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NIH ITRA Program - How I Got In, Tips for Applying, Templates & More

Hi everyone, in honor of my first week of my new job I wanted to share about my program. Starting my job this week has just been an absolute dream! I am so grateful for this opportunity.


Flashback to applying for this program several months ago, I had to balance working on this application with school, my MCAT, and medical school applications. I had to keep my faith for weeks as I struggled to find a lab - in the end it was all worth it! But through the process I realized there weren't too many articles offering advice for applying to this program, in that moment I know I wanted to document all the tips I learned about applying.

Since it is the end of my first week I thought this was the perfect time to write an extensive blog about what this program is, the timeline for applying, my tips, templates and more.


Disclaimer: All views/posts are my own. I don't speak on behalf of the IRTA program, I am only sharing my personal experience to help other student's who want to apply.


 

About the Program

The NIH IRTA (Postbaccalaureate Research Training Award) is a program for post-bac students (college graduates) to conduct biomedical research at the NIH. This program allows you to work in a research lab of your choice at any of the NIH institutions. As an NIH IRTA you have access to many resources from the NIH-wide Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE) and your institution's training office, as well as the opportunity to receive mentorship from your PI.


 

Why I Chose It

I have really come to embrace gap years as “enrichment years”, rather than a gap in my journey to medical school it is an opportunity for me to further my skills and passion for medicine. When thinking about how to spend my gap year I researched various options and spoke with mentors and other students about each option, whether doing a master program, working as a medical assistant, Fulbright, etc. Ultimately, I was really drawn to being able to conduct research while also having clinical exposure and mentoring/professional development. I first found interest in the NIH IRTA program through word of mouth experiences from fellow pre-meds in their gap years who found the experience to be very enriching and following further research into what it would entail, I decided to apply.


Why research? I found research to be a way to contribute new knowledge to my lab and field while gaining many technical, problem-solving and professional skills. The NIH IRTA program is dedicated exclusively to biomedical research and is connected to their Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center which would allow me to focus on clinically-centered research projects and shadow physicians which will strengthen my clinical exposure and understanding of medicine.


In my gap year, I wanted a multifaceted job where I could improve several skills over my time there. At the NIH, I applied with the hope to learn about the links between research, medicine, and advocacy and how my PI integrates their research to impact patient lives and communities. The NIH in particular is an exciting place to be able to pursue these additional experiences; it is a resource-rich environment in which I can attend seminars, programs and conferences within the world’s largest biomedical research institution.

 

Application Process

The actual application is very simple! There are only four parts of the application:

  1. Your CV or resume

  2. List of coursework/work

  3. A cover letter describing your research interests and career goals

  4. Contact information for three references

And that is it! However, there are some key things to note about the application process

  • applications are on a rolling basis - there is no deadline however it is in your benefit to apply early and increase your chances of getting available positions

  • it is up to you to find your mentor, be proactive! I'll give more tips on this later, but basically once you apply you are in the system for PIs to potentially find you - however you can increase your chances of finding a lab by reaching out to PIs

When I was applying I was looking everywhere for helpful information on how to write a good cover letter or how to draft emails for PI's. I was so thankful to friends who were NIH IRTAs who shared their cover letters with me and friends who edited my CV. Knowing how helpful this was to me makes me want to be able to be a resource for others when it comes to this process.


So keep reading for more my tips to be a successful applicant. Let's chat about the timeline next!

 

Application Timeline

As I mentioned, the application is completely on a rolling basis. Here is how I approached the application timeline. This worked really well for me, by starting early I was able to submit a polished application and I was able to balance working on it while I studied for my MCAT and started the medical school application process.


Summer 2020

I took time in the summer before my senior year to begin brainstorming what I wanted to do in my gap year and to understand the various options available for me. I did this by speaking to other pre-med students as well as doctors to hear their advice. I considered the option of doing a one-year master's program, doing scribing, being a medical assistant, or research at a medical institution. Ultimately, I thought the NIH fit my interests the best. I decided this would be my plan A and if I didn't get in I was looking for other medical research assistant opportunities.


October 2020

Around October, I began getting information about what was needed to successfully apply for the NIH IRTA program. I signed up for an IRTA account and after seeing that I would need three recommenders I started identifying recommenders and asked them if they would be a reference for me. I also started to think about what research topics I would be interested in pursuing so I could articulate this in my cover letter.


November and December 2020

By the end of the year, I worked on my cover letter for my application. This was the first cover letter I had ever written so I looked at a lot of examples, read blogs on how to write them, and got advice from mentors and other students.


January 2021

In January, I submitted my application! Again, this consisted of imputing my courses and grades, uploading my CV, listing my references, indicating keywords of my research interests, and pasting in my cover letter.


I really wanted to submit in January so I was nice and early in the system for any PI's who were looking for post-bacs- this was especially important given the pandemic!


Once you submit your application, your references will be emailed and they will be able to submit their letter of recommendation. Now, here is a tip! When I applied I actually didn't realize that my references HAD to upload a letter! This wasn't clear to me and since I was asked to list references, I thought that prospective PI's would simply be contacting my references for information.


