Hints on how to write a successful NRSA proposal

Hints on how to write a successful NRSA proposal

Applying for the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) - Contributed by Kurt | August 2013

You finally accepted the postdoctoral position of your dreams. You are diving head first into your project and starting to get results. You are excited by the data and the story. However, you hear your colleagues chattering about securing independent funding and how important it is for your career. You start hearing buzzwords like NRSA, F32, and study section. When is the right time to apply for an NRSA fellowship? What steps must be taken and what topics must be considered during this process? In this blog article, Dr. Kurt Postdoc reflects on his recent experience and shares his advice for success in an effort to help postdocs interested in submitting a proposal avoid some common pitfalls and gain perspective on how to tackle this intimidating task.


The stated mission of the NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) program is to help ensure that a diverse pool of highly trained scientists is available in appropriate scientific disciplines to address the Nation's biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research needs. One mechanism of the NRSA, the F32 postdoctoral fellowship, provides support to promising postdoctoral applicants who have the potential to become productive and successful independent research investigators. Although a variety of funding sources exist to support postdoctoral research projects, the NRSA distinguishes itself as a grant that promotes the adequate training of postdoctoral fellows.

Why should I apply?

The NRSA seeks applicants who have a strong training potential. The most suited applicants will be pursuing postdoctoral training in a lab that conducts research distinguishable from the applicant’s dissertation work. It is recommended to apply for the NRSA immediately upon joining a postdoctoral lab or within the first year because the NRSA will only provide up to three years of postdoctoral support from the time you begin your postdoctoral training. When starting your postdoc, keep the NRSA deadlines in mind. There are three cycles to submit an NRSA application with deadlines of April 8th, August 8th, and December 8th. 

It is worthwhile to apply for the NRSA even if your lab has ample funding. If you intend to carve out a career as an independent scientist, it is never too early to establish a track record of securing your own funding. Also, the NRSA will allow you to pursue more training experiences during your time as a postdoc than you might otherwise obtain if you rely on your advisor’s funding. Regardless of the outcome of your application, the process of writing an NRSA will be very beneficial. Putting in some extra effort to submit a grant is the best way to improve your ‘grantsmanship’. Above all, the process will prove invaluable because of the communication it will foster with your advisor about training expectations for your time as a postdoc.

My experience

Where do I start? I applied for an NRSA in the Fall of 2012 and learned a great deal during the process. Having written a few research proposals during graduate school, I felt I was up to the task. However, I quickly found it to be much more involved than I had anticipated. The first time I looked at the program announcement for the NRSA (PA-11-113) I did not know where to begin. The program announcement offered plenty of information pertaining to the eligibility and basic guidelines, but it did not provide the complete instructions for the grant. Eventually I found the instructions and grant package, and I was still stuck. I distinctly recall staring at the grant application package, which consist of a series of electronic forms. The forms asked mostly for administrative information and it was not clear what documents would actually need to be written for the application. I wasted a whole day filling out these forms. I say “wasted” because later on I learned that our Research and Sponsored Programs manager fills out all of these forms. I finally grasped what the application entailed when I took the time to carefully read the application guide cover to cover. The guide, titled SF424 (R&R) Individual Fellowship Application Guide for NIH and AHRQ, is 172 pages and it is not the most stimulating read; however, it contained the answer to my most burning question, “What do I actually have to write for the application?” Here is the list I compiled, broken down by section:

RESEARCH & RELATED Other Project Information
    -  Project Summary/Abstract 
-  Project Narrative/Public Health Relevance
-  Bibliography & References 
-  Facilities & Other Resources 
-  Equipment
RESEARCH & RELATED Senior/Key Person Profile
-    Applicant biosketch (with transcripts)
-    Sponsor biosketch
PHS Fellowship Supplemental Form
Research Training Plan
-    Specific Aims
-    Research Strategy (the research proposal)
-    Human subjects or vertebrate animal statements
-    Respective contributions
-    Selection of Sponsor and Institution
-    Responsible conduct of research
Additional Information
-    Goals of Fellowship Training and Career
-    Activities Planned under this award
-    Doctoral Dissertation and other research experience
Sponsor(s) and Co-Sponsor(s)
-    Sponsor(s) and Co-Sponsor(s) Information (The sponsor statement includes a description of the training plan, the environment available to the trainee, and the sponsor’s reference about the applicant’s qualifications and potential)
PHS 398 Cover Letter
-    Cover letter
* Also three letters of recommendation must be arranged (cannot include sponsor)

