Your Grant in Review: The F32 Postdoctoral Fellowship Application

We've previously discussed the NIH F32 Fellowship designed to support postdoctoral trainees. Some of the structural limitations to a system designed on its fact to provide necessary support for necessary (additional) training overlap considerably with the problems of the F31 program designed to support graduate students.

Nevertheless, winning an individual NRSA training fellowship (graduate or postdoctoral) has all kinds of career benefits to the trainee and primary mentor so they remain an attractive option.

A question arose on the Twitts today about whether it was worth it for a postdoc in a new lab to submit an application.

In my limited experience reviewing NRSA proposals in a fellowship-dedicated panel for the NIH, there is one issue that looms large in these situations.

Reviewer #1, #2 and #3: "There is no evidence in the application that sufficient research funds will be available to complete the work described during the proposed interval of funding."

NRSA fellowships, as you are aware, do not come with money to pay for the actual research. The fellowship applications require a good deal of discussion of the research the trainee plans to complete for the proposed interval of training. In most cases that research plan involves a fair amount of work that require a decent amount of research funding to complete.

The reviewers, nearly all of them in my experience, will be looking for signs of feasibility. That the PI is actually funded, funded to do something vaguely related* to the topic of the fellowship proposal and funded for the duration over which the fellowship will be active.

When the PI is not obviously funded through that interval, eyebrows are raised. Criticism is leveled.

So, what is a postdoc in a newer lab to do? What is the PI of a newish lab, without substantial funding to do?

One popular option is to find a co-mentor for the award. A co-mentor that is involved. Meaning the research plan needs to be written as a collaborative project between laboratories. Obviously, this co-mentor should have the grant support that the primary PI is lacking. It needs to be made clear that there will be some sort of research funds to draw upon to support the fellow doing some actual research.

The inclusion of "mentoring committees" and "letters of support from the Chair" are not sufficient. Those are needed, don't get me wrong, but they address other concerns** that people have about untried PIs supervising a postdoctoral fellow.

It is essential that you anticipate the above referenced Stock Critique and do your best*** to head it off.

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*I have seen several highly regarded NRSA apps for which the research plan looks to me to be of R01-quality writing and design.

**We're in stock-critique land here. Stop raging about how you are more qualified than Professor AirMiles to actually mentor a postdoc.

***Obviously the application needs to present the primary mentor's funding in as positive a light as possible. Talk about startup funds, refer to local pilot grants, drop promising R01 scores if need be. You don't want to blow smoke, or draw too much attention to deficits, but a credible plan for acquiring funding goes a lot farther than ignoring the issue.

29 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    Remember that the issue of funding is completely one of feasibility. The F32 does not provide money for the actual experiment. So if you need fMRI scanning time, or a big mouse colony, or money to travel to the ends of the earth for field research, you're going to need some other way of getting that. I have seen successful F31 and F32 NRSAs where the mentor says "It's a computational project - I have bought them a computer." or "I have a stash of secret administrative (or HHMI) funds that can cover the mouse expenses." Or whatever. But if you propose a project that requires a million dollars of cost to get something done and no way to pay for that, they're not going to waste their funds paying you to fail at the project.

  • I was awarded my F32 before my junior prof mentor had received any NIH RPG funding. And my first post-doc was awarded his F32 before I had received any NIH RPG funding. If you have a fuckeloade of preliminary data in the application, then it suggests that resources exist to actually do the work.

  • drugmonkey says:

    But that was in the Dark Ages PP. Not sure it generally applies anymore?

  • Joe says:

    F32s are a lot harder to get now than they were when I got one (last century). Now it seems that everything has to be perfect. Every applicant has a great training plan, co-mentors or mentoring committee, and a great post-doc office and association. So I think anything that could be picked on (including lack of dedicated relevant funding) has a good chance of sinking the application.

  • SM says:

    I was wondering the same thing about a grad student applying for an F31. I assume similar criteria apply?

  • geranium says:

    I have extensive experience, in the last five years or so, with NRSA applications being tanked for "mentoring/feasibility" issues. I can think of multiple specific examples where the only meaningful criticism was seniority of the primary mentor. In two recent cases the A1s were awarded when the only real change was adding a co-mentor who was just a senior colleague in the department.

    My advice is that if a single one of the following are true, you *must* have a senior, flush co-mentor attached: the primary mentor is pre-tenure; no prior trainees from the primary mentor's lab have established their own labs; the primary mentor does not have a major (R01) grant with multiple years of funding left.

    If the primary mentor doesn't have any major government grants at all (yet), then I think waiting to submit is probably a necessity. A reasonable exception would be ye olde write-for-the-revision strategy, if you think there's a good chance of a grant coming in in the next 12 months. The NRSA is a 3-year grant but if the postdoc has already been in the lab a while, they generally only award 2 years of funding. So look at the calendar; it might be efficient to submit, gamble on a primary grant coming in, and turn around a really strong A1 based on the on reviews.

    It costs nothing to add on another colleague. They don't even have to be close in research. I've seen a senior plant person co-mentor an animal researcher. Just make a good, legitimate case for providing some particular type of expertise on one of the aims. Remember that this is a mentoring/training award--give them a reason to give you check marks for a supportive and extensive mentoring team, and absolutely no reason to ding you.

