Surviving the F31 Application Process

Editors Lisa Learman and Steffie Pitts share their tips for a successful F31 application.

Applying for an NIH F31 Predoctoral Fellowship is a huge undertaking. Follow these 14 tips to submit a successful grant application – while keeping your sanity intact.

Preparing to Write

1. Give yourself ample time to complete the application. We suggest starting your application at least three months prior to the due date. The application has many components and requires letters of support from multiple professors, so it is best to start early. Don’t push for an earlier submission cycle if you think it will be stressful to put the application together in the time you have. The due dates for this year can be found here in the “F Series Fellowships” section

2. Contact your program director/program officer at the NIH. Each institute or center at the NIH has program directors that manage the F31 grants for that center. You should contact the program director at your center of interest a few months before the due date to let them know of your intention to apply for an F31 grant. It is important to establish a relationship with the program director, as they will be able to answer any questions you have about application requirements. They can also let you know if your application is best suited for their center or if it would be better off at another center.

3. Contact your department’s grants administrator early in the process. You cannot submit this application to the NIH on your own. You must first submit it to your department’s grants office so that they can check the formatting, make the budget, and put all the documents into a complete application package. The departmental grants office will then send the application to the JHU SOM Office of Research Administration, who will check the application and submit it directly to the NIH. Contact your department’s grants administrator to find out the internal deadlines for submission.

4. Make a work schedule. Break up the components of the application, focusing on only one or two statements per weekend. Although preferences may vary on which statements to write first, we recommend starting with statements that will not change as your research progresses, such as the “Biosketch” and “Applicant’s Background” sections.

Writing the Application

5. Find example materials and resources. It can seem impossible to find information about what to include in each component of the application. Reach out to upperclassmen and ask if they can send you their complete application package, not just the Research Strategy section. Use their examples in conjunction with a written guide to applying for F31s, like this one.

6. Remember the F-series fellowships are training grants. The main goal of the application is to convince the reviewers that your research and training plans will build on your existing skills to make you even more qualified to be an independent researcher. Be sure to talk not only about the new techniques you will learn but also how the research and training plan will enhance your ability to think like a scientist. How are your mentor, laboratory, department, graduate program, and institution perfect for your training? How are they perfect for your proposed research? How will this grant allow you to enhance your training?

7. Address any perceived shortcomings outright. This could be anything from less-than-ideal grades to a gap in your academic training. The reviewers are human – they will most likely be understanding if you explain your situation in a professional way. If not, they may assume the worst.

8. Don’t sell yourself short. Most graduate students are hard on themselves and may be uncomfortable listing their accolades. When writing about your qualifications, don’t leave anything out. In your publication history, be sure to include submitted manuscripts, manuscripts in preparation, abstracts, posters, and invited talks.  

9. Make sure your application is easy to read. Dense line spacing, ill-formatted figures, and tiny margins will make it a pain to read your application. To avoid getting on the reviewer’s bad side, bold or italicize section headings, leave spaces between paragraphs, and ensure that figures align with the margin of the text.  

10. Review your sponsor’s statements. As supportive as your mentor may be, they are likely juggling dozens of responsibilities. For this reason, it is important to meticulously review your mentor’s statements for formatting, spelling/grammar, and content. Make sure your mentor explicitly states how the proposed training plan will hone your skills in experimental design, presentations, mentoring, and networking. These statements should match the ones you made in other sections of the application so that reviewers know you and your mentor are on the same page. Your mentor should also include information on how often they will have one-on-one meetings with you and how they will help you secure an appropriate post-doctoral fellowship.

11. Reapply. If you are not awarded the grant, reapply. Many trainees are awarded fellowships after resubmission. Reviewer comments can be a blessing in disguise, giving you an opportunity to thoroughly address any perceived shortcoming of the application. The reviewers of your resubmission will see that you have thoroughly addressed the previous reviewers’ concerns, which is a point in your favor. Remember that you only have one chance to resubmit an F grant, so make sure to prepare your resubmission carefully.

12. Be mindful of tone when responding to reviewers. Avoid any kind of combative tone in response to reviewer comments. It is essential to adopt a mindset of humility. If they missed an important piece of information, ask yourself how you could have made that point clearer. For example, adding headings or subheadings might help to highlight key words and ideas. Address as many of the reviewers’ remarks as possible; do not simply ignore the comments with which you disagree.  

Final Thoughts

13. Edit. Edit. Edit. Get as many eyes on your statements as possible. Ask your classmates, post-doctoral mentors, and your mentor to read over each component of your application. Submit your application to ReVision to ensure it is ready for NIH review. You can submit individual sections as you write them or a complete draft. Just make sure to submit your document two weeks before you need feedback.

14. Do not define your self-worth by the success of the application. In the months after you have submitted your application, the thought will inevitably cross your mind that if you are not awarded the grant, you have wasted months of your time. Don’t listen to these thoughts. Accept the fact that many worthy applications are not ultimately funded. In preparing your application, you have further honed your research strategy and gained invaluable skills in grant preparation. Submitting an F31 fellowship is worth it, even if your application is not funded.

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