Irta Stipend

Irta Stipend
High angle shot of a group of medical practitioners analyzing data in a hospital

Hi again, I’m still gathering info but one thing that’s concerning me a lot right now is how people live solely off the stipend and whether they live comfortably with the stipend. I’ve seen tax is not deducted so how did you budget?

Living solely off the IRTA stipend?

Hi again, I’m still gathering info but one thing that’s concerning me a lot right now is how people live solely off the stipend and whether they live comfortably with the stipend. I’ve seen tax is not deducted so how did you budget?

  • how much did you set aside each pay check?
  • how much did you pay for rent? Or how much is the average rent in a decent area?

what areas/neighborhoods are those?

  • did you have to dig into your savings?
  • were there any “surprise” expenses?

I come from a low income background and despite having had a job since my sophomore year of high school, I still depend on my parents for housing, food, and paying for college. They are immigrants and don’t have the best jobs/ stability. I’m worried finances will be a huge barrier for relocating to Bethesda + being able to do this program.

Any additional advice or comfort anyone can offer me? Are there additional grants or ways to get some extra money? Thank you so much!

NIH Postbac IRTA Program: The Ultimate Guide

Learn how to put together a competitive application for the NIH postbac IRTA program

Irta Stipend

Part 1: What is the NIH IRTA program?

Part 2: How to find a mentor/research lab for the NIH IRTA

Part 3: How to apply to the NIH IRTA program

Part 4: NIH IRTA timeline

Part 5: NIH IRTA interview

Appendix A: Sample NIH IRTA cover letter

Appendix B: Sample NIH IRTA email

Part 1: What is the NIH IRTA program?

If you’re a premed considering your gap year options before medical school, you might have heard of the NIH Postbac Intramural Research Training Award, also known as the NIH IRTA program.

The NIH IRTA program is a one to two year full-time research opportunity that is available to recent college graduates who are applying to graduate or health profession schools. IRTAs conduct research under one of NIH’s 27 Institutes and Centers. Training fellows that work with the National Cancer Institute are referred to as postbac CRTAs (Cancer Research Training Award) rather than IRTAs.

The NIH has over 1100 laboratories that conduct a variety of biomedical research. During the application process, you select the campuses where you would like to work. IRTAs conduct research at the main campus of NIH located in Bethesda, MD or its other campus locations which include:

  • Baltimore, MD
  • Frederick, MD
  • Research Triangle Park, NC
  • Hamilton, MT
  • Framingham, MA
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Detroit, MI

The IRTA program is competitive, and it can strengthen a person’s application to medical or graduate school by demonstrating their ability to problem-solve and think critically through their research experience. Medical schools are familiar with the NIH IRTA program, and the NIH is world-renowned as a place of excellent quality research.

How does IRTA differ from a research gap year?

The postbac IRTA program differs from a gap year spent conducting research at a university in two main ways. The IRTA program receives support from the Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE), which sponsors a wide range of career and professional development activities, such as workshops on oral and poster presentations or improving mentor relationships.

Additionally, IRTA is designed as a gap year before students move on to their next steps. Flexibility is built into the program and PIs are understanding that you may have to take some time off work for interviews.

What are the benefits of the NIH IRTA?

The NIH IRTA program not only provides extensive research experience that can boost your medical school application, but also offers:

  • health insurance
  • access to graduate school courses
  • transportation.

The NIH will pay for low-option individual or family coverage health insurance through the Foundation for Advanced Educations for the Sciences (FAES). Health insurance is required for all Postbac IRTA trainees, and trainees have the option to obtain FAES coverage or remain insured on another policy.

NIH IRTA trainees have the option to take graduate-school level courses at FAES. Several labs can cover the cost of an FAES course for a trainee to advance their scientific knowledge, and these courses can be submitted as part of your AMCAS application. It’s important, though to speak to your PI in advance to confirm if the lab has the funds to support an FAES course.

Additionally, please note that the FAES Graduate School at the NIH is a non-accredited, non-degree-granting postsecondary institution that operates with the approval of the Maryland Higher Education Commission. This graduate school has some transfer agreements with some universities in Maryland.

The NIH Transhare program can provide funds for public transportation to work. This program helps NIH employees and trainees reduce their dependence on single-occupant automobile commuting. You will need to submit an application to see if you qualify.

