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Postbac IRTA/CRTA Program FAQs

General Information

What is the purpose of this program?
The Postbaccalaureate IRTA/CRTA program is designed to provide recent college graduates an opportunity to spend a year (or two) doing biomedical research in the resource-rich environment of the NIH.  Applicants are expected to apply to graduate or professional (medical, dental, etc.) school during their time at the NIH.

Where are these training opportunities located?
These traineeships are available only in the intramural laboratories of the NIH. Most of the laboratories are located on the main NIH campus in Bethesda, MD. Several Institutes or their laboratories that focus on particular research areas are found at other sites around the country. These include facilities of:

  • The National Cancer Institute in Frederick, MD
  • The National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, MD
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse in Baltimore, MD
  • The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, NC
  • The Rocky Mountain Laboratories of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Hamilton, MT
  • The Phoenix Epidemiology and Clinical Research Branch of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Phoenix, AZ
  • The Framingham Heart Study of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Framingham, MA

NOTE: Only a limited number of positions are available in Phoenix, and Framingham.

Is housing provided by the NIH?
The NIH is unable to provide housing for trainees. We can offer some information that may help you in finding a place to live. However, any information we provide is just that; it does not constitute advice, nor are we endorsing or approving any companies or services.

  • The Moving Guide prepared by the NIH Office of Intramural Training & Education provides housing suggestions along with information on virtually everything you will need to know about moving to Bethesda, Baltimore, or Frederick, MD.
  • Rocky Mountain Laboratories has created A Guide to Help You Move to Hamilton, MT.
  • Club-PCR Google group External Link is for young scientists in the Bethesda area. You can use this listserv to find housing, sell items, arrange carpooling, or gather information. This Listserv is not associated with the NIH, and you should use an email address other than your NIH email address to subscribe.  Please state your name and reason for joining the group when you request membership.

It might help you to know as well that the NIH is on the Red Line of the D.C. Metro External Link at the Medical Center External Link stop. Getting around via Metro is generally a good choice.

Can this award be used for research training outside of the NIH?
No, this award is intended to provide support for training in the intramural research program at the NIH. It cannot be used for any other purpose.

What are the start and end dates for the program?
Start and end dates are negotiated individually between the applicant and the NIH investigator who has selected them.  The minimum time commitment is 12 months.

Is health insurance provided?

Health insurance is required for all Postbac IRTA/CRTA trainees. The NIH will pay for low-option individual or family coverage available through the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences (FAES). If you wish to subscribe to an FAES policy with more extensive coverage than that provided by the NIH, you will be required to pay the difference in cost. If you are already insured on another policy, you will be allowed to remain on that policy if you provide evidence of coverage. NIH will reimburse you for the cost incurred up to the amount the NIH would have paid for FAES coverage. Read more about the FAES insurance program.

Where do the funds to support postbacs come from? 
Postbacs stipends and health insurance costs are covered by funds from the budget of the research group that offers them a position.


Can I apply if I am not a citizen or permanent resident of the United States?
No. Only citizens and permanent residents of the U.S. are eligible to apply to this program.  NOTE: residents of US territories/commonwealths are also eligible to apply.  This includes citizens of Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Are there any eligibility criteria in addition to citizenship?
Yes, begining on or after April 1, 2016, you must have received a bachelor's degree within THREE years of starting the program or a master's degree within SIX MONTHS of starting the program. In addition, you must intend to apply to graduate or professional school during your tenure in the program.

In order to be approved for logical and physical access to NIH facilities and systems, candidates must be able to pass a Federal background check, using Standard Form-85 (read SF-85). NOTE: Section 14 of the form asks “In the last year, have you used, possessed, supplied, or manufactured illegal drugs?” The question pertains to the illegal use of drugs or controlled substances in accordance with Federal laws, even though permissible under state laws.    

I will have received my bachelor's degree more than three years ago, but I spent several years in Teach for America (or Americorps or the Peace Corps). Is there any way in which I can apply?
If you joined one of those programs immediately after completing your bachelor's degree, you may enter the date on which you completed or will complete your service into the field for the date of receipt of your bachelor's degree. In other words, we will determine eligibility from the later date. Please make certain to explain that this is what you have done CLEARLY in either your cover letter or your list of courses and grades (or both).

