For postbacs, grad students, and postdocs
Resources to help you find your NIH research group, for full-time year-round programs.
On this page
- Start here
- Search for NIH PrincipaI Investigators with openings in their group
- Contact potential NIH mentors
- Considerations for choosing a research group
- Interview with potential NIH mentors
- Best practices in interviewing for research positions
- Talk to additional research group members
- Consider what you learned and assess your options
- Follow up with a thank you
- Mistakes to avoid
- Communicate your decision and get ready to onboard
- What if I have unique personal concerns?
Watch this video on finding supportive research groups
Search for NIH PrincipaI Investigators with openings in their group
The NIH Intramural Research Program is home to research groups in 27 Institutes and Centers(IC) spread across multiple campuses. Research groups at NIH are usually led by a Principal Investigator (PI) and also include staff, trainees, and fellows at various stages of their careers. In many cases, you will be working with a senior member of the group, and not directly with the PI.
While many research groups post open positions, some prefer that interested trainees and fellows reach out directly. There are three databases to help in the process:
- The OITE Jobs Board; be sure to filter for positions in the Intramural Research Program
- The NIH Intramural Research website – search for PIs by scientific focus area, research topic, institute, or name
- The NIH Intramural database – use annual reports to explore current projects on a specific research interest.
Watch this video on finding NIH PIs
The following video will guide you through using these websites to find the names and contact information of NIH PIs.
Make a list of potential mentors to contact
Your goal is to generate a list of potential NIH research mentors to contact and inquire about open positions. The list should include their name, contact information, IC, campus, and research area. Our recommendation is that you begin with a list of 12-20 PIs whose work interests you, but depending on your interests and specific goals, the list may be shorter or longer.
Contact potential NIH mentors
Once you've identified a potential NIH research mentor, we recommend that you learn more about their research and then contact them. To do this:
- Read materials on their website and explore recent publications. You can find these by searching PubMed or on their webpage.
- Send an e-mail to the PI of the research group that includes:
- a brief introduction
- a summary of your educational experiences
- a discussion of relevant work and research experiences
- a short explanation of why you are interested in their research
- a current CV, attached as a .pdf file
- If you are a postbac candidate, refer them to your completed on-line application. You cannot be accepted to the NIH postbac program unless you have completed your on-line application.
Make sure that the email is specific for the individual mentor and not a generic letter sent to multiple PIs. If a PI does not respond to your email we recommend that you follow-up after two weeks. If they do not reply to this follow-up, assume that they are not interested.
Considerations for choosing a research group
As you prepare to interview for open positions, it is important to think broadly about your goals and needs. Here you will find guidance on finding a supportive research group where you can grow and learn, personally and professionally. If you keep these factors in mind during the interview, it will be easier to collect the information you need to make an informed decision. There are four things important considerations to keep in mind:
1. The type of research being done in the group
- Does the work interest you?
- Are you excited about possible projects, including the questions asked, the approaches used, model systems and research skills you will learn?
- Will there be opportunities to develop a broad skill set, including communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills?
- Do the skills you will learn lay a solid foundation for the type of work you wish to do in the long-term? This is an especially important consideration for more senior trainees and fellows.
2. The culture of the research group
- Is the group supportive of each other and welcoming of people with different identities, experiences, backgrounds, and cultures?
- How do members of the group support each other in their work? Do they embrace collaboration, work independently, or tend to compete?
- Are there productive group meetings where the group addresses issues and debates research questions in healthy ways?
- Are there social interactions between group members? If yes, are professional boundaries maintained and are the interactions beneficial to the group?
- Do members of the group work together to address issues that come up?
- Do members of the group share organizational responsibilities so that the group functions effectively?
3. The management style of the PI
- Are there others who serve as managers (or surrogates) on behalf of the PI? How does the PI work with these individuals to provide oversight to the group?
- Does the PI regularly meet with individuals and teams?
- How is the lab organized; are responsibilities shared in equitable and respectful ways?
- Does the PI engage and support team members in having difficult conversations and resolving conflict?
- Does the PI proactively address group safety, record keeping, data analysis, responsible conduct of research, etc.?
- Is the PI concerned about issues of diversity and inclusion? Are they supportive of people with diverse backgrounds through their actions and words?
- How does the PI track progress of projects and members of the group?
- Does the PI tend to play favorites, focusing more resources on some projects and people?
- Is the PI responsive to requests and transparent about decision-making whenever possible?
- How does the PI provide feedback to individuals and teams?
- Does the PI solicit feedback from members of the team? How do they respond and act on the feedback they receive?
4. The mentoring philosophy of the PI
- Does the PI provide a balance of supervision and independence appropriate to your training level and background knowledge?
- Is the PI supportive of a diversity of career outcomes? Do people in the group get the same support regardless of their long-term career goals? Do you feel comfortable talking about your career goals with the PI, or are you hiding important information, even during the interview?
- How does the PI support time away from the research group for career and personal development activities, including OITE or IC workshops, individual educational, career or wellness advising, etc.?
- Does the PI support trainees in taking leave and tending to their personal life?