  • E-rock says:

    Sorry to pile on the ad hominem here, but CPP just revealed a bit of generational gap issue. He/she seems to have operated in a time when institutions put resources into scholarly work instead of depending on scholarly work for resources (endowment pay profs salary vs. grants pay IDC to support the new assistant vice dean of widget polishing).And a time when "potential productivity" was somehow measured & considered. Now -- "potential" really means: what senior old dude you've managed to align yourself with as a result of chance. It is a result of resource crunch as alluded to by Joe. In some respects, the resource crunch can be a good thing, so long as we continue advance wrt who has access to resources. Women compose about half the PIs in my field but a smaller proportion of the institutional leadership. So I feel in practical terms (as reviewers and colleagues, but not figureheads) women have achieved parity with men, maybe they're willing to retire sooner and hang out with the fam instead of feeling a need to go to work and sleep through job talks... but minorities not so much compared to the majority wrt race or economic background. Part of the resource crunch may be due to opening the field to the rest of humanity besides the wasp male, which is a good thing (for both science and the US) ... I fear that the nature of attaching oneself early on to a Prof Greybeard as an indicator of future potential and therefore access to these resources is not healthy. I have no skin in this particular game of Fs at the moment... Just some thoughts on what is happening in a cull ... and who survives and why.

  • E-rock says:

    Geranium, do you ding people because you think that your peers would EXPECT you to ding someone for a particular reason or because you really feel that it's a valid criticism? Sometimes I have to check myself and think whether a particular criticism I am about to wield may be because I had received that (fallacious) criticism in the past or because it is a logically & scientifically valid criticism. I mean really --what difference does it make if a candidate composed a letter of recommendation supposedly from a septegenarian whose secretary adds a tiff of signature to documents so that said distinguished individual goes home with another trainee and perhaps over the next 3 years a dozen more middle-author papers on the ole CV, which is maintained by a secretary... solely as a result of this need (because of fear from your ding) to add old dudes to the list of collaborators & trainers?

  • qaz says:

    It's not that you must have a senior person attached, but rather that you must have a real training plan and real evidence that you can carry out that training plan. If you are a new professor who has never trained a postdoc before, you need to have someone there who has experience training postdocs. You should think of it as "preliminary data" - if you propose to do a complicated experimental paradigm but have no evidence that you can actually accomplish that paradigm, you're going to get dinged for it.

    In fact, a senior person with a poor track record (e.g. someone who doesn't have a lot of "successful" (*) trainees isn't going to help you either. But, the senior person doesn't even have to help with the research. I've seen successful training plans that say "Yun Gun will teach the candidate how to do complicated technology X and Old Badger will teach the candidate how to be a professor."

    (CPP's experience was rare even in the last millennium. As we all know, CPP is special.)

    * As we've discussed elsewhere before, the NRSA study section's definition of "successful" can be highly skewed.

  • E-rock says:

    Qaz- good insights. Thank you.

  • jojo says:

    So at the risk of revealing my institution is doing something wrong, the statement "F32 money can't be used for research expenses" is not universally true.

    At my institution we are allowed to spend our institutional allowance on research supplies. Unlike some other institutions which take the money for overhead or only allow it to be used for travel and insurance, for whatever reason we are allowed to use it for almost any expense we can justify.

    Anyone else ever heard of this?? I was really surprised because I was under the impression that indeed it was only supposed to be used for insurance/travel etc.

  • jojo says:

    Of course, the institutional allowance doesn't amount to much when you're talking about biomedical research involving animals/etc. But when you're talking about doing, say, a few lanes of sequencing or buying a computer for data analysis, 5k (roughly what you might have left after paying for insurance and travel) will get you quite a ways.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I meant that in most cases I am familiar with, that pittance will not cover the plan described in the application.

  • geranium says:

    "At my institution we are allowed to spend our institutional allowance on research supplies.... Anyone else ever heard of this??"

    Yes, this definitely happens elsewhere.

    E-rock, my experience with lack-of-seniority issues has been on the getting-dinged side, not on the giving of the dings. I feel that the NIH bias towards awarding secure, senior labs at the expense of new, junior labs is problematic.

    All that said, having been a participant in this process myself and many times over a witness to this process with colleagues... the business of bringing on a senior person to eliminate the lack-of-seniority issue is not completely terrible.

    As qaz points out, the senior person has to be meritorious. And they can (and should) help out in very circumscribed ways, including a plan to "mentor" (though this plan better be well-described). This can be really beneficial to the trainee. Even though the trainee will write the section on the senior person's contribution, and maybe even their letter of reference, it will at the very least involve sitting down with them at least once and having a conversation. If the thing gets funded (and even if it doesn't), that interaction serves as a useful starting point for more interactions.

    Most postdocs suffer from a lack of interaction with their department and their research community, unless they are especially well-motivated. The NIH is definitely on-target in encouraging postdoc trainees to create a networking infrastructure for themselves.