What is the stipend for the NIH IRTA?

The stipend for IRTA trainees ranges from around $31,700 to $37,100. The stipend is adjusted by year and is based on prior experience acquired AFTER the completion of your bachelor’s degree.

If you have 0-1 years of experience following your Bachelor’s you can expect to make $31,700 your first year, $34,000 your second year. 1-2 years of experience equates to $34,000 your first year and $35,550 your second. If you have more than two years of experience, you’ll receive $35,550 in your first year and $37,100 in your second.

The stipend for CRTA trainees are slightly higher than that of IRTA trainees. The amount depends on prior experience acquired AFTER the completion of your bachelor’s degree as well as your cumulative GPA. CRTA Stipends range from around $36,000 to $48,000.

Part 2: How to find a research lab for the NIH IRTA

In order to find a research lab, you need to first research principal investigators (PIs) to find one that aligns with your research interests. You can use Scientific Focus to browse PIs. If you have more specific interests, such as diabetes, liver cancer, etc., you can enter keywords through the NIH Intramural Database to find research PIs.

Some PIs hold joint appointments between two institutes, so if you search by institutes of interest, you may see a PIs name appear more than once. You might also use a search browser like Google to find PIs, but be careful of searching key terms like “NIH and diabetes research” because extramural PIs may show up in the results.

When looking for PIs and labs, there are both academic and scientific as well as environmental and interpersonal considerations to consider. Looking up the lab’s website and publications provides information on its research focus and team size. Additionally, based on the staff members listed, you can get a sense if the lab typically have postbac IRTAs as part of their team.

After you have researched PIs, write an email to them that references their work and why it interests you. Be prepared to reach out to several PIs since there are many more applicants than positions available. One successful IRTA reached out to nine PIs while another accepted IRTA reached out to twenty PIs. Although the IRTA program states that it lasts one to two years, PIs typically ask for a two-year commitment, so most of the IRTAs do two years. However, one-year fellowships are still available. If you only want a one-year research year, then let the PI know of your plans in advance.

How to email Principle Investigators (PIs)

After submitting your application, including your letters of recommendation, we recommend that you reach out to PIs in order to show your interest. Your initial email to PIs should be succinct. Introduce yourself and express your interest in their work. Mention any research experience you have and a few skills that you could bring to their lab. Attach your CV or resume to the email.

When emailing a PI, double check your email to make sure you are addressing the correct PI and their specific research interest. Some applicants correctly address the PI in the email, but then state that they are interested in the PI’s work on liver cancer even though the lab’s research has nothing to do with cancer. It’s fine to copy and paste your email template to different PIs but personalize them and double check the information before you send it.

Part 3: How to apply to the NIH IRTA program

Components of an NIH IRTA application include:

  • Contact information
  • A cover letter
  • Your resume or CV
  • Letters of recommendation
  • A transcript or list of courses and grades

Once your application is complete, it is reviewed on a rolling basis. One unique aspect of the IRTA program is that there is no centralized selection process. The Principle Investigators (PIs) have access to the application database and can search for applicants. You can increase your chances of being selected by contacting PIs directly.

Eligibility criteria for the NIH IRTA

You need to meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • college graduates who received their bachelor’s degrees less than THREE years prior to the date they begin the program, OR
  • individuals who are more than 3 years past the receipt of their bachelor’s degree but received a master’s degree less than SIX MONTHS before they begin the program OR
  • individuals who meet criterion (1) and/or (2) who have been accepted into graduate, other doctoral, or medical school programs and who have written permission from their school to delay entrance for up to one year to pursue a biomedical research project at the NIH.

Additionally, you must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents and intend to apply to graduate or professional school while you are a postbac IRTA.

Contact information

Your contact info includes your:

  • name
  • email address (use a professional email, if possible)
  • physical address

A cover letter

Your cover letter should be about 1 page long and contain concrete examples. Include your research interests, career goals, and reasons for applying for the NIH IRTA program.

You’ll want to mention a field of interest, such as bioinformatics, cancer, neuropsychiatric disorders, etc. Avoid choosing a field that is too niche. If your interests are too narrow, the lab may not think you are a good fit for them. Don’t list too many disparate research interests so you don’t come off as scattered and unfocused.