Don't be fooled like me, think of your references as letter writers!


*Once you apply, you are told that it is recommended that your recommendation letters are uploaded within 2 weeks* - this is a heads up you can tell your recommenders ahead of time. (More on recommendations later on)


Late Jan to February 2021

Once my application was submitted and my letters were in, I started reaching out to PI's. I would spend a couple hours searching through the database and identifying possible mentors (go to picking a mentor section). I then decided to give myself time every Friday to send out emails to potential PI's.


This is when I faced several weeks of no success - which is ok and normal! My advice is do not be afraid to reach out! You never know until you ask!


Many of the PI's I reached out to were super nice! They complimented my application and thanked me for reaching out and then explained that they didn't have any IRTA positions available. One reason for this was due to COVID, some post-bacs decided to stay another year at the NIH. Sometimes labs were only looking for students who could dedicate 2-years - so if you are planning to spend one year at the NIH like I was be prepared to face more difficulties finding a position.


Late February

In late February, I got an email that made me super excited! A mentor had reached out to me and asked if I was interested in interviewing for a position. In this email, she described the lab, how it was both clinical and translational, how I would have opportunities to shadow, and how based on my application they thought I would be a good fit.

I was ELATED and thanked God for answering my prayers! We set up a time for my interview where I felt really connected to the mission of the lab and to my potential mentor. Following this interview, I was connected to the head of the lab for a follow-up interview.


March 2021

In March, I had my follow up interview with the head of my lab. It was another fabulous interview, I could tell that the mentors were passionate about supporting my goals, teaching me, and mentoring me! I remember answering one of his questions saying "well if I were chosen..." when I was interrupted and told "oh if it is not clear, we want YOU in the lab!" - the position was mine if I wanted it!

I tell this part of the story because I want you as a student to remember that while you are interviewing or seeking opportunities to please remember that the lab should also want you and see your potential of what you can bring to the lab!


Following these interviews I was given some time to make my decision. In the meanwhile I stayed in contact with the lab and even attending a lab presentation where I got to learn more of the research.


Tip: As you start to consider accepting a position, reach out to the current post-bac in your lab! It is important to know more about the lab from their first-hand experience


Late March

By late March I accepted the position in this lab. From this time until my start date I was able to start some on boarding processes, stay in touch with my lab and eventually start my position in July!

 

Application Tips

Now that you have an idea of not only the timeline but what my experience was like to getting this position, we can move onto application tips! I'll try to go in chronological order to lets start with the cover letter!

 

Cover Letter

The cover letter is your opportunity to explain your interest in the program. Note, this is not a creative writing piece! Rather than the personal statement where you might include hooks and stories this is a more straight-forward piece of writing. Here is how I approached the cover letter:


Paragraph 1: Introduce yourself & Explain Your Interests

Paragraph 2/3: Explain Prior Research Experiences

Paragraph 4: Highlight Related Classwork and Skills

Paragraph 5: Future Goals and How NIH IRTA will help you reach them


My advice is to highlight your strengths! Don't be shy to talk about your skills, your strengths, and achievements! I also advise to focus on your prior research experiences since you are applying to a research position - but don't be afraid to tie in other related experiences. For example I mentioned my leadership and volunteering at my local clinic.


Here is my final cover letter draft! Remember - this is only what I did! Use this to get an idea of how you can write yours.


My Cover Letter


[Date]


National Institutes of Health

Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (Postbac IRTA)

9000 Rockville Pike Bethesda, Maryland 20892


To Whom It May Concern,


I am a current senior at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) majoring in Cellular Biology & Genetics, with a minor in French Studies. I am writing today to express my interest in a position at the Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Program at the NIH. My interests include genetics, social determinants of health, and maternal/fetal medicine Additionally, I am passionate about decreasing health disparities in maternal health and have experience volunteering at a pregnancy center for minority women as well as conducting extensive research in placental malaria. I believe that I could be a valuable addition to your lab.


My research experiences have been related to immunology and infectious diseases. At UMCP, I am in the 2021 cohort of the Gemstone Honors Program, a four year rigorous research program in which I have worked with a team of undergraduates to develop, fund, and defend our own research. With the guidance of Dr. [insert name], my research focuses on finding a novel therapeutic to treat allergies through inhibition of the mast cell degranulation pathway. I have learned cell culture, assays, literature review and thesis writing skills and have presented on behalf of my team at our cohort wide colloquial. Due to the current pandemic, I was required to shift to an online project which has allowed me to obtain exposure to PyRx, which is a protein modeling software.


During the summer of 2019, I interned at the Center of Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine. Under the guidance of Dr. [Insert name], I developed a research project which investigated vaccine targets for placental malaria through examination of immune responses of Malian nulliparous and parous women to Plasmodium falciparum proteins. This experience gave me valuable exposure to working in a laboratory and analyzing data with R software and excel. Here I was able to develop technical, relational and communication skills that are critical to the lab environment, especially when relating to a PIs and physicians. Following the end of my internship, I presented this research at the 2020 Association of Minority Academic Physicians meeting.


