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Let your research retire some of your educational debt

Robin BARR [Former NIA Staff],
Division of Extramural Activities (DEA).

The NIH Loan Repayment Program provides up to $35,000 per year for qualified researchers to pay off student loans. The program is accepting applications now, as it does every fall, and NIA is one of several institutes involved in this important program. If the program is appropriate for you, apply now. You may be able to get part of your student loans repaid by NIA or one of the other NIH Institutes and Centers accepting applications. Loan repayment is available to many types of researchers, including fellows working in NIH’s intramural research program.

The deadline for applications from extramural researchers is November 15, 2017; the deadline for intramural researchers is April 3, 2018.

You might be surprised to learn that loan repayment application numbers for NIH as a whole have fallen consistently in the last five years. We haven’t experienced this decline at NIA; our loan repayment application numbers have remained relatively constant.

Why have loan repayment applications declined?

Some of the reasons potential applicants do not apply include:

  • Maybe you’re planning to move to a new institution and a higher salary, so your debt-to-income ratio makes you ineligible for loan repayment.
  • Perhaps your rich uncle paid off the $150K+ debt you accrued in medical or graduate school. (Don’t you wish!)
  • If you refinanced the debt into a new, low-interest mortgage, you probably know that your new loan is ineligible for the NIH Loan Repayment Program.

Why should you apply?

We encourage you to consider the loan repayment program if you meet the eligibility requirements. There’s even some evidence linking participation in the LRP program to success in securing a grant later on. One evaluation found that funded Loan Repayment Program applicants were more likely to apply for and receive a subsequent NIH research project grant or career award (PDF 2.2MB) than were non-funded applicants. For more on this, see the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director Physician-Scientist Workforce Working Group Report.

Eligibility and the application process for loan repayment

Here are some other myths that may deter applicants from applying:

  • I’m not ready to apply for a grant.

This is not a grant. It is a contract! Would you like to reduce the size of that debt?

  • I need to have a grant to apply or be competitive.

Not the case! You need to be in a non-profit academic or other research setting where you can devote 50 percent of your time (each quarter) over a two-year period to research.

  • My research is not as far along as I’d like.

The reviewers will assess your overall research potential, with less focus on the research you are conducting. Typically, the research is conducted with a mentor who has a peer-reviewed grant to support the project.

You do need to show a reasonable trajectory towards research independence. Let’s say your career goal is to develop strategies to improve problem-solving capabilities in elderly caregivers. If your current research project measures NADPH oxidase in muscle tissue of senior marathon runners, the reviewers may see a mismatch between your goals and your current research activities.

Three things to remember about the NIH Loan Repayment Program:

  • Qualifying student loan debt
  • 50 percent research time and it can be transferred to your new institution
  • The cycle for new and renewal applications from extramural researchers is open September 1 – November 15, 2017

Think of it this way: What other program offers you substantial support for no additional work? The time to apply is now!

I hope you’ll visit the Loan Repayment Program website, which provides a wealth of information. If you have additional questions, please ask them by commenting below. If you have questions specific to your personal circumstances, please give me a call.

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