In addition, mentioning specific lab names in your cover letter may make it seem that you are only interested in those labs, and other labs might be less inclined to reach out to you or conduct an interview with you. Also, certain labs may not be accepting postbac IRTAs in the upcoming summer, so it’s best to avoid mentioning lab names in your cover letter.

Editing is especially important for the cover letter since many PIs will see the cover letter in the database.

Your resume or CV

Your resume or CV should include your:

  • contact information
  • college attended, dates, and degrees received
  • honors and awards; research experience
  • other work/extracurricular experience
  • presentations and publications

Mention your research experiences towards the beginning of your resume/CV in its own section to highlight your research experience.

Letters of recommendation

The program requires three professional references. It can be tempting to use medical school recommendation letters if you have them on file with your college. But these may not address your capacity to succeed at a biomedical research training program. While professors can provide a positive letter of recommendation, research PIs provide a unique insight into your research ability. If you have done any prior research, ask your previous PIs for letter of recommendations. If not, ask your recommenders to focus on your research faculties in their letters of recommendation.

A transcript or list of courses and grades

If you submit a list of courses and grades, you should input all of your courses, not just science courses, and the grades you received. Additionally, enter any courses in which you are currently enrolled.

Part 4: NIH IRTA timeline

Acceptances are rolling, so the earlier you submit your application, the better your chances. To maximize your chances of admission, aim to have your application complete six months in advance of when you want to start. If you want to start after graduation, complete the application by December. Labs who want IRTAs to start during the summer will generally start looking at potential IRTA applications during December of the year prior. Most of the review process will occur during December, January, and February.

Applying in February or later does not mean that you will not get accepted to the program. However, there will be fewer positions available, and it may be harder to find a lab that aligns with your research interests.

Interview Process for the NIH IRTA

The interview process for each lab varies. Some labs will recruit their postbacs from the NIH IRTA completed application database while others only consider applications that are directly emailed to the lab.

The current postbacs may be involved in the interview process since they will be working with any incoming postbacs. Speaking with the PI, postdocs, and postbacs in an interview can offer insight into the lab culture and dynamics as well as the day-to-day work schedule. Let’s walk through different scenarios of what the interview process might look like.

NIH IRTA interview example one

In one lab at the NIH, the postbacs will search through potential applications in the database. Since there are so many applicants, usually the postbacs will do an initial search with key words related to their research area such as cancer, imaging, or bioinformatics to narrow the list of applicants. In the database, one can also screen based off a minimum GPA threshold. A competitive application has a GPA of 3.5 or higher, though applicants with a lower GPA have been accepted.

Next, the reviewer will look at the applicant’s coursework, research experience, resume, and cover letter. If the reviewer believes that the applicant would fit in with their lab, then they will schedule a phone interview with the applicant. Afterward, the applicant would have a phone interview with the PI, who offers the opportunity for the applicant to join their lab.

NIH IRTA interview example two

Another NIH lab receives many interested applicants and does not use the completed application database to choose applicants. This lab collaborates closely with another lab, so they coordinate their application process together.

The postdocs in the two labs screen an application for competitiveness and fit with the lab. If the applicant shows promise, then they schedule a phone screen with them. If the applicant passes the phone screen, then they are invited to come to the NIH main campus to do an in-person interview that is split into two parts.

During the morning, they interview with current postbacs to determine fit with the lab and better understand the applicants’ interest in their lab. If they pass the in-person interview, they will interview with a postdoc and a PI. If the applicant is unable to come to an in-person interview, a virtual interview is scheduled.

Sample questions to prepare for the NIH IRTA Interview

Review the lab’s website again to refresh yourself on their work. Prepare for the interview by answering some of the common questions below:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Why are you interested in our lab/research group?
  • What are your long-term goals?
  • What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?
  • Tell me about your prior research experiences.
  • Tell me a time when things did not go as you expected.

Use your interview as an opportunity for you to learn more about the research and what your potential role could be. Some sample questions to ask the PI:

  • What projects are currently active and what might I be working on here?
  • What opportunities are there to attend conferences and present posters?
  • Do you allow postbac trainees to co-author publications?
  • Is there a specific person in that lab that I could go to for any day-to-day questions?
  • Who would I be working closely with?

