How to Apply to the NIH Intramural Postbac Program

>>I’m Dr. Sharon Milgram
from the National Institutes of Health Office of Intramural
Training and Education. The goal of this
video is to talk you through your application
to the NIH Postbac Program. The National Institutes of Health is the nation’s
biomedical research institution. We are a federal agency that
is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services,
and our overall mission is to use research to improve
human health worldwide. The NIH is actually composed
of 27 different institutes and centers, and our emphasis
in research, both doing research and supporting research is
in the social, behavioral, and biomedical sciences, and
the research that is performed at NIH and supported by the NIH
spans from very basic science to translational science
to clinical research. The goal of the NIH to
improve human health is carried out through the 27 different
institutes and centers of the NIH, and although I won’t
go through all of the institutes and centers that are shown here
on the slide, I wanted to point out this structure because as
you apply to a training program at the NIH, you’ll
actually be applying to work in one of these institutes. One of the key things to
understand about the NIH is that we have two main divisions. So in each of those
institutes, for example, NCI, or the National Cancer
Institute, or NEI, the National Eye Institute, each of those institutes
has an intramural division and an extramural division. Extramural NIH supports research
being done at universities, colleges, hospitals, and research institutions
across the globe. In the NIH intramural program, scientists at the
basic translational and clinical level do
research on the NIH campus. As you can see, we have training
opportunities at all levels from a summer internship
program that welcomes students at the high school, college, and
post-college level to programs for graduate students, medical
students, post-doctoral fellows, and individuals who’ve completed
their medical school training or other clinical training. The program that
I’m going to talk about today is the NIH Postbac
Program, and that is a program which is geared towards helping
recent college graduates explore careers in research and health
care in preparation for graduate or professional school. The NIH Intramural Postbac
Program is a paid internship working in an NIH intramural
research group, and as I talked about in the beginning, this
is across many disciplines. So you can be a major in
a field of mathematics or computer science or
engineering or cell biology, psychology, social work. Many different fields of study
and school, and you’ll be able to find an internship here. If you think about it, the
questions that we address at NIH span from the behavioral
to very mechanistic science, and so there’s room for people
with very different interests. You can work on any of the
NIH intramural campuses. The major campus is in Bethesda,
Maryland right on the edge of Washington, D.C. and
our nation’s capital, but we have other intramural
campuses, some just a Metro ride or two away from the Bethesda
campus, others more distant in Baltimore, in Frederick,
Maryland, in North Carolina and Montana, for example. You can learn about all of
the different NIH campuses and where intermural
science happens when you visit the website. Make sure when you
apply to notice which of the campuses the
NIH scientist works on. You don’t want to be
surprised and find out it’s not where you were expecting to be. Postbac’s at NIH work full time
in research labs gaining skills in critical thinking,
in research design, in data analysis, in
integrating their research into the broader
picture, and the bulk of training really is
focused on research training, but in addition, the Office
of Intramural Training and Education and many of the NIH institute training
offices provide much educational programming for NIH Postbac’s. There are workshops in
science skills development, in science communication, in
career readiness, and a series of programs on going to
graduate school and going to medical school or
professional school. We have a number of important
annual events of graduate and professional fair where
over a thousand students from the area come to learn
about career opportunities in research and health care
to network with colleges from and universities
across the country, and we have a major Postbac
poster day where you get to show your research to the NIH
community while you develop your communication skills. In addition, all NIH
Postbac’s have access to the NIH Career Services
Center in the OITE. We have pre-graduate and
pre-medical advising, and, furthermore, we have a
program called the NIH Academy on health disparities which
NIH Postbac’s can apply to and participate in. So overall, the goal of
the Postbac Program is to prepare you for a career
in research and health care to help you gain an appreciation
for the importance of research in society and to help you make
good career decisions as you map out your career in
science and research. I want to go over the
application principles because the reality is it’s
a highly-competitive program, and understanding how to
best apply, who to talk with, when to apply, and
what we’re looking for can make a big difference. A few general principles. The first thing is before
you begin the application and before you e-mail
