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Fellowships for students of under-represented groups and students with disabilities

Students should know that the National Institutes of Health will now consider applications from students with either physical or hidden disabilities, as well as students falling into certain other categories. A hidden disability might be dyslexia or a medical condition that puts the student at a disadvantage relative to peers.

About half of the applicants for NIH Fellowships are from students with a disability. Student are not asked to reveal the disability in the application, but many of them do so voluntarily. Upon applying, NIH administrators may ask what condition qualifies the student to apply, but the information is kept confidential except where the student self-reveals information.

Students awarded these fellowships can receive up to five years of support (with limitations, see below). Furthermore, students may apply for these fellowships even if the actual research would not qualify for a regular NIH R01 research grant. For example, a student in a lab that works on plants should not be dissuaded from applying.

The single most prominent reason for a low rating on an application was that the sponsoring faculty member failed to do an adequate job of describing the environment and the training and mentoring program. Faculty members must spend some time preparing their section of the application so that the study section is convinced that the student will be getting adequate guidance to achieve goals.

The timing of the application is important. When a fellowship is awarded, the status of the student has an effect on costs. The fellowship pays a stipend up to a cap of $20,772 (subject to change), and depending on the graduate program, the sponsoring faculty member may have to supplement the stipend using non-federal funds. An institutional allowance is provided that can cover student costs such as travel to meetings.

Furthermore, there is a limit on the amount of funds that are provided for “trainee related expenses,” including tuition. For Wisconsin residents, the tuition costs are reasonably low, but the sponsoring faculty member may still have to pay for trainee related expenses above a cap of 60% of tuition up to a maximum of $16,000. For non-residents who are also non-dissertators, the costs above and beyond what NIH is willing to pay can be substantial.

It’s recommended that non-resident non-dissertators wait to apply until the middle of their second year of study so that they will be dissertators by the time a fellowship is awarded. The tuition for dissertators is much lower than for non-dissertators. This could mean that they will be awarded less than five years (they could be reduced to four or three years), but the cost savings might be worth it depending on the ability of the sponsoring faculty member to cover additional costs. In any case, having one of these fellowships is better than not having one.

The NIH program is called the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award for Individual Predoctoral Fellowships (F31) to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research. Note that support can be for up to five years combined for the Kirschstein F31 fellowship program and support from a NIH (T32) training grant. As an example, if you have support from a NIH training grant for two years, you can only apply for three years of support in the Kirschstein F31 program.

This program is intended to promote diversity in health-related research by supporting research training leading to the Ph.D. or equivalent research degree, the combined M.D./Ph.D. degree; or another formally combined professional degree and research doctoral degree in biomedical, behavioral, health services, or clinical sciences. Applicants to this program include individuals from (1) racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented in health-related sciences, (2) individuals with either physical or hidden disabilities, and (3) individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For further information, go to the section for scholarships and fellowships on the web site for the Office of Graduate Studies http://www.cals.wisc.edu/gradstudies/scholarships/. You will find a direct link to NIH where you can find more information including details on the requirements and information on application deadlines.

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