Time to begin writing. Once I had this list in hand I was able to devise a plan for completing the application. I looked at the application as three parts: (1) the research proposal; (2) statements relating to my qualifications, training expectations, and training/career potential; (3) the sponsor’s statement. Looking at the individual components made this endeavor feel much more manageable and I was able to outline a timeline and to-do list. I think this was very important because it allowed me to focus on one thing at a time and prevented the whole application from becoming overwhelming. I wrote the research proposal first because I was comfortable with the structure and expectations. This took some time as I spent a couple weeks reading literature and outlining ideas. In the end the research proposal was the culmination of ideas that emerged from numerous discussions with my advisor and co-sponsor.

Asking for help from those familiar with the process. Admittedly, I expected the hardest work to be behind me at that point, but I really was only half-way done. Tackling each section from that extensive list was difficult because the instructions leave a lot of room for interpretation as to how you might use the section effectively. I quickly realized that it would be very naïve to attempt all of these sections in isolation and I sought out postdocs who had previously completed the NRSA application. By simply asking around my department, I was directed to a postdoc who was willing to offer me guidance. It was helpful just having someone who could verify that I had all of the required components on my list. Additionally, when I had writer’s block it was useful to bounce a few ideas off another postdoc. Having insight from another postdoc made me feel like I was on the right track. Furthermore, it provided me the self-assurance to push through all of the supplemental components instead of throwing my hands up in confusion.

Although a quality research proposal is important, the supplemental components can separate the great proposals from the rest of the pack. Remember, the NRSA is a grant to support postdoctoral training. I suggest looking at the supplemental components as an opportunity, not a burden, to effectively convey the training experience you will gain if awarded the NRSA and the benefit these experiences offer. Within this section you need to demonstrate that you have an effective training plan, the training is specifically designed to help you fulfill your potential, and all of the components tie into a cohesive narrative with your past experience and future plans. You have to convince an NIH scientific review group that if they invest in your training you will actually develop into a successful scientist that can contribute to the NIH mission.

Benefits of writing the proposal. My favorite aspect about working on the NRSA was the countless discussions it spawned between my advisor and me about my training. The discussions were not limited to the research proposal and included my career goals and the training experience I desired while I was a postdoc. Prior to writing the NRSA, I was reluctant to tell my advisor that I wanted to partake in training opportunities that would take time away from lab experiments. The grant provided the framework and reason to have substantive conversations about a variety of experiences available to me within the university. It was through such in-depth discussion with my advisor about my career goals, training needs, and the types of experiences I wanted to participate in during my postdoctoral fellowship, that we were able to create a specific training plan.

Interpreting the study section’s decision and moving forward. After the NRSA application was reviewed, I received my summary statement. Although my application was not funded on the first submission, this statement was very informative. I learned that reviewers submitted scores for five different categories: the applicant, the sponsors/collaborators, the research training plan, the training potential, and the institutional environment and commitment to training. The reviewers also assessed the overall impact and merit of the application.

Together, this information was taken into consideration before the scientific review group assigned an impact score. I found it extremely constructive to step back and consider how I could improve my application scores in each of the scored categories. I examined each application component and asked, “Does this section effectively demonstrate that (1) I am a qualified applicant; (2) the sponsors are qualified to train new investigators and have appropriate expertise; (3) I have an exceptional training plan in place and the training is purposeful; and (4) the institution can foster this training successfully?”

In the process of re-submitting my application I also made an effort to contact the program officer. The program officer offered useful advice on what the NIH and scientific review groups are looking for in the NRSA application. The conversations were very fruitful as the program officer was able to clarify comments I received from reviewers in the summary statement and discuss, in general, how one might address typical concerns.

With the new insight from the summary statement and program officer, I went through the entire application and made needed revisions. Next, my advisor and I met for several focused discussions to address any weak areas in the application. After we prepared the resubmission, we believed the application was more cohesive and all of the training tied together. This work resulted in a successful resubmission.

Concluding remarks

Let me conclude with seven tips for working on an NRSA application:

1.    Give yourself plenty of time
2.    Read the entire instruction package as you get started
3.    Seek out other postdocs who have written an NRSA
4.    Contact the funding agency to learn about program priorities and seek pre-application advice
5.    Get in touch with the Research and Sponsored Programs division or the department that oversees grant management at your university
6.    Take advantage of this excuse to repeatedly talk to your advisor about your training and professional development
7.    Do not forget the mission of the NRSA

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