Training and Retraining


Dear GrantDoctor,I am a mid-career physician-scientist working in oncology. I am looking to switch fields and do research into infectious diseases (focused on the central nervous system) or neuro-pharmacology. I am considering both areas.I was wondering if there are career-development grants that specifically fund these types of transitions. Thank you!Sincerely,Ian

Dear Ian,

It's pretty rare--but always gratifying--to find what seems to be a perfect match between a prospective grantee and a specific funding opportunity. Of course, even if I can do that, it's still up to you to go out and get the award. ...

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers a National Research Service Award (NRSA) for people in precisely your situation. The NRSA for Senior Fellows, designated F33, is, as the program announcement puts it, intended for "experienced scientists who wish to make major changes in the direction of their research careers or who wish to broaden their scientific background by acquiring new research capabilities." NIH clearly recognizes that scientists moving to a new field often bring new ideas with them, making these sorts of transitions very valuable for science and the public, and several institutes that fund research in your new area offer F33 awards. These include the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), and the National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). To be eligible, you must have at least 7 years of postdoctoral research experience, and you must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or "non-citizen national," whatever that is.

Probably the best way to make such a transition is to do a sabbatical at another institution--or, for that matter, at another lab in your own institution--and that's precisely what these awards are usually used for. If you've got a different strategy in mind, you should discuss your transition plans, as well as any other questions you might have about your transition or the award, with the appropriate program officer. Program officers responsible for F33 awards are listed in the program announcement.

Before submitting an application, you must arrange for acceptance by an institution and a sponsor. Your sponsor needs to be active in the research area you wish to enter, and he or she will directly supervise your retraining experience. It's incumbent upon the sponsor to demonstrate to NIH that his or her institution has the facilities to provide you with a top-notch training experience. These awards are good for up to 2 years, but federal law limits total NRSA funding to 3 years under most circumstances. So if you've already had an NRSA award, the term of your new award may be limited. It's possible, though, to have this requirement waived by the awarding institute.

F33 stipends are set case by case, but they are not permitted to exceed the NRSA maximum. For experienced investigators, this maximum--currently at $50,808--is not exactly generous. The stipend can, however, be supplemented by the host institution--or by your home institution--as long as the supplementing institution doesn't require additional effort on your part, and as long as the money does not come from the NIH or any other Public Health Service agency. (This latter obligation is, by the way, a general rule: There is a federal prohibition on the use of any federal funds to supplement an NIH fellowship.) Proposal receipt dates are 5 April, 5 August, and 5 December of each year. Start dates follow receipt dates by about 5 months.

My attempts to determine success rates for F33 awards were unsuccessful, but the numbers are small enough--only a few F33s are awarded each year--that statistics aren't likely to be very meaningful anyway. Success rates for many other postdoctoral NRSA fellowships are quite high--often 30% or higher.

Good Luck,

The GrantDoctor

Dear GrantDoctor,I'm a Spanish physician (medical oncology) enrolled in a biology Ph.D. program. I have the opportunity to come to U.S. for 2 years in a cancer research laboratory, but I need funding. What can you recommend?Thank you very much for your time and interest!Chris

Dear Chris,

In 2001, the last year for which data are readily available, more than 355,000 students were studying science, engineering, and medicine in U.S. graduate schools. Only 32,000 of those were supported by fellowships. And the majority of those on fellowships--the vast majority--were U.S. citizens. Those numbers don't look to encouraging for your fellowship prospects.

But look at the flip side: Another 323,000 graduate students managed to go to graduate school in science, engineering, and medicine, only about a third of whom were self-supporting. Nearly 100,000 students received research assistantships (most were supported by research grants, although quite a few were paid from institutional funds), and another 67,000 received teaching assistantships (mostly from institutional funds). Another 50,000 or so received support from "other" sources. And it is this money--research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and "other"--that is typically available to foreign nationals.

Fellowships for foreign students who intend to work at U.S. universities exist, but they're hard to find. Although U.S. government fellowships are typically reserved for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, most of the major disease-specific philanthropies offer fellowships, and most of these are available to foreign nationals. One such philanthropy is the American Cancer Society.

This sounds promising, but don't get your hopes up. The American Cancer Society focuses on postdoctoral awards; it doesn't offer very many pre-doc fellowships, and those it does offer are in targeted areas, such as clinical oncology social work and cancer nursing. As a degreed oncology physician, it's possible, albeit unlikely, that you would qualify for a postdoctoral fellowship even though you're still in graduate school. One such fellowship is the Audrey Meyer Mars International Fellowship in Clinical Oncology, although this award specifically excludes training in basic research.

Still, there's quite a bit of philanthropic money available for non-U.S. citizens. Search GrantsNet for a list of possibilities. (Be sure to check the box that says "Limit to awards without U.S. citizenship requirement.")

The bottom line: Although you are not entirely without fellowship options, your best bet is to pursue--vigorously--a teaching or research assistantship from your host institution.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!

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