Individual Fellowship Opportunities
While our students have guaranteed funding through the program, derived from a variety of sources - MSTP and other training grants, institutional funds, grants of thesis mentors and a number of others – there are a number of reasons students may want to consider applying for an individual fellowship. These include:
- Experience: the process of applying for a fellowship is valuable, and gives you a taste of what it will be like to apply for other fellowships and research grants later in your career.
- Kudos: competing against a national pool of candidates and receiving an individual fellowship from NIH or another funder looks great on your cv.
- Money/opportunity: For most students, receiving an individual fellowship will not change your stipend level, but these awards often come with additional funds for travel to conferences or other educational expenses (computers, books, etc).
- Benefit to mentor: If you receive an individual fellowship to help support your own training costs, this frees up funds for your mentor to use for other research/personnel costs.
Big picture advice from our Director, Skip Brass, MD, PhD
- Things to include in your proposal. Remember that these are training awards, not research awards. In general (especially for NIH F awards, but the others as well), reviewers will score your application based on their impressions in 3 areas. All three areas receive similar weight, so don't blow it by talking solely about the science and giving short shrift to the other parts. The three parts are:
1) You - your credentials up to this point, your career plans and your potential for the future
2) The training/mentoring environment, including your thesis mentor and the training program (talk about all that the MD-PhD program does to help you prepare for a career as a physician-investigator) (also talk about the graduate program you are enrolled in)
3) The likely impact of the science and how well you explain it. Depending upon the funding source, the directions may not tell you to have separate sections that address these 3 areas, but they want to know.
- Reviewers may be clueless. You may have a reviewer who is an expert in your area of research - but don't count on it. Write a proposal that describes your ideas and plans clearly enough that a scientifically-educated reader can follow comfortably. Since you are not the Oracle of Delphi, there are no points for being obscure. Don't annoy your reviewers by striving for opacity. Have your proposal draft ready far enough in advance that you can ask friends from outside your immediate lab group to read it. See if they get it and fix it if they don't.
- Preliminary data. For F awards, preliminary data are nice to have, but not mandatory. Read the directions for advice.
- If applying for an NIH F award, contact your program officer at the NIH. It can be very helpful to call the program officer at the NIH institute that will review and fund your fellowship before you apply. Ask about their goals for the science that they wish to support. Be prepared to discuss with him/her the field of research that you are doing. They especially like it if your thesis advisor has research support from the same institute, so check before you call/email and mention that. Program officers don't vote scores for proposals, but they usually have a pretty good idea of what the reviewers on their study section are most interested in. In general, follow their advice if they are willing to give it to you.
- If you are applying for an NIH F award and deciding between multiple institutes, take a look at the success rates and other relevant information on NIH's website: NIH Success Rates and NIH Data Book. Institutes vary in the number of applications they receive and the number they fund.
- NIH training support for medical school years post-PhD. Some of the NIH institutes have policies that either allow them or prevent them from continuing to support MD-PhD students once they head back to finish medical school. Only way to know for sure is to ask, but be sure to read the online information first. If they do allow support during the last year of med school, you should request it and may need to postpone the formal awarding of the PhD until you graduate medical school. This does NOT mean that you should (or can) postpone your thesis defense - that will still be required to take place just before returning to clinics (as in the past). It may be helpful to note in your training plan that you will continue to conduct research in your MS4 year, once the bulk of your full time clinical responsibilities are completed. The majority of MD-PhD students do additional research after completing the PhD and before graduation, and noting this may increase the likelihood that you can retain fellowship funding after defending.
Some specific tips for F30 and F31 proposals
Our success rate on these applications is generally quite good, but not everyone gets a fundable score and sometimes it is from being tripped up by avoidable mistakes. In reading the reviewers’ comments from proposals that were not funded, some common themes emerged. Based on those, here are some specific suggestions:
- Training plan. F30/F31 awards are for training. Reviewers pay close attention to the training plan, so make sure that in addition to the minimally customized boilerplate section that we will supply for you about Penn MSTP (the additional education information), be sure to write in your plan a customized version that talks about what you will be doing your thesis years and beyond to promote your development as a physician-scientist. That includes courses, conferences, group meetings on campus and workshops. Hopefully you are already doing all of this, so just describe it.
- Learn something new. Reviewers will want to see you grow as a scientist. That means learning new things and applying methods that you haven’t done before. Don’t expect a good reaction if you say that you have done a million western blots before and now you are going to do another million.
- Letters of reference. Very helpful if you can get them from investigators with whom you have previously worked and not just your thesis advisor - including gap and/or undergrad PI’s.
- Sponsorship section. Dave Manning, Maja Bucan and Skip Brass have drafted Suggestions for Section II. Please read it carefully and share with your PI(s).
- If you are working with a new PI. Pay close attention here. Reviewers will ding you if you are working for a new investigator e.g. someone who has not previously seen a grad student all the way through to graduation even if they now have independent funding. They have also frowned when F30/F31 applicants are applying with a faculty member who does not have research space of their own. This could, for example, happen when a Research Assistant Professor is working within space assigned to a tenure track former mentor. By MSTP policy, if you are in this position, you should have a senior co-mentor for your thesis. It is very important that that person’s role as a co-sponsor be spelled out carefully and they indicate in a letter that they accept that role. If you are in this situation, go over this part of your proposal with me.
- Research plan. Make sure that it is clearly written and understandable by people who are not closely involved with your research area. Make sure it clearly lays out your goals and plans - and talks about alternatives should your first brilliant idea go down in flames. Do get it read by others, including your PI.
- RCR section. Our MSTP RCR requirements should be sufficient for any reviewer, but be sure to not only include them, but also say what you have done.
- Vertebrate animals. Be sure to address all of the required issues, including stating that you have obtained (or will obtain) appropriate IACUC approval. Justify in detail the number of animals.
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