The NIH NRSA fellowship is a training award for pre- and post-doctoral fellows to supplement biomedical research training. One of the most important sections of this award is the Specific Aims section, in which the applicant must outline 2-3 research objectives for their fellowship. At one page maximum, this section is brief compared to other sections. However, it is critical that Aims are concise and clear, as they lay the foundation for the much longer Research Strategy section. Below are some helpful hints that I learned while writing my Specific Aims:
Each Aim must be independent
Your Aims cannot build on one another. This is to ensure that the success (or failure) of one Aim does not impact the fate of another. Therefore, you cannot propose developing a method in Aim 1 (like an assay or behavioral paradigm) to apply to your subsequent Aims. It is challenging given that most of our research directions come from the results of a previous study. You might consider developing 2-3 small but related projects that focus on a particular disease or biological pathway.
Each Aim must be supported
You should have some supporting evidence for each Aim. Evidence could be your data, data you helped to generate, or findings from a peer-reviewed journal. However, more is not necessarily better, and it is important not to flood reviewers with every piece of data you have. Choose figures carefully that convey the narrative you would like to tell about your research. Also, try to include figures as close to their text description as possible, so reviewers do not have to hunt for the supporting data.
Each Aim must be feasible
While it is tempting to think of the most elaborate experiments imaginable to impress reviewers, remember that this is a training award. Therefore, it is important to develop Aims that include techniques in which you can receive training. Consider the technical strengths of your laboratory and department when formulating your Aims. If you cannot list a principal investigator and/or postdoctoral fellow that has experience with a specific technique to mentor you, it is probably best to remove it from your Aims.
Remember, the Specific Aims are a critical component to your NIH NRSA fellowship. Take a considerable amount of time to formulate them, and it will make the other sections of your fellowship application much easier to write. A set of well-developed Aims will make all of the difference in your proposal!