I have a Master's Degree.  Am I eligible to apply to the Postbac IRTA/CRTA Program?
Yes. Eligibility for the Postbac IRTA/CRTA program is based on the timing of the receipt of your bachelor's degree. However, if you received your bachelor's degree more than 3 years before the date on which you would like to begin the program, you will be eligible if you can begin within 6 months of receipt of a master's degree.

Is eligibility for the Postbac IRTA/CRTA program limited to particular majors?
No.  However, most Postbac IRTA/CRTA positions are in research groups that focus on biomedical problems.  You should, therefore, have successfully completed courses in biology and chemistry.

Is there a minimum GPA for program eligibility?
No.  However, NIH investigators will want to select postbacs who appear likely to make the greatest contribution to the research group, and investigators have the ability to use the GPA field to filter the applications that they read.  In practice, we rarely (rarely, not never) see a postbac with an undergraduate GPA lower than 3.0.

Application Procedure

Is there a deadline for submission of applications?
There is no deadline; applications are accepted year round.

When should I apply?
We recommend that you apply six to nine months prior to the date on which you want to start. You might also find it useful to know that most postbacs begin in June or July.

Can you provide any advice on how to write a good application?
Both a video entitled "Applying to the NIH Postbac Program" and a handout entitled "Writing a Successful Application for NIH Intramural Research Training Programs" are available on the OITE Web site.

Should I list all the courses that I have completed and the grades I received or just my science courses?
Please list all of your completed courses with grades, as well as the courses you plan to complete by graduation.  If you are offered a position, you will be asked to submit an official transcript.

How are reference letters submitted? 
When you complete your sections of the application, the system sends an email request to each of your references.  The email contains login information that permits them to submit their letters online.  We do not accept letters submitted outside the online application system.

Who should write my letters of recommendation?
You should select references who are able to explain why you would be a good addition to a research group. Anyone who could comment on your skills in the laboratory, creativity, problem solving abilities, motivation, ability to handle complex scientific literature and concepts, etc. would be a good choice. Recommendations from individuals with a science research background are likely to carry more weight than recommendations from those with less understanding of biomedical research. Recommendations from family members are never appropriate.

Note that letters from "services" and letters assembled for medical/dental school applicants by the pre-professional offices of their colleges and universities should NOT be submitted. Those letters are too general to be effective in helping you to find a research position.

Please be certain to ask your references in advance both if they are willing to write on your behalf and whether the letter will be positive. You may wish to provide your references some information on the program, your resume or CV, and a description of what you hope to accomplish during the program so that they can write a highly relevant letter.

Is there a deadline for receipt of my reference letters?

There is no deadline for submitting a reference letter, however, we recommend that references submit a letter within two weeks of receiving our request.
What should I do if my references have not received a request for a letter of recommendation on my behalf? 

The system-generated e-mail request for a letter of recommendation may have failed to reach your reference for any one of several reasons:

  • You may have provided an incorrect e-mail address.
  • The message may have been blocked from reaching your reference by a Spam filter.
  • Our e-mail server or your reference's may have malfunctioned at the time the message was being sent.
  • Your reference may have enabled auto-forwarding on the email address.
  • The message was undeliverable due to other circumstances beyond our control (e.g., your reference's mailbox being full).

If your reference did not receive the original message, you should:

  • Check the e-mail address that you provided for your reference and correct it if necessary, then resend the request for a letter via the Modify Application tool.
  • Ask your reference to check the folder to which their Spam filter diverts suspicious messages. This folder might be called "Junk mail," "Bulk mail," or "Spam."

If your reference still cannot find the message and you suspect there is a technical problem on our end, please contact us, and we will investigate.

Who ensures that letters of reference are received?
You are responsible for making certain that we receive your letters of reference. You should check to make sure your references have received our e-mail requesting a letter. After two weeks you should log in to our system and check your application using the Modify Application tool to make certain that the letters have arrived. If not, you can either resend the request or contact your reference directly to encourage them to submit the letter.

Can I submit more than the required three letters of reference?

No, the online application system will only accept three reference letters. You can, of course, provide additional letters to NIH investigators with whom you are discussing the possibility of a position.

Can I change my reference(s) after I have submitted my application?
You can change a reference IF the original reference has not yet submitted a letter on your behalf. After a letter has been submitted, you cannot make such a change. If you replace an existing reference, please notify that individual that you will no longer require their assistance.

If I change a reference, will my original reference be notified?
It is your responsibility to let your original reference know that their assistance will no longer be required.

Do you have any advice on writing my resume/CV?
Check out our Guide to Resumes & Curricula Vitae.

To whom should I address my cover letter?

Since your cover letter can be read by any investigator in the NIH intramural program, you may wish to use the salutation "Dear Sir/Madam:" or "To Whom It May Concern:". Or perhaps even better, use “Dear NIH Investigator,”.

How will I know if my application is complete?
You may, if you wish, submit a partial application initially and complete your application at a later time. Please note, however, that NIH investigators are able to access completed applications only. If you submit a partial application, you will receive an e-mail with directions for completing it. Once you have submitted a completed application, you will receive an e-mail confirming that your application is complete. This message will contain login credentials that will allow you to update your application and instructions for checking to see whether your letters of reference have been received.  Be certain to save this message.

After You Apply

After I apply, can I make changes to my application?
Yes.  You can use the login credentials sent to you in your receipt confirmation e-mail(s) to make changes and updates to the parts of the application you submitted. 

How are applications reviewed?
Investigators in the NIH intramural program have access to the database containing the electronic applications to this program. They can search for applicants with particular interests or specific GPAs or who are enrolled at selected universities. Each investigator decides to whom they will offer a position.  The investigator is also responsible for funding the position. The OITE is not involved in the selection process.

How will I be notified if I am selected?
The investigator who has selected you or an administrative officer in their Institute or Center will contact you by phone, e-mail, or letter.

How soon can I expect to hear that I am selected?
There is no definite answer to this question. You will be selected only if/when an investigator who has a position available visits the database and is impressed with your credentials.

How long will my application remain active?
Your application will remain active for one year from the date you submit it or until you are selected, you withdraw your application, or your eligibility expires, whichever comes first.

Can I withdraw my application?
If you no longer wish to be considered for this program, please contact Dr. Pat Sokolove and provide her with your name, e-mail address, and the name of the program from which you wish to withdraw your application.

What are my chances of receiving a Postbac IRTA/CRTA?
Like many of the research training programs at the NIH, the Postbac IRTA Program is highly competitive. Over the past calendar year, about 24% of applicants were selected for the program.

How can I improve my chances of being selected for a Postbac IRTA/CRTA?
After you submit your application you may want to contact investigators with whom you would like to work.  This does not mean that you should send a general e-mail to fifty investigators.  Such an e-mail is likely to be ignored.  Instead, identify four or five investigators whose work interests you.  Learn enough about what they are working on so that you can write focused, specific e-mails describing why you would like to work with them.

How can I get information about specific NIH investigators, specifically about the research they are conducting?
You can find information regarding NIH intramural research programs in two places. You can visit the NIH Annual Reports and conduct text searches on the subjects that interest you.  Alternatively, the Intramural Research Program Web page presents investigators sorted by research topic. Once you identify investigators whose projects interest you, you can e-mail them to request that they consider your Postbac IRTA application. You can find contact information for NIH investigators in the NIH Enterprise Directory. You can find a YouTube video entitled Finding an NIH Mentor, which demonstrates how to use these resources, on the OITE YouTube page.

What if several PIs offer me positions? Do I have to accept the first position offered?
Your job is to determine which of the possible placements would be best for you. You are not obligated to accept the first position offered. However, if you intend to continue looking for positions, you should  make that clear to any NIH investigator who offers you a position. And once you have accepted an offer, professional ethics dictate that you should discontinue looking for positions and turn down any subsequent offers.

How will I decide which offer to accept?
You should determine which research group would be best suited for you. You will want to have a phone or in-person interview with the investigator who is considering you and to get all the information you can so that you make a good decision.

Begin by reading our guidelines for selecting a mentor: You may also want to watch our brief YouTube video on this topic. Basically, we propose a multi-pronged approach that involves figuring out what sort of mentoring will be most likely to help you succeed, deciding what questions to ask potential mentors and their current trainees, and considering factors that may help you make a good decision.

What if I would like to do some research at the NIH but can't afford to spend a whole year?
Depending on your current educational status/level you might consider the Summer Internship Program (SIP). The application period for the SIP is mid-December through March 1, annually.

If I don't find a postbac position at the NIH, could I find a similar experience anywhere else?
You might like to consider PREP, the Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program funded by the NIH National Institute of General Medical Sciences. More than 20 research-intensive institutions, scattered across the country, offer these programs.