- Is the PI attentive to hours that individuals work and supportive of setting healthy boundaries and taking leave?
- Does the PI believe that trainees and fellows should have multiple mentors? Do they offer guidance in finding other mentors?
- Does the PI meet regularly with trainees to discuss expectations, give feedback and solicit input?
- Does the PI have good active listening skills? Do they ask you about your expectations and need?
- How does the PI support new people in learning the field? Do they provide funds for courses and travel to conferences?
As you consider your options
Appreciate that “one size does not fit all”; what works for one person, may not work for you. While it is appropriate for the research project to be a primary consideration, you must find a research group where you will feel comfortable, where you can tend to your career development needs, and where the PI considers your individual research and career goals. Therefore, spend time assessing your personality, work styles, educational and personal goals as you consider possible positions and be sure to explore many areas beyond possible projects as you interview and consider your options.
Interview with potential NIH mentors
The interview helps you and the PI assess compatibility and allows you to explore how joining the group will advance your training and career. Interviews may be in-person or virtual. In addition to talking with the PI, you will likely meet with members of the research team. You may also meet with other PIs and close collaborators of the PI. These meetings are to give you a broader view of the experience and to help the PI assess your skills, character, and interest in the group through engagements with multiple people.
What to expect
Expectations during the interview differ based on your educational level and prior research experiences. For example, candidates for postdoc positions will likely be asked to give a seminar, while graduate students and postbac applicants likely will not.
Remember that interviews are bi-directional. You are being interviewed to assess your skillset, interest in the work being done, and compatibility with the group. At the same time you are interviewing the PI and others in the group to learn whether the culture of the group and mentoring/management styles of the PI are a good fit for you. To prepare effectively, reflect on questions that you might be asked and questions that you want to ask.
What the PI, or senior member of the group, may ask you
- To describe your prior research experiences and what you learned from them
- To list and explain specific techniques you understand and know; remember that there is a range of experience levels and that you should not exaggerate your skillset during the interview.
- Questions to probe your professionalism, problem-solving skills, interpersonal skills, and work ethic
- About your immediate and long-term educational or career goals
- To talk about specific research goals at NIH, including specific techniques or approaches you want to explore
- To offer input about data they share with you or you share with the to get insight into your critical thinking and problem-solving skills
What you should ask the PI and other research mentors
- What new techniques do you hope to develop in the near future?
- What are emerging research questions that you hope to address?
- What are your current research projects, and at what stage of completion are they right now?
- How do you work with trainees and fellows to establish projects?
- What collaboration do you currently have? What collaborations do you plan for the near future?
- How often do you meet individually with your students and fellows?
- Does your research group have regular group meetings? If so, how frequently?
- Will I get to present in group, branch, and/or IC meetings?
- What qualities do you value most in a student or fellow?
- What processes do you use to evaluate your students and fellows? How do you provide them with feedback and how often does this occur?
- How many former students and fellows have you mentored; where did they go after leaving your research group?
- What might I be working on here?
- What technologies, approaches, and model systems would I have the opportunity to learn and develop?
- Would be I able to take courses or participate in training programs?
- Would I be able to attend scientific meetings? How often?
- Would I have opportunities to give formal and informal research presentations?
- Would I be working on my own project or sharing a project with other members of the research group?
- Are there specific people in the group for day-to-day questions about laboratory procedures and supplies?
- What OITE IC, and other trans-NIH training programs do your trainees and fellows attend?
- If I joined this group, would I have the opportunity to train or mentor junior members of the research group?
- Do you allow students and fellows to co-author review articles with you?
- What would you expect of me if I disagreed with your interpretation of results or even the value of a research project?
- Do you allow fellows to pursue independent projects to take with them to their own faculty positions? Do you support fellows in writing grant and fellowship applications?
Best practices in interviewing for research positions
WHY: So that you can reach out to ask about their experience in the group and get to know current members of the group.
WHY: You learn a lot about the PI’s expectations, management style and mentoring philosophy. Having this information helps you during the make an informed decision.
WHY: This helps you probe the PI’s view of the importance of career development activities for trainees and fellows.
WHY: While you might not regularly interact with the PI, it is helpful to understand their views of training, mentoring, and management. You want to be sure that you are comfortable interacting with them.
WHY: Much of your experience will depend on interactions with your daily supervisors, especially when the group is large and/or the PI is often absent tending to other responsibilities.
WHY: Data from the OITE Climate Assessment indicates that trainees and fellows are happier in research groups where the PI helps the group resolve conflict and maintain and collegial atmosphere.
WHY: You can learn a lot by seeing how people interact with each other. You can also see whether the speaker receives feedback in a helpful or an aggressive way, and how engaged the PI is with the group.
Talk to additional research group members
In addition to talking with the PI, it is important to talk with:
- people who have leadership positions in the group
- people who might directly supervise you
- people you might collaborate with or support on specific projects
- other trainees and staff in the group, even if you do not anticipate working with them directly
Questions you might ask of members of the group
- How often do you meet your PI? what are the meetings like? If you do not meet regularly with the PI, who do you meet with? Why don’t you meet with the PI?
