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Predoctoral Fellowships: Finding the Perfect Match


When I interviewed for a position as a predoctoral Intramural Research Training Award (pre-IRTA) Fellow, I hoped to join a research team studying brain development in children. After accepting the position--in the Child Psychiatry Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)--I was informed that I would be coordinating a new study of pediatric twins. I was convinced that I was meant to have this job because, as I eagerly informed my new boss, "I am a twin!"

Three years later, I am completing my master of health science degree through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Duke Training Program in Clinical Research, preparing for medical school, and interviewing applicants to succeed me.

I now realize that the reasons my fellowship was a perfect fit go way beyond my birth status and affinity with our volunteers.


On my first day at work, my boss told me that research is often "feast or famine." Large-scale projects take years to develop, and research fellows have different experiences, depending on the timing of their fellowship. By joining the branch at the start of the twin study, I was able to participate in discussions about study design, offer my input about neuropsychological measures, and experience the incredible enthusiasm surrounding a fresh project.

However, data must be acquired before results can be reported, and it can take years before the first papers are ready for publication. Many of our questions about the genetic and environmental influences on brain development cannot be answered with cross-sectional data and remain unresolved until longitudinal information is available on our twins.

Adding a third year to my fellowship has enabled me to experience the pleasure of seeing patients return for their 2-year follow-up visits, analyzing and reviewing our results, and publishing papers. Students with tighter restrictions on their research time and thesis requirements should be mindful of the timing of their projects.

Attitudes Toward Predoctoral Fellows

Another important factor is the attitude of principal investigators and other laboratory staff toward predoctoral fellows. I joined a lab that had a history of committed, hard-working, bright pre-IRTA fellows who made important contributions to the projects. My co-workers had high expectations for me and were open to my suggestions and scientific inquiries. I believe they were cognizant of the low stipends for predoctoral fellows and the fact that I viewed my position not as a "job" but as an opportunity to receive exposure to a variety of patient groups, training in research principles and practice, and career guidance.

Unfortunately, this attitude toward predoctoral fellows is not universal. Other pre-IRTAs I know perform only administrative tasks such as data entry, are discouraged from attending talks outside their lab, and feel that they are not challenged. When interviewing for research positions, students should investigate the opportunities given to predoctoral fellows while still demonstrating a willingness to work hard.

I believe I received privileges and encouragement because I was willing to take on some administrative tasks, paid careful attention to lessons from other researchers, and sincerely believed I had a lot to learn. In addition, other researchers in my laboratory were willing to invest more time in training me because they knew I would be staying for at least 2 years; medical students completing a summer internship often are not taught as much because their time is so limited.


One of the most important parts of my research experience has been the mentoring I've received from talented, dedicated doctors who have inspired and encouraged me. I am learning from doctors devoted to using research findings to inform decisions about intervention and patient care. These role models have shaped my interests and impressions of medicine by demonstrating that research and medicine inform and enhance each other.

The principal investigator of our study has allowed me to take responsibility for much of its day-to-day management and has involved me in scientific meetings and collaborations, as well as discussions about professional issues. He has fully supported me when I have sought additional educational opportunities and has shown interest in my activities and accomplishments. He even volunteered to be the first speaker at a seminar I co-organized. His praise and appreciation for my work have helped me approach problem-solving challenges with optimism and perseverance. Moreover, he has influenced my views of scientists by demonstrating integrity and humility, despite the stature his work has brought him.

Although not all research fellows are fortunate enough to have a boss become their mentor, they should know that many advanced scientists enjoy mentoring and that such relationships can significantly enhance a fellowship.

Wider Community

In addition to my experiences within my own lab, I have benefited greatly from being a part of the NIMH and NIH communities. Many of the families who participate in our studies travel here from all over the world because they want the advice of world-renowned physicians. Meeting patients and families in the hallways of the NIH Clinical Center and hearing their fears and frustrations have made them more than just data points to me and have enhanced my desire to help.

As a volunteer for the Director of NIMH Fellowship Training and a representative on the NIH-wide pre-IRTA committee, I have helped organize a "Bench to Bedside" seminar series, career workshops, and social events. I also enjoy attending events such as the Integrative Neuroscience Group talks; lectures by distinguished clinicians, such as Dr. Ben Carson, Chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins; and the symposium celebrating the first draft of the Human Genome. The fact that every speaker at the NIH Wednesday afternoon lecture series participates in a small luncheon with predoctoral fellows demonstrates NIH's commitment to young scientists. By working in a community that trains many scientists at all levels, I have had the opportunity to learn about a wide range of career paths, witness the joys and disappointments experienced by other researchers, and form lasting friendships with current and future colleagues.

My 3 years at NIMH have given me the opportunity to help children who suffer from severe neuropsychiatric conditions, learn about brain development in health and illness, and develop strong skills in clinical research. I greatly appreciate the challenges and rewards of research, mentoring, and clinical work and look forward to incorporating these three elements into my future medical career. I still wonder if the aspects I find most rewarding are unique to neuroscience and mental health or common in clinical research, and I would like to participate in more interventional studies. During medical school and residency, I hope to address these unresolved questions by gaining still more experience in clinical research laboratories.