide of applying for an F31 can reduce the stress and help you enjoy your trip even more than you thought.
Step 1: Deciding to take the trip
Should you stay or should you go?
- If successful, you would receive funding for a major proportion of your tuition, some travel funds to attend professional conferences, and receive a monthly stipend, for up to 5 years. For stipend amounts, google “NIH NRSA stipend level” and note there is only one level regardless of your experience. In 2018, it was about $2,000/month.
- If successful, it demonstrates your ability to compete on a national level for NIH funding and indicates potential success for an academic research career. you would be getting back some of your tax dollars
- If not successful, it is not a waste of time and energy
a) It gives you experience following directions and writing a research grant application.
b) You get excellent feedback from expert nurse scientists to use when you do write your dissertation proposal.
c) If you still have a few years left in your doctoral program, you can use that feedback and submit a revised application for the
next deadline that is more likely to succeed if you can adequately address the critiques.
- If successful, your initial funding would not even begin for 9-12 months after you submit the application.
- If successful, there are consequences of accepting the award. The NIH monthly stipend for your training is considered a full-time job and timely progress is a high expectation. The stipend is set at a national government level and not adjusted for geographic location. You must finish your training according to your funded timeline. If you ask for only 3 years of funding and need another year, NIH will not give you more funding. If you ask for 4 years and finish in 3 years, NIH will greatly appreciate your unused funds to help support another F31.
Is it realistic to go on this adventure?
- You need to be a US citizen or permanent resident (grants are funded with US tax dollars).
- You need to demonstrate the necessary clinical background, critique the current literature on the topic, and present the gap in knowledge that will improve health care.
- Is your track record of prior performance competitive (coursework, grades, prior publications)
- Why do you think YOU are the one to do this research training, and why do you think you will be successful
- You need to have a good match with a faculty mentor/advisor to act as your sponsor. There is potential for a co-sponsor to make the match better in terms of topic and methods.
- Keep in mind that your application is critiqued by reviewers who consider not just your research plan, but your training plan, your future potential as a nurse scientist, and the match with your sponsor. Google the PDF of the “Review criteria at a glance” and the “F Review Critique template” to see what reviewers are asked to do in evaluating your application. The document “Definitions of criteria and considerations for F critiques” is important to read before submitting your application.
- It is always a good idea to look at some examples of funded F31 applications to see what is involved. Ask colleagues to share their experience and a successful application example with you. Think about organizing quarterly student forums or a support group across cohorts for ongoing dialog about F31 applications.
- If you apply after your coursework is complete, or you have passed your qualifying exam a very polished research plan is expected by reviewers. If you expect to graduate within the next year, it would not be advisable to apply for an F31. Talk with your P.O., and you may want to consider other options:
- an R36 dissertation award (not a fellowship, but covers dissertation research expenses).
- a K award application mechanism rather than an F32 postdoctoral award (talk to your P.O.).
- an NIH “L” (“Loan Repayment Program”) mechanism if you are starting a faculty position. There are different L mechanisms: an L30 for Clinical Research, L40 for Pediatrics, etc.
Make sure there is enough fuel in the tank to get there on time
You can’t do this without energy and resources from your faculty and university. Schedule an appointment with your advisor/mentor and begin discussions at least 3 months before you plan to. It is not a good idea to surprise your advisor with this as a last-minute request (the tank may already be full, or no fuel is available!), and your university may require earlier deadlines to approve the budget and other content in the application before allowing submission to NIH.
What is a reasonable submission date for you and your sponsor?
You need to demonstrate in your application that you can critically evaluate the published literature. To take advantage of a full 5-years of funding, it would be a special student who could do this prior to admission into the doctoral program; It depends on whether you are continuing with a similar topic based on your master’s thesis or project and if you published something from your prior work, like a critical literature review.
Deadlines for submission to NIH are 3 times each year; most applications for F31 would be due April 8, August 8, or December 8, but specific applications on topics such as HIV or promoting diversity, are due on slightly different dates. Specific deadlines (“Standard Due Dates”) for these 3 cycles can be found at: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/how-to-apply-application-guide/due-dates-and-submission-policies/due-dates.htm This link provides due dates for many types of NIH grants. Scroll down until you find “F Series Fellowships” (including F31 Diversity) and note the FOA (such as NOT-OD-17-029) as this number will change over time and you need that FOA number for various aspects of your application (faculty reference letters, your cover letter, and face page of the application).
Why would your mentor agree to be your sponsor for this adventure?
- There is work involved in writing the sponsor’s section of the application, and in helping you develop a successful application.
- There is no financial reimbursement for faculty time, but faculty typically receive credit for a mentee’s accomplishment, and seeing you succeed makes the faculty feel successful.
- There are ways in which your success can inform and contribute to your faculty’s program of research.
Who can be a potential sponsor?
Your obvious sponsor for an F31 would be your faculty advisor, because that person was matched with your interests when you were accepted into the program. Once you have a dissertation Chair, that person becomes the logical person to ask to be your sponsor. The most competitive sponsor would be someone who has NIH funding, currently or in the past. If there is no NIH funding, think about adding a co-sponsor who has that NIH track record. How do you find competitive sponsors and co-sponsors?
The NIH Reporter database is very important in helping you to find someone’s track record for NIH funding: http://projectreporter.nih.gov/reporter.cfm
At this site, you will see many menus and search terms. You can narrow the search location to your city. There is a default of “current active projects” but you can select all years, going back to 1985 when the database started. Enter the faculty’s name as the Principal Investigator (PI) to see a list of all grants that person received. This list, however, is only for the PI who got the funding, and does not include other faculty who are co-investigators on that grant. You can look for a potential co-sponsor by searching on keywords that pertain to your research topic, and broaden the search to your state or region. A co-sponsor could be in another state or region, but your plan for frequent contact with that person needs to be very convincing to the grant reviewers.