- Does the PI and other mentors answer email or other communications from members of the group?
- What OITE, IC and other training activities do trainee and fellows in this group attend? Is the PI supportive of this?
- How was your orientation and onboarding handled? Who helped you in the process?
- What happens when the PI gets frustrated?
- What happens when people in the group make mistakes? What happens when the PI makes mistakes?
- What do you enjoy about working in the research group? What don’t you enjoy?
- Does the PI and others respect the students and fellows in the group? Does leadership listen to trainees and fellows and offer constructive feedback?
- What happens when you (or others in the group) disagree on the direction of your research or the interpretation of your results?
- Are students and fellows given the chance to work independently? Do they have enough support and guidance in their work?
- Do students and fellows have a chance to write papers, publish, and present their work? Is there help to develop you scientific writing skills?
- Do students and fellows receive funds to take courses or go to meetings?
- Would you consider the research group to be a collaborative environment? A competitive environment? Some other description? Why?
- How does the mentor deal with conflict between group members?
- What is a typical day like in this research group?
- Have other trainees or fellows left the group early? Why?
- What are the mentor's expectations of students and fellows in the research group?
- How many hours per week do people typically work? Do people have flexibility in setting their schedules? Do people take vacations? Is the PI supportive of this?
Keep in mind
Not everyone is comfortable openly discussing reservations about their research group, so listen carefully to the words they use and pay attention to body language during these conversations. Also, try to meet with people alone and outside of the research space. Finally, ask for specific examples and other follow-up questions to more fully assess experiences in the group.
Pay attention to how people interacted with each other during your interview and during research group meeting if you were able to attend one. It is important to carefully synthesize all of the information you learn during these interviews and to be sure that you have addressed all of your concerns.
Consider what you learned and assess your options
Once the interview is over, the most important thing you can do is to pause and evaluate what you learned. Do not decide quickly, especially after only one interview. It is important to try and expand your options and compare your experiences with more than one group whenever possible. PIs should give you time to consider options and should not pressure you to immediately decide.
The more you can learn about a research environment and the PI's mentoring/management style, the better prepared you will be to make an informed decision. It is unlikely that any single mentor will meet all of your needs, so you will need to figure out which considerations are the most important for you in a research mentor and understand how your PI will support you in expanding your mentor network.
Follow up with a thank you
After the interview, email the individuals you spoke with thanking them for their time. Be sure to ask any follow-up questions you have and ask the PI when you can expect to hear back from them.
Mistakes to avoid
Here are some common mistakes we see trainees and fellows make when choosing a research mentor:
WHY: Research directions often change, and projects discussed at an interview are not always available when you arrive.
INSTEAD: Be certain that you are generally interested in the work and can imagine yourself doing several different projects. Also, consider how the work advances your long-term goals and enhances your skillset.
WHY: This is the only way to learn about group culture, the mentoring philosophy, and management style of the PI. These factors are critically important for thriving at NIH.
INSTEAD: Talk to several people who are or who have worked in the group, whenever possible. Look for trends and patterns, as individual experiences will likely differ.
WHY: It is true that "one size does not fit all", and some people thrive in a group where others struggle. However, if your discussions suggest a pattern with multiple individuals raising concerns, the information is worthy of your careful consideration.
INSTEAD: Ask questions and pay careful attention to what alumni and current trainees and fellows share. Appreciate that it can be difficult for current trainees to fully share their concerns, so ask strategic questions to learn about the mentorship philosophy and management style of the PI.
Communicate your decision and get ready to onboard
Once you have considered your options, let all of the PIs you met with know that you made a decision and thank them for their time. Onboarding or moving groups at the NIH involves multiple steps and several approval processes. Be sure to follow guidance and directions and respond to requests for information promptly. We are here to help if you have questions or concerns during the search, interview, decision, and appointment process; reach out. Also, carefully read all of the information we provide for trainees onboarding at NIH.
What if I have unique personal concerns?
Finding supportive research groups takes effort, but it can take more effort if you have concerns about how welcoming the group is about your specific needs. You may be a parent or caretaker, wish to explore reasonable accommodations, want to discuss health or mental health concerns, or want to understand how welcoming the group is of people across a dimension of difference critical for your comfort in the group.
At some point in the interview process, it is important to address your concerns but deciding what to share and when to share is a personal decision. Some people prefer to do this early in the interview process and others prefer to wait until later or until after an offer is made. We are happy to help you with these considerations and how to have these important conversations. Finding a research group where you are comfortable and supported is critical, so please reach out to us at OITE-private@NIH.gov if you need guidance or support.
Found a research group? Check out our resources to support you as you transition to NIH.
We are here to help if you have questions or concerns during the search, interview, decision, and appointment process. Reach out to us at email@example.com.
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Suggestions for integrating into your group and working to develop a strong relationship with your PI and daily supervisor.
Plan for success
Develop a plan to use your time as an NIH trainee to grow and enhance your skills
Develop a network of mentors
Advice on how to expand your mentor support system.