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:
- You - your credentials up to this point, your career plans and your potential for the future
- 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)
- 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.
Specific Fellowship Opportunities
Many fellowship opportunities are tied to particular research areas. There are also fellowships that are broad in terms of area of research, but have other eligibility criteria- eg awards for underrepresented minority students.
Some fellowships current students hold or have applied for:
NIH Individual Fellowships
NIH Individual Fellowships - See award info for which Institutes support these, what their research priority areas are, and for eligibility criteria:
- F30 Individual Predoctoral MD/PhD or Other Dual-Doctoral Degree Fellowship
- NIH F30 Program Details
- NIH PA-18-688 FOA for Institutions with NIH-Funded Training Programs (as of 2/16/18)
- Please check the list of participating Institutes in the FOA
- Note: as of March 2014, the new NIH eligibility requirement for a F30 grant is: an applicant must have matriculated into a dual-degree program no more than 48 months prior to the due date of the initial (-01) application. If you plan to apply for an F30, you will need to submit an initial application before or during your 4th year via the August 8, December 8, or April 8 deadlines.
But what about the August deadline at the start of 5th year? That's right on the edge of eligibility for most students. We recommend 1) applying for the April date in 4th year if possible to be sure there’s no issue, or 2) contacting the relevant institute to get a definite answer on whether you’re eligible for the August deadline. If you choose option #2, we recommend you include in that email both their matriculation date (typically start of MD orientation - Amy can confirm the date for you) and your first day of MD classes if orientation is before the deadline, since that could make a difference.
- F31 Predoctoral Fellowship to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research
- F31 Individual Predoctoral Fellowship
Soros Fellowship for New Americans (permanent residents; naturalized citizens; children of two parents who are naturalized citizens)
American Heart Association Predoctoral Fellowship (see Great Rivers Affiliate link)
Rheumatology Research Foundation (in 2017 created a new grant mechanism for MD/PhD students called the Rheumatology Future Physician Scientist Award)
Check out the other fellowships that MD-PhD students can apply for. Penn students can consider the fellowships on both List A and List B. (We actively encourage students to consider applying for Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards from the NIH). Your thesis mentor may also have suggestions about particular awards he/she thinks you should consider.
Science Grants & Funding - a list of other places you can search for information on funding programs. Unfortunately, most of them require a subscription for access.
process and tips for applying
Information about the process and tips for applying
Additional tips for NIH F30/F31 proposals
Please note the NIH F30/F31 information on the Process and Tips for Applying page prior to reviewing the additional tips.
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 letter that we will supply for you about Penn MSTP (Institutional Env/Educ Information letter), 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. Also, please see note regarding your NRSA eligibility.
- 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).
- Recommendations in communicating with program officers at NIH – individual NRSAs. On 4/25/17, Dave Manning shared, "Many of you have recently applied, or will be applying, for individual NRSAs (F30/F31s). Efforts in this regard are important for a variety of reasons. Chief among them are the experience gained in writing grant proposals and the distinction that comes with success. One item that’s important at this level is communicating effectively with program officers at the NIH. I am providing a set of recommendations as they relate to individual NRSA applications. My thanks to Skip Brass and Steve Dinardo for their help, and to a number of students who provided great feedback."
- 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. Contact Amy Nothelfer for the template one-page RCR description for the MD/PhD program.
- 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.
fellowship recipient policies
- Students are expected to abide by the conditions specified in their individual fellowship award, along with all relevant graduate group, School and University policies.
- If the stipend amount provided by the fellowship is equal to or less than the current MD-PhD stipend level, then the student will continue to receive the current MD-PhD stipend level going forward. If the stipend amount provided by the fellowship is greater than the current MD-PhD stipend level, the student will receive the full amount of the fellowship stipend for the duration of the award.
- If the fellowship comes with funds for research expenses, cost of education allowance, and/or travel, Marianne Altland Williams or the relevant business administrator, can provide information about what the funds may be used for and how to process payment.
- For students who are awarded a significant (non-NIH) external fellowship, the CD program provides students with a Cost of Education allowance of $2,500/year, to support their educational and research activities. Fellows can use their allowance to fund travel to conferences related to their research field, books, lab supplies, one computer and associated peripherals. iPads and similar devices are also OK. If not spent in one year, funds can be carried over to the next but NOT beyond the end of your external fellowship.
Student Resources - A list of current MD-PhD students who have volunteered to be a resource for our current Penn MD-PhD students, who are considering applying for individual fellowships
F30/F31 Grant Guide - A document created by current MD-PhD students, which provides detailed information on the process of applying for an NRSA F30 or F31 grant.