us or other NIH offices with questions, read the
frequently asked questions and explore our website
in great depth. When you go to the website,
you’ll see that there’s advice to applicants, there are
FAQ’s, there are links to many important resources. Follow the directions
carefully, and understand that this is a year-round
application cycle. You can apply at any time
to start to any time. Write the best and most
strong application you can by making sure that it
is grammatically correct, clearly written, well organized, and that you provide the
information we ask for, and I’m going to give
you some clues on that as we go through this webinar. It’s really important to
know who you’re writing for, and that’s a key part
to understanding how to successfully apply to
the NIH Postbac Program. So you apply online
to a central database, but there is no central
committee that reads your application
and selects participants. It’s just the opposite. It’s a very decentralized
system. NIH investigators, and
we call them PI’s here for principle investigators,
NIH PI’s or people in their lab search the
database to find candidates, but the reality is and the
data show year after year that candidates who
count on being found in the database fair very poorly
in the application process. So you dramatically, I can’t
stress enough how dramatically, increase your chances of
getting a Postbac position by e-mailing the PI’s
once you’ve uploaded your application, and
I’m going to explain to you the entire process
of how to find PI’s, what to e-mail them, and
how to follow up with them. Interviews for the Postbac
Program can be in person if you happen to be
close by or in the area, but many Postbac candidates
apply and interview by phone, and offers, as I said
before, can be made anytime, but most Postbac’s start
mid-June to October. This is a competitive program. We receive many outstanding
applications, and as much as we wish that
we could accept all of you, the reality is that
positions are limited. I want to give you some
thoughts on other ways that you might gain research
experience post-graduation. So one is that the NIH
Extramural Program funds a set of programs called
Prep Programs, and these are research-oriented
Postbac’s at colleges and universities
across the country. You can apply to Prep
Programs in a geographic area where you wish to live
for a year or two, perhaps at a school
you might to apply for once you complete the
program, and at the end of the slides, there’s a
link to the NIH Prep Program. Another way to hedge
your bets in applying for the Postbac Program, if
you are a college senior, apply to the NIH Summer
Internship Program. Come to the NIH for the
summer if you get a position, and use the summer to network
and find a Postbac position. If you’re watching this video
as a junior or a sophomore, you could consider coming even
earlier in your college career. What we know is that
individuals who are here and who take advantage of the networking opportunities
while they’re here are successful Postbac candidates. Finally, if you apply for the
Postbac Program, either at NIH in the Intramural Program
or the NIH Prep Programs and don’t get a position,
consider working as a technician at a university and gain
research skills that way. The application for the NIH
Postbac Program consists of your contact information,
a cover letter, a resume, some letters of recommendation, and a list of your
coursework and grades. Once admitted to the program,
you will need to provide us with an actual official
transcript, but during the application
process, we just ask that you list
your grades, all grades, not just science
grades as clearly and succinctly as possible. There’s a great tips on applying
document that you can download for the website, and I
strongly encourage you to read that as you begin putting
together your application. The cover letter is probably the
single most important element of your application, at
least for most investigators, and it is your chance
to convince us that you would be the perfect
fit for the NIH Postbac Program. It should be somewhat broad
and generic since, remember, many different PI’s
will read it. So you should write a
generic cover letter in your application, and
then you’ll personalize it for individual labs
when you reach out to them after you apply. You should pay particular
attention to describing research,
accomplishments, experience, and interests. This can be through internships
in previous research experiences or through coursework,
but make sure to describe either
or both clearly. And you should use concrete
examples and be brief but complete in your
cover letter. In general, the cover letter
should be about one page long. I’m not going to show
you a lot of examples of successful cover letters,
but I do want to make the point of how to appeal to many PI’s. How to be broad but
also somewhat focused in your research interests. So I give you two examples here
that you can take a look at. So too narrow would be I
want to do this one thing in this one model in
this one area, OK, but too broad is I
want to come to the NIH because research is
a part of medicine. So you want to take a
look at these examples. With these examples
and the FAQ’s, I think you’ll get an
idea of what I mean by appealing to many PI’s. The CV is another area
where we get to know you. This is a chance to tell us
