NIH F-series Grant Tips and Example
I successfully applied to the NIH F31 grant in 2015. I recently terminated it to accept a new NIH F99/K00 grant. Here are some of the things I’ve learned and some advice for writing an outstanding NIH grant as a PhD Student. I’ve included my NIH F31 grant and full summary statements as an example. Enjoy and good luck!
The NIH F-series of grants is appropriate for trainees, primarily at the graduate level. Much much much more information can be found on the NIH website.
Applying for an NIH F-series grant is very different from helping your PI with a grant because the F-series grants are awarded to the trainee, who serve as the principal investigator (you are your own PI!)
This blog post will mostly focus on the F31 (The Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award - to provide predoctoral individuals with supervised research training in specified health and health-related areas leading toward the research doctoral degree).
Who should apply to the NIH F31
- Current PhD students in their 2nd or 3rd year of graduate studies. Those in their 4th year are still eligible but should consider applying to the F99/K00 if possible.
- Must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, enrolled in a research doctoral degree program.
- Must be pursuing health-related research. Can be basic or clinical.
But my PI is well funded. Why should I write a grant?
“Because getting this grant will help you get the next one” is what Dr. Paul Avillach often reminds me. Indeed, my NSF grant introduced me to this whole grant writing system, which made putting together my F31 that much more feasible, which then made putting together my F99/K00 substantially easier.
Also, having your own grant means you have your own money, which, in theory, should mean you will have more leverage. Negotiating for a better computer? Want to go to more conferences? Some schools/programs will even provide additional travel and educational allowances for those who bring in their own grants.
In my opinion, if you think you may want a career in academia, a surprising portion of your life will be spent writing grants. So better to get some practice to at least see if you like it!
My grant as an example
There are A LOT of documents to put together. I personally find it really overwhelming to read the NIH website and prefer to just look at actual examples. Big thanks to my mentor Dr. Peter Kharchenko for sharing his successful R01, to Dr. Nils Gehlenborg for sharing his successful K99, and to Yu-Han Hsu sharing her successful F31! So now I’m passing on their generosity by sharing my successful F31 grant as well.
All the documents you need (as of 2015) are as follows:
All about your research (what you should spend the most time on)
All about you (don’t be modest)
- PI Biosketch
- Doctoral Dissertation and Other Research Experience
- Goals for Fellowship Training and Career
All about your training environment (would not recommend spending too much time on these documents)
- Selection of Sponsor and Institution
- Facilities and Resources
- Activities Planned Under This Award
- Responsible Conduct of Research
- Respective Contributions
- Sponsor (Dr. Peter Kharchenko) and Co-sponsor (Dr. George Church) biosketches (not provided for their privacy)
The good news is that a lot of these documents are pretty boiler plate. Ask your PI or others at your institution for her/his grants. The Cover letter, Selection of Institution, Facilities and Resources, Equipment, Resource Sharing Plan, and many other text will be nearly the same.
General Tips and Advice
Beyond having a great research topic and strong preliminary data, here are a few tips to improve your grant based on my experience and the criticism I received for my F31.
Tip 1: Start early, especially if you are dealing with human data of any kind
If you are dealing at all with human data, get your IRB straightened out NOW! Even though I only deal with non-identifiable sequencing data from patients and do not directly interface with patients or even collect data myself, I still needed an IRB according to this document from the NIH. The NIH only requests for the appropriate IRBs AFTER your grant is awarded; so it would be such a shame if your grant was awarded but you can’t accept it because you don’t have your IRB!
Tip 2: Choose your co-sponsor wisely especially if your primary sponsor is young or has no track record of funding from the NIH
I was my advisor’s first PhD student. As such, he had no track record of mentoring PhD students. I was advised to choose a co-sponsor with a good track record of mentoring PhD students to counter-balance my advisor’s deficits. My advisor’s advisor from his PhD training was George Church, who was and is now even moreso a super big shot, for lack of a better word. Hundreds of PhD students have gone through his lab so his track record for mentorship on paper is superb. However, my choice of Dr. Church as a co-sponsor was the primary criticism from almost every reviewer. And in hindsight, they were absolutely right. One reviewer worded things particularly well: “Co-sponsor’s letter and offered level of input came across as weak and distant; seemed to be there to prevent criticism of a young sponsor. This is a proposal that could benefit from a co-sponsor bringing some other expertise and with a way to push this young woman’s training.” The purpose of a co-sponsor is to have someone to mentor you in areas where your primary advisor can not or does not have a track record of doing well. Dr. Church’s purpose in my training was to mentor me on how to mentor. Yet, during the duration of my F31, I did not interact at all with Dr. Church. Indeed, he served more for ‘inspiration’ than actual mentorship. Reviewers knew this would happen. They were right to criticize.