  • LM says:

    "Even though the trainee will write the section on the senior person's contribution, and maybe even their letter of reference, it will at the very least involve sitting down with them at least once and having a conversation."

    You would think this would be the bare minimum. However, it is not.

  • qaz says:

    LM - I think we can tell when it is not. 🙂

    It's usually pretty clear to study section when the senior co-mentor is a name and not actually contributing.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    The institutional allowance is absolutely permitted to be used to help defray research expenses, according to NIH rules.

  • E-rock says:

    Since departing grad school, I have never, not written at least a draft of every single letter (of reference, of support, etc.); it is a practice that I detest and plan to not carry forward. Drafting letters of support for a grant is expected but drafting letters of reference for "trainees" defeats much of the purpose and makes a mockery of the process IMO. But I participate because I have to. Maybe that explains my mentored training grant success rate.

  • […] preference to research mechanisms to support graduate students, among other topics) as well as a recent post by DrugMonkey on individual postdoctoral NRSA fellowships (F32s) reactivated my interest in […]

  • Anonymous says:

    Forgive a clueless grad student, but I'm going to ask some stupid questions here:

    1) Does it ever make sense to approach the PI of a lab you hope to join as a postdoc with an idea for writing an F-32? Can you write it while you're still a grad student (but very close to graduation), given the lag between applying and possibly getting funding? Or is there a real advantage to waiting until you actually start in that person's lab?

    2) How do you learn to put together a successful F-32 application? If I'm approaching a potential mentor, it seems weird to say, essentially, "I have this good idea but now can you teach me how I should write the application?" Or is this not at all weird?

  • jojo says:

    There are absolutely advantages to waiting until you actually start in the lab. First off, You'll have time to get to know your PI and determine whether you both want to work together for 3 years. Also you'll be in the lab, presumably working on some project the PI has funding for. In doing that, you'll inevitably come up with ideas for how to expand on that research that wouldn't be apparent from only discussions and reading the lit.

  • At least in my area of research, F32s are expected to contain substantial amounts of preliminary data generated by the applicant post-doc in the lab of the mentor, so it would be very difficult to submit a credible application before joining the mentor's lab. (Whether this practice of F32 review panels is good or bad is a separate question.)

  • Oh, and you learn how to put together a successful F32 by reading successful F32s of others.

  • Ben Saunders says:

    I imagine like all things the necessity of prelim data varies a lot by subfield and the specifics of the lab and applicant. My F32 was awarded this year without any data I had personally collected, for example. I don't know if I would recommend that as a strategy per se, but advice given to me for fellowships has always been to err on the side of less data, as there is definitely a risk of including too much, and thus undercutting your "training potential". Obviously the degree to which any piece of data does this depends on how the data relates to the proposal.

    Feasibility is partly based on the lab's history with the techniques and approach, so I expect prelim data matters more for applicants in new labs. Do we know this?

    Anon, how important it is to bring your own funding to a lab, say by writing an F32 before starting, will depend heavily on the PI and her/his funding and personnel details. I think the best approach would be to be open to doing so, though on average I'd say your chances at better if you're already in the lab/collecting data.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks jojo, CPP, and Ben Saunders for your input. I was told not too long ago that writing a fellowship application would be a great experience for me as a grad student. But I guess I should go back to this person (one of my advisers) and ask exactly what fellowship they had in mind, because it doesn't sound like that's the norm for the F-32 (writing while still a grad student), and I don't know of any others that I'd qualify for at this stage.

    In case you are curious, I would be proposing to build a dual modality sensor (including algorithms for data processing). Modality A has been demonstrated in part by me and another student in current lab, headed by a newish PI with only 1 yr left on her RO1 (different project). The lab I envision doing my postdoc in is well-established and rich, and has a long history of success with Modality B, which they are currently trying to combine with other modalities (just not the one I have in mind).

    I guess the other thing that might be relevant is that I don't want to do a 4+ yrs postdoc--I'd like to keep it to 2-3, if possible. I already have several years of research experience in industry, and in bioengineering, a postdoc is not absolutely necessary for an academic job. I am interested in a short postdoc because it would give me an additional set of skills that would make me a bit unique on the market. (And also, to be perfectly honest, I cannot articulate a vision for what my lab would do right now, so I know I'm not ready for the job market now.)

  • jcolearyiii says:

    In my experience with the F31, the PI needs to have an R01 for them to consider you. I came from a small lab and my professor got his very first R01 and soon after that I got the F31. The NIH is not going to pay you to do research that you can't do.

    I help graduate students at the university improve their chances of getting an F31. I would be very happy to talk to anyone who is interested. My email is john@johnoleary.mx.

  • anonpostdoc says:

    I came across this blog post while looking for info about F32s. My mentor is wonderful and well-funded; I am the weak link in my F32 application. Do you, or your army of well-informed commenters, have any recommendations for successful F32 applications in this situation? What are common mistakes people make, or things you've seen that really enhanced applications?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Strong training plan seems to be something that often is overlooked.

  • Kelly says:

    Can an F32 topic be very similar to one of the PI's RO1 grants? In other words, if I am listed as a person doing work on an RO1, can I write an F32 grant on that project so that my salary would be covered?

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