If you are able to speak with postbacs or postdocs, ask them about their experience. To get a sense of what the lab is like before you commit one to two years at the lab, you can ask questions like:

  • What is the day-to-day work like?
  • What projects are you involved in?
  • What is the structure of the lab?
  • What are the pros and cons of working in this lab?

Appendix A: Sample NIH IRTA cover letter

To Whom it May Concern,

I am writing to apply for a position in the Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award Program at the National Institutes of Health. In May 20XX, I will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Neuroscience and Chemistry from YY University, and after graduation, I want to further my neuroscience knowledge and research skills through a post baccalaureate research experience. As an aspiring physician-scientist, I want to conduct translational and clinical research to advance patient care and innovate new treatments. The NIH IRTA program would further my educational and career goals through an immersive research experience.

The postbaccalaureate NIH IRTA would a great opportunity for me to expand my knowledge and contribute to innovative research. The NIH conducts cutting-edge research in the field of neuroscience, and I will continue to grow and learn by taking advantage of NIH seminars and lectures. Having a strong foundation in research will shape my perspective as a clinician because I will better understand how science translates from bench to bedside.

Currently, I work in a research lab at YY University that investigates the mechanisms of novel ligands targeting different G protein-coupled receptors and transporters within the central nervous system (CNS). In my project, I helped characterize a novel metabotropic glutamate receptor 2 positive allosteric modulator that could serve as a preclinical candidate for CNS disorders, including schizophrenia and depression. I gained skills in Western blots, fluorescent image analysis, and rodent behavioral assays. This research experience enhanced my critical thinking skills through trouble-shooting different aspects of the research study as well as my scientific communication skills through lab and conference presentations. Previously, I worked in a laboratory at the WW University during a summer research program, and I studied the neurobiology underlying social impairments in neuropsychiatric disorders. During this experience, I used an odorant-based behavioral paradigm to evaluate social approach or avoidance in mice. In the future, I hope to continue to grow my skills in neuropharmacology and neuroimaging, and I am interested in conducting research in different fields of neuroscience, such as drug abuse, addiction, mental illness, neurodegenerative diseases, autism, and epilepsy.

My prior research experience would be beneficial to the NIH IRTA program, and I bring my attention to detail, quick thinking skills, and strong work ethic to the research fellowship. If you need any additional information, please feel free to contact me by phone or email. Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Appendix B: Sample NIH IRTA email

My name is Jane Doe, and I am reaching out to you to see if you have a postbac IRTA position available in your lab starting next summer. I will graduate from YY university in May 20XX with majors in neuroscience and chemistry, and I’m interested in pursuing an MD/PhD degree in the future. I was looking into your laboratory because of your work on developing novel medications for treatment-resistant depression and bipolar disorder. Specifically, your project on evaluating the antidepressant effects of repeated doses of ketamine in the brain interests me since I have some background on evaluating compounds for various neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression. I would love to learn more about this research and other projects as well as the possibility of joining your lab.

I have spent the past two years in the lab of Dr. Z at YY University, evaluating compounds that could serve as preclinical candidates for neuropsychiatric disorders. While in this lab, I have become familiar with molecular biology techniques, neuroimaging, and GraphPad Prism data analysis. Additionally, I spent a summer at WW University investigating the neurobiology underlying social impairments in neuropsychiatric disorders. Lastly, my coursework in upper levels of neuroscience, biochemistry, anatomy, and psychology has given me an extensive background in the fields of neurobiology and neuropsychiatric illnesses. My research experiences and rigorous classes have provided me with the training to think critically and quickly problem-solve as well as developed my interest in neuroscience research.

I am excited at the opportunity to become a member of the NIH research community and would love the chance to talk in greater detail about my qualifications and your research. My online application and letters of recommendation have been submitted to the NIH IRTA program, and they can provide further clarity on my candidacy. I can be reached at XXX-XXX-XXXX or by email. Thank you for taking the time to consider me as an applicant for your laboratory, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Maddie Otto

By Maddie Otto

Maddie is a second-year medical student at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney and one of Level Medicine’s workshop project managers. Prior to studying medicine, she worked and studied as a musician in Melbourne. She has a background in community arts, which combined her love for both the arts and disability support. She is an advocate for intersectional gender equity, and is passionate about accessibility and inclusive practice within the healthcare system.

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