all of your accomplishments. This should be both
educational accomplishments, work accomplishments,
leadership activities at school and in the community. You should make sure to
list your honors and awards, your research experiences, and
I suggest you keep them separate from other work experiences so
that we can really hone in first on your research experiences. If you’ve given presentations,
or you have a publication from undergraduate research, we certainly will
want to know that. You might want to tell us
languages that you speak as in many clinical
environments, being bilingual is
a great advantage, and tell us about any leadership and community service
experiences you have. In the document I referred to on the last slide is a
great example of a very clean and concise resume of
a successful applicant. We’re also going to ask you for
contact information for people who can write letters
of recommendation. Please understand that the
absolute best letters come from people who know a lot
about your research skills. Optimal would be
someone who knows you from a previous research
experience, but to be honest, Postbac’s do get in who have no
prior internship experiences, and they tend to get letters
from people who know them from research environments
at school. So advanced laboratory
classes that they take. Second best would be teachers in
science areas who know you well, and this can be all areas
of science, engineering, mathematics, but someone
who knows you well. They should address your
scientific knowledge base and other personal traits that
are relevant to doing research, like your perseverance, like
your ability to ask questions, your ability to work on teams. You can also get letters from
someone who knows you from work or activities outside of school,
but make sure that they focus on traits and characteristics
important for success in the work and research
environment. So some applicants have
coaches or supervisors in college jobs write letters, and these can be
outstanding letters, but make sure they understand
that they should focus on traits that are relevant to the
research environment, and to help with
that, we have an FAQ for letters of recommendation. Finally, don’t ask family,
friends, or family members. Occasionally, we see
people make that mistake. Those letters are
completely discounted. So you upload your information
online, as I said before, through a central database,
and NIH investigators can go and search that database,
but the reality is that the individuals who
get offers get offers because they reached out to
research mentors and pointed out their application. So that’s the process I’m going
to talk with you about now. So, first, I’m going
to give you four ideas for finding research mentors, but before I give
you those ideas, I’m going to tell you
one thing not to do. Please don’t go to Google
and Google NIH and put in the topic of interest
for you. Cardiovascular, sickle cell,
cystic fibrosis, breast cancer. Because if you do that, what you
will find are many individuals in the NIH Extramural Program. They review and fund grants in
those areas, and so they’ll show up in a Google search,
but they’re not in the Intramural Program. They don’t have a
research group, and you can’t do a
Postbac with them. So please follow these
four guidelines here. These, this is tried
and true advice. We know from talking to
successful applicants that they spend a lot
of time on this step. The first is follow the
link on our web page to the NIH Intramural
Investigator Database. It’s also called the
NIH Annual Reports, and search for people there. Every NIH Intramural scientist
has an annual report filed in September of every year, and
so you know what they’re doing, up to date, who works
in their lab. You can even see if there
were other Postbac’s because everyone is
listed by name and title. There is also a list of NIH
Intramural investigators grouped by scientific discipline. So if you know you’re interested
in chromosomal biology or neuroscience or immunology,
you can go and search by scientific discipline. A third great way to find
potential Postbac laboratories is to contact the NIH
Intramural training directors who have institute-specific
information. So if you remember, I said the
NIH is actually 27 different institutes and centers. The Office of Intramural
Training and Education is a
trans-NIH resource that supports intramural
training in each of the institutes, but the
institutes have a training director and infrastructure
as well. So let’s say you know
that you’re interested in cardiovascular research. It would be good to reach
out to the training director in the National Heart, Lung,
and Blood Institute to ask if he or she has some advice. If you know you’re interested
in becoming a dentist, you would be very interested
in reaching out directly to individuals in the
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Many areas, though,
cross institutes. So don’t be too narrow
and only take this institute-specific approach. Finally, on the Postbac web
page, which you can find at training dot nih
dot gov, is the program from last year’s Poster Day. Typically, if someone
has Postbac’s one year, they’re interested in hiring
Postbac’s the next year, and so you can peruse the book. You can read titles. You even get the name of a
Postbac that you might be able to reach out to for advice. So that’s the fourth
way that we recommend that individuals search
