The Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award or the F31 is a predoctoral award that provides a stipend and some research allowances for predoctoral students. It is a fellowship provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Preparing an F31 is an arduous task involving many moving components. Still, it can be quite rewarding once completed and even more rewarding if funded. I prepared an F31 in my second year of graduate school. It was not funded, but I learned a lot about navigating the grant process, grant writing, and management. On top of all that, there was the research proposal writing itself. I am writing down some tips that can help others prepare their application. These tips can also be applied to other fellowships and grants.
Reach out to the Office of Sponsored Programs
You may think that your mentor is the most important person that will aid you in preparing an F31. This is not entirely true. The Office of Sponsored Programs or your departmental research grant administrator is the most important person when preparing the F31. They will guide you on preparing the documents needed for an F31 application, which can be more than 50 pages. The F31 and many of the NIH awards require multiple documents in addition to the Research Strategy and Specific Aims. It is also not as simple as pressing the submit button. As I mentioned, the research grant admin will gather the documents you prepare and create a 50-page document. They will submit this on your behalf. In fact, they usually have an internal deadline about a week or two before the one set by the NIH. This is the time they use to prepare your application. This is why it is incredibly important to reach out to your research grant administrator in advance when thinking about preparing an F31. They will tell you the internal deadlines and provide a checklist of documents that you need to prepare.
Figure out which funding institute aligns with your research
There are multiple organizations at the NIH that participate in funding the F31. You will submit your application to only one of these organizations. Each organization has its own mission or high priority research that it will fund. You will need to research each one to see which aligns with your research. Furthermore, once you find an organization, you will need to reach out to the program director to discuss your research strategy. They can often tell you directly if it is within the mission of their organization.
Use the NIH RePORTER
Once you figure out which NIH organization you plan to submit to, use the NIH RePORTER to find out the kind of research it funds and whether your research ideas are on the same level. Select the organization and choose F31 as the award type. A list of funded research will populate your screen. You can click through the links and read their abstracts. Importantly, you can limit your query to your own institution. Why would you do this? So you can reach out to graduate students in your area that were recently funded. You can discuss with them on their process while preparing the F31. and they may also be willing to share their submission. This leads me to my next tip.
Find sample applications
It is difficult to find previous applications, but they can be valuable. You can see how each of the documents are prepared and formatted. If the summary statement is shared, then it becomes even more valuable. You can see how the reviewers scored the application and learn from the weaknesses while incorporating their strengths into your own application. Here are a few sample applications I have found.
Preparing your research strategy
The research strategy will be the most essential part of your application. It needs to be as persuasive, concise, significant, and innovative as possible. If this seems impossible to you, that is why it is challenging to prepare a good research strategy. There are some key steps for preparing a good research strategy. Make sure to read the e SF424 (R&R) Application Guide for the F31 on Research Strategy. It gives you a guideline on the requirements and formatting. The page limit is 6 pages. Typically the F31 provides 3 years of funding, so your proposed work needs to be achievable within this time frame. Your specific aims should be interdependent and not dependent. This is so that if one aim fails, you can still accomplish the other. You should have 2-3 specific aims. It will depend on their difficulty and whether or not they are achievable within 2 or 3 years. Your mentor can give guidance and feedback on your proposal. I recommend using other resources, such as other graduate students, collaborators, and library writing resources.
You are the one
Ultimately, it will come down to whether or not you are the best person for the job. Your objective is to shape your application to tell the reviewers that you are the only person and the best person to achieve the proposed project. This means you need to think about where your shortcomings are as a researcher. For instance, if your mentor does not have funding for the next 3 years or does not have a long history of mentorship, you will need to find a co-mentor that does. If you are not as knowledgeable as you should be in the subject area, make sure that you write in the courses you plan to take to increase your knowledge base. If you don’t have the equipment or tools in your lab to accomplish the aims, then you need to find a local collaborator that does and you will need a letter of support from the collaborator. I am just listing some examples but these are some of the possible critiques that reviewers will hone in on.
I submitted my first F31 in April 2016. I later received my summary statement saying I was in the top 20 percentile but unfundable. This was still encouraging, and I prepared a resubmission for December 2016, which was ultimately unfunded. I did submit my research strategy to some private foundations which funded my research. Importantly, preparing an F31 is often the exam before dissertation, which was the case for myself, so you can still use the application to jump start your doctoral requirements. While I was not awarded an F31, I am grateful I had the funding to still complete my dissertation. The process of grant writing was still rewarding for me because it focused my thoughts on experimental design and science communication. Both are crucial skills for researchers. If you are a first-year graduate student, I highly encourage you to work with your mentor to prepare an F31 as soon as possible. The earlier you work on it, the better. If you are a 3rd or 4th-year graduate student, do not fret. There is a new funding mechanism called the F99/K00 you may be interested in. It is a Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transition Award. I do not have experience in it myself, but many of the tips that I provided still apply. Good luck, and don’t hesitate to reach out if you need any advice.