Tips for international postdocs on finding funding for your research
Scholars who come to the U.S. to conduct postdoctoral training often seek help from our office to find funding for their research. International postdocs are not eligible to apply for NIH F32 NRSA postdoctoral fellowships or NSF postdoctoral fellowships, two major sources of funding for US citizens and permanent residents. Thus, we have compiled the strategies below to help international scholars identify funding opportunities to support their training.
1) NIH K99/R00 mentored career development awards do not have a citizenship requirement. These awards are highly competitive and you must apply within 4 years of receiving your PhD degree. If you are successful in snagging one of these coveted awards, they provide funding for 1-2 years of postdoc training (the K99 phase) AND the first few years of research funding (R00) for your independent, tenure-track faculty career.
2) Search a funding database for postdoctoral fellowship opportunities in your field of study. There are literally thousands of research funding opportunities for scientists, some of which are specifically for researchers at the postdoctoral career stage. No one knows your research area better than you, so the best way for you to find appropriate support is to search a database of funding opportunities using keywords that are relevant to your research project.
Vanderbilt University subscribes to two funding database called SPIN and GrantForward. All Vanderbilt faculty, postdocs, and students have access to SPIN and GrantForward, and you can even set up a profile and receive alerts when new funding opportunities arise in your field. The links to these databases are available on the Research Development & Support website.
One of the major advantages of using a funding database is that they contain funding opportunities from both government agencies and private organizations. Private non-profit scientific foundations, such as American Heart Association and American Cancer Society, do not always have the strict citizenship requirements that many federal grants do. These organizations are a good place to start in your search for funding, and these opportunities will be included in your database search results.
Your database search will only be as effective as the keywords you use. Many funding opportunities in the biomedical sciences are disease- or organ-based. To get the most hits when searching funding databases, do not limit yourself to search terms like protein or gene names. Think about the biological processes and systems in which your favorite molecule functions normally (for example, “cell division”) and diseases that occur when those processes go awry (for example, “cancer.”)
You can also expand funding opportunities by thinking beyond the biological context you study. For example, if you study dopamine receptors in the brain, could you expand your funding opportunities by thinking about dopamine’s role in the periphery? In which other tissues are dopamine receptors expressed, and could that be a clue to other potential funders for your research? Here is a presentation from VU faculty member, Matt Tyska, explaining how he successfully applied for funding from the American Heart Association for his gut-related research, even though AHA is not an obvious source of funding for gut research. (Disclaimer: This presentation is from 2011. The specific funding awards mentioned in this presentation may no longer exist. Also, this presentation mentions the “Community of Science” and FIND grants databases, which Vanderbilt has since replaced with an institutional subscription to SPIN.)
3) Pay attention to the acknowledgements section of the scientific papers you read. Funding organizations require scientists to acknowledge the source of their research or fellowship funding when they publish their research. Who reads the acknowledgements section of papers? Pretty much no one. But here is a good reason to start! You may discover potential sources of funding for your science.
4) Talk to your research advisor and colleagues in your field. Who has funded their research or training? Visit the websites of those organizations to find out if they offer postdoctoral fellowships.
5) Check our ASPIRE blog for funding opportunities using the “Funding Opportunities” tag in the tag cloud on the right-hand side of the blog. If someone sends us a funding opportunity that may be of interest to our biomedical PhD students and postdocs, we post it on our blog and tag it accordingly. Warning: this is not going to catch everything that is relevant to you! See #2, above, for ways to do a more comprehensive search.
6) Consult lists of postdoctoral fellowship opportunities. Notice how this option is last on our list of strategies. Some lists are quite comprehensive and good (like this one created by the National Postdoctoral Association in 2015), and you may be able to skim these lists to jumpstart your research into possible funding opportunities.
You may also want to check out this list of the top public and philanthropic funders of health research around the world, to see if there are any you recognize as 1) relevant to the type of research you do and 2) available to scientists from your home country.
However, there are two very big drawbacks to static lists. First, the hyperlinks are hard to maintain, so most lists quickly become graveyards of broken links. Secondly – and more troublesome – grant and fellowship opportunities evolve constantly. Each year, funding organizations review their funding priorities to ensure they are putting money into the most important research areas. This leads funders to issue new funding opportunities, and retire others, almost every year. When you rely on a list published on a website somewhere, you assume that the person who created the list is up-to-date on all the possible funding opportunities in your field.
We think that is a risky assumption. If you agree, see #2, above! Databases are your friend, and learning to use the funding databases is an important skill for everyone who plans to pursue an independent research career.