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Postdoc FAQs

What is a postdoc?  A postdoc is an individual with a doctoral degree (PhD, MD, DDS, or the equivalent) who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.

What is intramural research?  Intramural research is science carried out by NIH investigators at NIH campuses. In contrast, extramural research is science that is funded by the NIH and is carried out in universities, research institutes, or corporate laboratories. Postdocs performing research at NIH campuses are trainees in the NIH Intramural Research Program

What research opportunities are available for postdocs at the National Institutes of Health?  The NIH offers two major postdoctoral research training programs.  Postdoctoral Intramural Research Training Awards (IRTAs) [Cancer Research Training Awards (CRTAs) for research carried out in the National Cancer Institute] support U.S. citizens and permanent residents.  International scholars are appointed as Visiting Fellows (VFs).

Are there other postdoc research opportunities at the NIH?  Other postdoctoral programs at the NIH include:

Are citizens of countries other than the United States eligible to apply for postdoctoral positions in the NIH intramural program?  Citizens of countries other than the United States can apply for Visiting Fellowships, both within the NIH and the NCI.  The appointments are equivalent to an IRTA/CRTA and the same postdoctoral positions are available to both populations.

To be eligible for the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program, one must be either a citizen of the U.S. or a permanent resident (green card holder) eligible for citizenship within 4 years at the time of application.

Are there any other eligibility criteria?
Applicants for postdoctoral must have less than 5 years of relevant research experience since the receipt of their doctoral degrees.

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.     

Where are these research opportunities located?  These fellowships are available on the main NIH campus in Bethesda, MD as well as at off-campus locations in Baltimore (NIDA and NIA) and Frederick (NCI), MD; Hamilton, MT (NIAID); and Research Triangle Park, NC (NIEHS). Small labs also exist in Framingham, MA (NHLBI).

How do I apply for a postdoctoral IRTA or VF position at the NIH?  All applications for postdoctoral positions should be submitted directly to the NIH investigators themselves.  Some NIH investigators advertise their postdoctoral positions on the OITE Web site.  Check here for the listing of currently available postdoctoral fellowships. You can also contact individual NIH principal investigators by phone or e-mail and submit whatever materials they request directly to them. The latter approach is more likely to yield results when a relationship already exists between the applicant and the investigator.

How do I apply for a postdoctoral CRTA position at the NCI? NCI has multiple application procedures.  Center for Cancer Research position announcements contain contact information for the investigator who posted the position.  Inquiries should be addressed directly to that person.  Applications can also be submitted directly to investigators in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics.  You can also contact individual NCI investigators by phone or e-mail and submit whatever materials they request directly to them, as indicated above.  The CPFP has a separate application system that can be found here.

How can I find out about NIH investigators who are doing research in areas that interest me?  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 Inramural Research Program Web page presents investigators sorted by research topic. You can also visit the Institute/Center (IC) Web sites. You can find a YouTube video entitled Finding an NIH Mentor, which demonstrates how to use these resources, on the OITE YouTube page.  You may wish to contact investigators directly to inquire about potential postdoctoral positions.

Is there a deadline for submission of applications?  There is no deadline for submission of IRTA and VF applications, nor for most CRTA programs. Applications for these programs can be accepted by NIH Investigators year round.  Similarly, there are no deadlines for positions in the Center for Cancer Research or the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics.  The Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program has an application deadline.

How many applications may I submit?  You may submit applications to as many NIH investigators as you wish. A successful strategy is to submit several well-thought-out and carefully focused applications.  The OITE is not involved in any postdoctoral selection process.

Whom should I ask to write my letters of recommendation? What should I ask them to write?  You should request letters from individuals who can best evaluate your scientific accomplishments and your potential for successfully completing postdoctoral training. It is generally expected that you will request a letter from your dissertation advisor. It would make sense for the letters to be tailored for the position you are seeking. It is likely that the principal investigator (PI) will be looking for someone who is motivated, responsible, capable, bright, and creative and who works well with others. Also, some people just have "good hands" - i.e., their experiments always work. Your letters of recommendation need to convince the PI that you are just such a highly capable person. A good way for your references to do this is to include stories or descriptions of incidents that demonstrate both that you possess desirable qualities and that they know you well.

What instructions should I give those who will be writing my letters of recommendation?  Please ask three referees who have direct knowledge of your scientific interests, abilities, and accomplishments to prepare written recommendations.  Letters should be forwarded to the provided address. You may want to provide stamped addressed envelopes to streamline the process. If an address is not available you should have your referees send them directly to the Investigator's email address.

Can a postdoctoral IRTA, CRTA, or VF award be used for research training outside the NIH?  No. These awards provide support for training experiences at NIH Intramural facilities in the Intramural Research Program at the NIH; they cannot be used for other purposes.

What kind of visa will I need to participate in the VF or NRC postdoctoral program?  Visiting Fellows are assisted in obtaining J-1 Visas.  This is typically the only option, because Visiting Fellows are officially trainees and not employees.  A J-1 Visa does not qualify a Visiting Fellow to apply for permanent residency.  For additional information for international scholars, please visit the Division of International Services.

If I am not a U.S. citizen, how do I provide proof of my citizenship?  You will be asked to submit a copy of your birth certificate, passport, and/or permanent resident (green) card once you are selected for a position.

Is housing provided by the NIH? 
The NIH is unable to provide housing. 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 it 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 stop External Link. Getting around via Metro is generally a good choice.

Is health insurance provided?  Health insurance is required for all Postdoctoral IRTA/CRTA and VF 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. If the policy is in your name, and you can demonstrate that you are the individual who makes the premium payments, you will be reimbursed by the amount the NIH would have paid for FAES coverage.

When should I submit my application?  It is never too early to submit an application to a posted position or to begin networking with NIH scientists whose work is of interest to you and discussing the possibility of spending time at some point in their laboratories.

How will I be paid?  Postdoctoral trainees receive monthly stipend checks. Trainees are paid at the beginning of the month for work completed the previous month. Taxes are not withheld. Income is reported by the NIH to the IRS on IRS Form 1099 at the end of the year. Trainees should plan ahead for the taxes that they will be required to pay and may need to pay quarterly Estimated Taxes throughout the year to avoid penalties.

What is a Research Fellow?  Postdoctoral fellows can be promoted to Research Fellow, an appointment that makes them NIH employees, albeit temporary. An individual can spend an additional three years as a Research Fellow after reaching the five-year limit of the Postdoctoral Fellow appointment.

Are there any non-research opportunities for postdoc training?  Yes: