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The F Series of NIH Fellowships – Tips for Writing an Outstanding Fellowship Application

Release Date: March 11, 2016
Category: Grant Writing
Author: Michelle S., Ph.D., E.L.S.

The F series of fellowships are offered by the NIH to outstanding trainees who wish to develop careers in basic and clinical biomedical research. All F series fellowships are awarded to the trainee, who serves as the principal investigator. There are five different types of F series fellowships:

F30 – Provides an individual fellowship for predoctoral candidates in combined MD/PhD or other dual-degree programs. Current funding announcement: Department of Health and Human Services - PA-14-150

F31 – Provides predoctoral recipients with supervised research training in specified health and health-related areas leading toward a research degree, (e.g., Ph.D.). There is also an F31 diversity opportunity for under-represented minority trainees in science. Current funding announcement: Department of Health and Human Services - PA-14-147

F32 – Provides postdoctoral recipients with research training to broaden their scientific background and expand their potential for research in specific health-related areas. Current funding announcement: Department of Health and Human Services - PA-14-149

F33 – Provides experienced scientists (senior fellows) with an opportunity to make a major change in the direction of their research career, broaden their scientific background, acquire new skills, etc. Current funding announcement: Department of Health and Human Services - PA-14-151

F05 – Provides collaborative research opportunities for qualified non-immigrant alien scientists who hold a doctoral degree or its equivalent in one of the biomedical or behavioral sciences (currently inactive— interested, qualified applicants may wish to research the D43 and D71 opportunities).

All of the active F series fellowships (i.e., F30, F31, F32, and F33) are National Research Service Award (NRSA) fellowships offered by the NIH. Competition for these awards is extremely fierce, and the large pool of highly deserving candidates makes it difficult for the study section to prioritize the applications. Therefore, reviewers use increasingly strict criteria to prioritize the applications. Apart from outstanding, innovative scientific ideas, effective grantsmanship strategies can help to elevate your application. This article summarizes information collected from reviewers who have served on recent F series study sections, revealing insight into the priorities of current NIH fellowship reviewers. If you apply these recommendations to your application, you will likely improve your score and increase your chances of funding.

How F series applications are scored – Fellowship applications for F series awards are evaluated for Overall Impact using five criteria: Applicant, Sponsor(s), Research Training Plan, Training Potential, and Institutional Environment & Commitment. Each of these criteria receive a score from 1 to 9, where 1 is the highest possible score. This NIH Scoring Table shows the relationship between the level of impact, scores, and descriptors. The study section leans heavily on this table as they score each application; therefore, it is wise to assemble your application with these criteria in mind:

Scoring Table for Research Grants

Impact Impact/Priority Score Descriptor Additional Guidance on Strengths/Weaknesses
High 1 Exceptional Exceptionally strong with essentially no weaknesses
2 Outstanding Extremely strong with negligible weaknesses
3 Excellent Very strong with only some minor weaknesses
Moderate 4 Very Good Strong but with numerous minor weaknesses
5 Good Strong but with at least one moderate weakness
6 Satisfactory Some strengths but also some moderate weaknesses
Low 7 Fair Some strengths but with at least one major weakness
8 Marginal A few strengths and a few major weaknesses
9 Poor Very few strengths and numerous major weaknesses
Minor: easily addressable weakness that does not substantially lessen the impact of the project.
Moderate: weakness that lessens the impact of the project.
Major: weakness that severely limits the impact of the project.

This resource is publicly available at: NIH - How Reviewers Score Applications

Prepare a feasible, scientifically sound, and abundantly clear research strategy – If you have read your mentor’s Specific Aims page from an R01 grant that has been renewed at least once, it is likely that the style of that Specific Aims page has matured during the process of multiple submissions, becoming less formulaic and more visionary. This occurs as your mentor establishes their reputation through publication, productivity, and successful grant writing. When writing an F series fellowship, your goal is to establish your reputation and demonstrate your strengths. You will serve as the PI for this application, while your mentor will serve a supporting role as your Sponsor. Therefore, your application must clearly highlight your unique skills, tools, talents, or ideas that will position you uniquely for this project and maximize your likelihood of success. Describe these qualities directly and confidently.