My academic coursework includes Biochemistry I and II, Biology of Cancer, Molecular Genetics, Mammalian Physiology, and Cellular Mechanisms of Aging and Diseases. Through my courses, I learned laboratory techniques such as PCR, SDS-Page, microscopy, chromatography and how to run cellular assays. My coursework and grade point average can attest to me being a determined and hardworking student. I apply the same level of focus and dedication to my research positions. I also possess organizational, time management, and public speaking skills gained through my experiences in various leadership positions in student-led organizations on campus and jobs as a supplemental instructor and organic chemistry tutor.


I plan to apply to medical school in the 2022 cycle and my long-term career goal is to be a physician-researcher working to improve health care for low income and minority communities. The NIH IRTA would give me the invaluable experience of further developing my research skills, understand more about fields of interest and gain valuable advice from the mentoring. I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss your research further and the contributions I can make to your research team. Thank you for your consideration.


Sincerely,

Kyeisha Laurence


The OITE webpage also has great resources such as example cover letters and CV's which I used to prepare my application.


 

Letter of Recommendation


Since you are applying for a research/science program, the best letters would be from someone who can speak to your ability to do research and speak about your personality, work ethic, and other competencies.

I was fortunate to have three great letter writers, one was my mentor for my Gemstone research, one was my mentor for my UM Scholars research, and one was my program director for my UM Scholars research. I think if you don't have three strong research letters I would suggest a non-research writer who can write very strongly about your other characteristics that would be important in lab such as your ability to work with others, your professionalism, critical thinking or more.


When you reach out to your letter writers, you should be prepared to provide them with a draft of your cover letter, your updated CV and to explain why you want to apply to the NIH IRTA program. This will help them write their letter and it shows them that you are serious and prepared.


 

Making Contact with Labs


As mentioned before, you should reach out to labs that you are interested in and ask them to interview. In my email I wanted to be sure to highlight some key things

  1. My plan to attend medical school and that I am looking for a one-year position

  2. WHY I am interested in their lab and CONNECT this to my experiences

  3. Closing with what I hope to learn and contact information

I was sure to attach my CV, cover letter and references contact information.


My Email to Labs

My name is Kyeisha Laurence. I am currently a senior at the University of Maryland College Park graduating in May with a degree in Cellular Biology & Molecular Genetics. I am writing to express my interest in the post-baccalaureate IRTA Program and to inquire whether your lab will be accepting any IRTA fellows. Following my participation in the IRTA program I plan to attend medical school in 2022.


As I was reading about your lab on the NIH website, I became interested in your work on the social, behavioral and environmental factors of health that impact age-related diseases. As I’ve read over your recent publications I have found your work very exciting as I am especially passionate about contributing to the work on racial and ethnic health disparities, understanding the social determinants of health and exploring how various factor affect our genomics and gene expression.


I believe I could be a strong addition to your laboratory team; my coursework has included Cellular Biology of Aging and Disease, Molecular Genetics, and Behavioral Genetics - where I am learning about social and environmental factors that affect our genes. Furthermore, my last summer internship at the University of Maryland School of Medicine focused on placental malaria where I studied antibody responses from pregnant women using microarray data. Additionally, I have had extensive research experience in the last 4 years on an immunology and cellular biology project within the Gemstone Honors Program, an interdisciplinary research program, at my institution. For more information, please find attached a copy of my cover letter, CV, and references.


Overall, it would be an invaluable opportunity to be involved in your impactful research. I would have a chance to not only contribute to innovate research in fields of my interest but also learn about the intersections of research, science and medicine and ultimately prepare to take these skills to M.D. programs and beyond.


Please let me know if and when it would be convenient to set up a call to discuss your research and any availability for a research position. I have also completed the NIH online application for this program if you would like to review it further. I can be reached by phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX or kyeishalaurence@gmail.com


Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


 

Things to Consider When Choosing a Lab


As mentioned, the ball is truly in your court on which labs to reach out to, accept interviews from, and eventually commit to working in. It is important to decide for yourself what your top priorities are.


For me, I really wanted to be involved in clinical research because while I do enjoy basic science, I know that I want any research I do in the future to be clinically focused. I also wanted to the opportunity to be able to interact with people and patients as part of my job. I wanted my PI to be an MD so I could learn about their career path through medicine and shadow their work. Finally, wanted to work on a topic where I could work with minority populations and health disparities if possible.


I let these requirements guide my search for labs and tried to be open minded about the research topics. I looked at labs in cancer, fetal and placental biology, and human social genetics and malaria. The lab I ended up in is researching Alpha Thalassemia!


Finally, it is important to consider what kind of mentorship you hope to receive in your position. What is the culture in the lab like? Who will be your primary mentor? Are they open to you doing activities for personal and professional development?

My suggestion is to reach out to current post-bacs in the lab and hear their experiences first-hand!


 

Hope this was helpful


I hope this was helpful for providing some more information about the program, how you can apply, and tips for applying successfully. If you have any questions about my experience with applying feel free to send me an email or a message and I would be happy to respond.


xoxo,

Kye

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