for research mentors. So without a doubt, you need
to find a Postbac that is in a research group in an
area that interests you where you will learn
skills and ideas relevant for your future career. However, it’s also important
to remember that you need to be in a supportive environment
where you will grow and learn. Now one size does not fit
all in research environments, and each of us thrives
in a different type of learning environment and a different type
of research group. So there are two resources
that I want to stress and encourage you to
use that help you think about finding quality
research mentorship and finding the best
possible environment for you. The first is a written
document that takes you through questions
you should be asking, things you should be thinking
about and gives you a sense of how to find the research
environment that’s right for you, and the second
is a YouTube video on this same channel
where you found this video that guides you through
the process. I strongly encourage you
to find these resources, to read them carefully,
watch them, listen, consider what’s there
because we know from talking to prior Postbac’s that
the single biggest thing that determines success is being in the right research
environment. We don’t want you to find
yourself in an environment that doesn’t work for you. So please take a look
at these resources. So I want to just guide you
through that process of looking for potential research mentors. First, start at training
dot nih dot gov. I can’t stress enough to explore
other areas of the website, not just the Postbac
application page. I think you’ll find a wealth
of career information, but today I’m going to highlight
how to find research mentors. So click on the big button that
says perspective applicants. This will take you
to the Postbac page. Now if you look down the right
side of the page are a variety of resources, including a link to the intramural
investigator database, links to the NIH institute
training directors, the FAQ’s, the tips on writing a
successful application. These are all the resources I’ve
been encouraging you to use. To actually find potential
research mentors if you want to search the annual reports,
you will click at the bottom where I marked it by the arrow. You’re going to get to
a box that allows you to choose the year, and you’re
going to pick the latest year, and then it will allow you to
put some words into search. You can search in a variety of
ways, but I’m mostly going to go over searching by keyword. You don’t want to put in
keywords that are too broad, for example, cancer or
cardiovascular disease. Those are probably too
broad, but you don’t want to use too narrow
of a search either. So if you put in a very
narrow search term, you only get back one
or two investigators. Just try to expand a little
bit to increase the number of investigators that come back. You can use techniques. Let’s say you want to come
here to learn some FMRI imaging or other imaging techniques. You can use diseases,
model systems, organs, physiological processes. Anything that will
give you insight into a research group
doing the type of research that you want to do. Once you do a search, you
will read the research in each of the investigator pages. Don’t be terribly intimidated if you can’t understand
everything there. These are pretty
technical documents written for a technical audience. That said, it should
give you a sense of whether you’re generally
interested in the area. It also will give you the name
of people that work in the lab. What you’ll need to do is
find the e-mail address of investigators using the NIH
Enterprise Directory, or NED, and a link to NED is on the
web page that I showed you in the previous slides. And then you’ll reach out to
NIH Intramural investigators with personalized e-mails. So I can’t stress that enough. No generic spamming. Dear Scientists, I’d
like to work in your lab. Many of us get many of
these generic e-mails, and we rarely respond and
rarely make an offer to someone who sends a generic e-mail. You want to introduce yourself,
include a brief discussion of why you’re interested
in working in that research
group specifically. If you can tie it to a particular college
experience, that’s great. If you can tie your interest to a particular future
experience, that’s great. You just need some
rationale for reaching out to that investigator. You also want to talk about your
previous research experiences. If you can tie it to this
current research group, that’s great. I already have experience
in epidemiological research. So I’m a perfect fit for your
epi group, that’s terrific, but you don’t have to do that. That said, even if
it’s not connected, point out the general
things that you learned, communication skills, teamwork. That a lot of science
doesn’t work, and you just have to persevere. Point out why you’re interested
in being in NIH Postbac. Is this to prepare for a
career in clinical research? Is this to explore your options? Is this to gain expertise in computational biology before
you go on to graduate school? And make it very, very easy for
them to learn more about you, and by this, I mean provide
your CV as an attachment, and let them know that
you have already applied to the Postbac program. Now in this slide, I show
you a letter that comes from a successful applicant. In our FAQ’s and our guide to writing successful