When awarded, the scope of your fellowship is intended to cover an amount of work that can be completed by a single student or postdoc (you), in about 3 years’ time. As a result, your Specific Aims and Research Strategy should not be overly ambitious and should describe significantly less work than a typical 5-year R01 proposal. The writing within your Specific Aims and Research Strategy sections should be very specific, transparent, and simple to read. For each aim, state your hypotheses directly. You may wish to use Bold or Italic to help reviewers easily identify these statements; although, judicious use of such formatting is encouraged. Briefly and clearly explain each experiment you will use to answer each question. Describe explicitly how your expected results will inform your hypotheses, and acknowledge any alternative result(s) you may observe outside of your expectations. Describe how you will interpret these unexpected outcomes and how your hypothesis will change. Consider alternative approaches that you will use to circumvent potential problems and discuss them. By considering these alternatives, you will demonstrate that your data will be publishable and informative, regardless of the outcome. This quality increases the value of your efforts, and therefore the reviewers’ confidence in your ability to successfully execute your research plans. By considering these alternatives, you will demonstrate that your data will be publishable and informative, regardless of the outcome. This quality increases the value of your efforts, and therefore the reviewers’ confidence in your ability to successfully execute your research plans.

Devote Sufficient Time to Developing the Supporting Documents – The supporting documentation of F award varies depends on the exact mechanism, but includes documents such as: Goals for Fellowship Training and Career, Activities Planned Under This Award, Doctoral Dissertation and Other Research Experience, Sponsor Selection, and Training Plan. Supporting documentation is often short-changed by students, postdocs, and mentors, who focus most of the preparation time on polishing the Specific Aims and Research Strategy. Without supporting documents that justify the training opportunities that will be developed and how this training will specifically benefit the applicant, the Specific Aims and Research Strategy simply are not enough. F applications must completely describe the training experience. The fellowship is a stepping stone to your independent research laboratory, and as such, the application must describe how this fellowship will prepare you for that career. Use your supporting documents to present thoughtful goals and activities that will personalize and add purpose to your proposal. Think critically and honestly about your current skills and expertise, your weaknesses, what you need to develop in order to become a successful PI, and which pieces are missing. The missing pieces will become the focus of your Goals and Activities pages. The Goals for Fellowship Training and Career page should address each item in the list of opportunities to grow and complete your training that you generated from the brainstorming exercise above; how will you achieve the goal, and how will the fellowship help you achieve that goal. The Activities Planned Under This Award page should address all of your activities as the PI of your fellowship: research, grant writing, mentoring, service, classes, conferences, etc. These activities will allow you to gain experience over the next 2-3 years to attain and excel in your future position. Items to include on the Activities page include any course work you will take, or courses you will teach, students that you will mentor, departmental activities that you will participate in (journal clubs, seminars, retreats, etc.), and specific examples of upcoming conferences that you plan to attend.

Use the Training Plan to Maximize Your Training Potential – Remember that this award is a fellowship. You (the applicant) are not yet ready to start your own research program. The areas in which you still require training compose your Training Potential. You mentor is an important player in this fellowship application. It is important that you communicate your reasons for selecting your mentor as an advisor: perhaps it was to gain expertise in your future field or with a particular technique. Your mentor should know the strengths and expertise that you bring to the laboratory and to your proposal. Discuss this with your mentor and decide which elements of your partnership lend strength to the Research Plan. To communicate these important points, weave them into your Specific Aims and Research Strategy as you introduce the proposed aims and describe how the strengths of your lab will allow you to conduct the proposed studies. These strengths should be addressed in greater depth in the Mentor Selection and Training Plan sections. The former is written by the applicant, while the latter is written by the Mentor. These documents are perfect places to elaborate on your strengths, your mentor’s strengths, and the unique benefits this partnership brings to the proposed work.

Additional tips:

  • Your application should make it abundantly clear that you and your mentor have discussed what research you will take with you to start your own laboratory. This important topic should be addressed in documents from both the applicant and the Sponsor, and both parties should be in agreement.
  • If you work with a mentor who is a Junior Faculty, you may wish to enlist the help of a Co-Sponsor with more extensive training experience to increase confidence in your Sponsor and your training potential.
  • Clearly explain the frequency and format of conversations you will have with your Sponsor such as weekly one-on-one meetings, weekly or biweekly lab meetings that the Sponsor attends regularly, and other opportunities for you to discuss your progress. This information will communicate your Sponsor’s availability and commitment to training you. If you know that your Sponsor is exceptionally busy, perhaps splitting time in the clinic or as the chair of the department, you can consider bringing on a Co-Sponsor to your training plan. This Co-Sponsor might be more available to provide training, and may offer a second perspective on the progress and direction of your research, adding even more strength to your fellowship proposal.

Best of luck in your fellowship applications!

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  • Identify funding opportunities
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