Step 3: Packing your luggage
What is NIH already funding on this topic?
- The NIH Reporter database is very important in helping to shape the success of your application. http://projectreporter.nih.gov/reporter.cfm
When you search on keywords for your topic, see what applications have been funded across all institutes at NIH as well as all mechanisms (F’s R’s K’s). This is a good way to see who, nationally, has been funded to do research on this topic and perhaps find a co-sponsor or a future mentor, or a doctoral student at another university who is interested in a similar topic. You can also search by name when you know who you are always citing in your literature review, and see what they are current funded research is about. Read the abstracts under the “Description” tab, as titles can be a little deceptive. Read the “Details” tab to find out who the P.O. is, what department the PI is in (usually says “school of nursing” or “other health professions”), and funding dates.
- Narrow your search to F31 mechanism, National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), or location. Broaden or narrow your topic to get a feel for who is doing what, where it is being done, and what NINR is funding. As you read descriptions and details of relevant funded applications, make notes of PIs and locations, and note the Program Officer (PO) managing that similar F31 grant (this will come in handy when you get to “C” below).
On-going check-ins with your sponsor on this journey:
- Re-visit the idea of a potential co-sponsor, particularly if your sponsor is not a strong match on content or does not have a track record with NIH funding.
- Who would be appropriate to ask for letters of recommendation? Get invitations sent to these individuals early in the process, as you should allow at least 1 month before the deadline for faculty to submit their recommendation letters. Recommendations are important, and you do want the letter to address what you consider to be the key reason why you asked that person, so a little prep work in meeting with each person is important. Note that your sponsor and co-sponsor cannot also do a letter of recommendation.
Get to know your NIH Program Officer
With your sponsor, set up a phone meeting with the Program Officer (PO) at NINR who will help answer all your questions and guide you in the submission process. It is helpful to send a draft of your specific aims, and a draft of your biosketch, so that your PO can be prepared for this discussion.
Keep in mind that a PO want to help you, and should not be surprised to see your application after it is submitted – they want to get to know you, want your application to be successful, and want your successful application in their portfolio. Remember, it is your tax dollar that pays their salary.
Start your engines – you are now sitting in the driver’s seat, heading to your destination…
Don’t speed– Plot out each section of the application. Working backwards from your deadline, figure out how long each section will take for you to do. Most students plan on 3 to 6 months for this process. It takes time to coordinate what you say with what your sponsor(s) will say in the sponsor’s section of the application. Plan time for feedback on each section of the application.
Know how to get there
Do easier sections first, like biosketches for you and your sponsors, the resources for your school and university, and your training plan and time line. You do start working on the hardest section, your actual research proposal as well, but if all the easier sections are done, you can focus more on revising your background, methods, and analysis plan up until you submit the application. Here is the link for you to read “The Anatomy of a Specific Aims Page” http://research.uga.edu/docs/units/ope/Anatomy-NIH%20Specific-Aims-Page.pdf and watch recent YouTube videos on how to write specific aims (7-minute 2017 video from UCLA) – Here is the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQsAqDsBOf4
Ask for directions!
The directions can be daunting, even to an experienced researcher. Some students find it helpful to actually print out the entire NIH instruction document (“Information for Researchers” at grants.nih.gov) and organize it into a huge 3-ring binder. Perhaps your Office of Research has this type of resource accessible to you, but perhaps you need to do it and organize it in your own way.
Don’t take a wrong turn
As this process evolves over 3-6 months, always go back to make sure your specific aims and methods haven’t drifted apart, and make sure that your training goals are consistent with your aims and your methods. The reason most applications are not successful is because the training goals are not consistent with the specific aims, or the specific aims are not consistent with the methods.
Use rest stops!
For a break and entertainment along the road to your destination, stop and watch NIH videos. The YouTube of a mock review will help you to visualize the process once your application makes it to the reviewers.
Rest stop activities:
- View NINR series of 7 modular videos and slides on grantsmanship: http://www.ninr.nih.gov/training/grantsmanship David Banks: Module 1 (4 minutes) Module 2 (13 minutes).
- Watch “Inside the NIH Grant Review Process” YouTube presentations about aspects of peer review and tips for writing research applications. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBDxI6l4dOA&feature=youtu.be
- Read Rawl, SM. (2014). Writing a competitive individual National Research Service Award (F31) application. Western J Nurs Res. 36(1):31-46. PMID: 23579476
- Read and re-read the NIH grants.nih.gov material on the website about “write your application” – even though it pertains primarily to R mechanisms, it is very helpful information about grant writing.
A Final Note: Celebrate arriving at your destination
You really must have the passion, not just the gas, for this trip. It can be confusing and stressful, but passion and mentoring will get you through it and you should celebrate every “mile” along the way. Your completed project, whether you plan to actually submit it or not, helps you to understand the grant writing process, and forces you to really grapple with the details and logistics for your dissertation research. It also helps you and your dissertation advisor to be synchronized in terms of your academic and career goals, your training time line, and what courses and experiences you need to plan for in order to accomplish your goals. It really is a useful adventure for both you and your sponsor!
WIN is proud to acknowledge our members and authors of this document:
Kathryn Lee, RN, PhD
University of California San Francisco
School of Nursing
Ruth Tadesse, RN, MS, PMHNP
Governor Representative of Student Members