applications gives you a lot of coaching on what to say. These e-mails do not
need to be very long. They do not need to be in
depth, but they do need to be personalized in some way. Always people e-mail me and
say how many of these do I need to send, and it’s very hard
to give you an exact number because some people send only
one or two and have success. Some people send twenty
and are successful. Some people send twenty
and aren’t successful. If you get to discouraged,
e-mail me. My e-mail address is at the end. Furthermore, actually,
if you want some feedback on your letter before you
send it, just e-mail me. I won’t read it and edit it. You need to get other mentors
to do that, but I will read it and give you a little
bit of feedback about whether it’s heading in
the right direction or not. Now, you write materials
to get an interview, and then it’s the interview
that really matters. So four things that you
might be asked about. So four things you should
be prepared to talk about. Some previous research
experience, and, again, if you haven’t had previous
research experience, talk about what you learned in
classrooms and in research labs that prepare you
for the Postbac. You might be asked about
techniques or languages, computer languages, statistical
packages that you know about. Some NIH investigators
like you to come in with some experience
useful for them. Some are just looking for a good
exciting candidate to come in and are happy to train
you, but some might ask you about techniques you know. You will likely to be asked
why my research group, and you will be asked
your career goals, and you may be asked your
intentions for staying only one or two years in the
Postbac position. Some investigators prefer
people staying for two years. Some investigators are happy
to accept an applicant willing to make only a one-year
commitment. You should have questions
to ask of them. So it’s not a good practice when people say do you have
any questions for me to say no. So you might ask them
about previous Postbac’s. What they’re doing now. You might ask about
your daily supervisor, the types of projects you can
work on, and the techniques that you might be able to learn. Also, remember that mentoring
article and video I referred to. You might want to ask some
of the questions there. So you’ll want to be
prepared for the interview by practicing talking
about yourself, your goals, and your experiences,
and then you’ll want to practice asking questions and
knowing what the questions are. You don’t want to have to
think about that in real time. Once an NIH investigator
makes an offer, you will need to let them know within their
timeframe whether you accept or not. I encourage you to
think carefully about whether it’s the right
offer before saying yes, but I also encourage
you to be realistic, that this is a competitive
program, and sometimes we don’t get
exactly the project or group that we want, but it’s still a
positive learning experience. I want to make a couple
comments about tips for success once you get in. Quite frankly, getting in
is only the first step. We really want you to have
an outstanding experience, and we really want you
to leave here ready for your next career step. So be sure that you have the
right academic preparation for the work you’re doing. If they are expecting you to
have certain hands-on skills, read about those
techniques in advance. Make sure that you’re ready for
a professional work experience. It can be a sort of surprising
transition from college to a government research
facility. This is a job. It’s also a training experience
where you’re here to grow and learn, but the
reality is you’re also here to make major contributions
to the research enterprise. So make sure you’re
ready for that, and that you understand what
you’re going to be doing. Get to know the NIH and
all of the resources about. This is a big campus. It also can be a warm
and friendly campus, but if you don’t know where to
go for help, or you don’t know who to go to for guidance,
you can get lost here quickly. So you know the NIH Office
of Intramural Training and Education already, and
you met me here on the video. So this is one place to come. We have a Moving Guide. We have orientation programs. We have a Postbac Handbook. We are here to talk
with you at any time. The institute training
offices have a lot of resources to help you as well,
and there are many, many activities once
you get here. So read the section on our
website of getting started. Join the right groups. Get on the right list serves. Come and meet us. Make sure to make a
plan for your scientific and professional success,
and reach out to us to get help following it. This wraps up my video on
applying to the Postbac program. There are many other
resources on our web page. The NIH is very vested in the
future of our science students, our Postbac’s in the
intramural program are one of our favorite populations
of students. We want you to get in. We want you to come here. We want you to thrive. We want you to make a difference
in research and health care. E-mail me if you
have any questions. My e-mail address is
here on the slide. Please connect with
me on LinkedIn. Join the NIH Intramural Science
LinkedIn group to learn more about intramural training, and
visit the websites listed here. Thank you, and I hope to
see you on campus someday.

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