Tip 3: Choose an appropriate agency
Doing research on blood cancers? Should you submit to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) or National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institution (NHBLI)? Ideally, the choice of agency shouldn’t matter but if you send your grant to a completely irrelevant agency, that will of course hurt you. But when there are multiple appropriate agencies, a more calculated choice may be warranted. On one hand, NCI generally has more funding and will be able to fund more grants. But NHBLI may be ‘less competition’ and can fund grants with lower scores even if fewer grants are funded by them in general. It’s worth looking into historical data of funding paylines, funding availability, and other statistics. Ask for advisor for recommendations as well especially if they have a track record of funding from a particular agency.
Tip 4: Ask for recommendation letters from old mentors
Did you do research in undergrad? Ask that mentor for a recommendation letter. Don’t be shy! Establish a record for research and contribution to science.
Tip 5: Take your training plan seriously
Sure, there is nothing to substitute a solid research plan, but an F31 is a training grant. You should have a clear plan as to how you will develop the necessary skills towards independence. Are you going to mentor students? How are you going to acquire these students and assess your effectiveness as a mentor? Are you going to attend conferences? Which ones are you planning to go to? As with the rest of your grant, the more specific your plan the better.
Final tip: Understand that a majority of accepted applications are resubmissions
So if you don’t get the grant the first time, try again! Maybe the funding payline was really harsh this year, maybe you were just unlucky. There are 3 opportunities per year to submit an F31. So plenty of chances to try again!
Best of luck with your grant!
What to expect after you submit
After you submit your grant, it will be assigned to a study section comprised of senior scientists in your agency’s field. Your study section will physically meet together many many months later and judge your grant on its Overall Impact using five criteria: Applicant, Sponsor(s), Research Training Plan, Training Potential, and Institutional Environment & Commitment. Three reviewers will score each aspect on a scale of 1 to 9, where 1 is the best score. The 3 sets of scores are averaged and multiplied by 10 to arrive at a final score that will range from 10 to 90, with 10 being the best score. These scores and comments will be sent to you as your Summary Statements.
Many many months after your Summary Statements are available, each agency will issue its payline. If you grant falls within the payline ie. lower/better score than the payline, then congrats (but don’t celebrate too soon)! If not, depending on how far from the payline your score is, it will be worth discussing with your Program Director as to the best course of action. Maybe transfer to another agency, maybe apply again.
If you are within the payline, your Program Director will be in touch with you to get the necessary IRBs, certificates on ethics and human subject research training, and other paperwork. Many many months after this, you will receive a ‘Just In Time’ (JIT) that you will need to complete with the help of your sponsoring official. Then many many months after this, you will receive a ‘Notice of Award’ (NOA) and finally, after this, your grant manager will receive the award money in your accounts. The grant can theoretically be lost at any of these steps (such as failure to provide IRBs, etc).
Getting grants is a very anticlimactic experience!
Final final tip: NEVER REPLY TO ANY EMAILS FROM THE NIH BY YOURSELF
Jumping a little ahead, but eventually the NIH will start sending you emails asking for your Tuition and confirmations for other numbers. NEVER RESPOND BY YOURSELF (I made this mistake). Even though NIH will address the email to you, they will add at the way bottom of every email, “All correspondence must be submitted through your sponsoring official” which means you should forward the emails to your sponsoring official and let them deal with it.
Caveat to the last tip: DO TALK TO YOUR PROGRAM DIRECTOR
She is often very helpful! As soon as you get your Summary Statements, it may be worth shooting your Program Director a short email to get a sense for if your score is within the funding payline. She won’t be able to tell you for sure, but she’ll give you a good guess.