What the Heck Is “Training Potential,” Anyway?

As a newly-minted PhD, I began my postdoc with wild fellowship dreams. I set a schedule, applying to 1-2 fellowships a month. Research experience and broader impacts were a breeze. Research strategy and specific aims, with help from my new PI, solidified quickly. For weeks, however, my “training potential” document remained empty.

At first, I thought it might have something to do with transitioning between fields. However, after attending many lectures on grant writing, I learned that this was only partly right, and that the training potential piece is crucial. This is because most fellowships for postdocs are actually training fellowships. For example, the NIH F32 Ruth Kirschstein, NSF PRFB, American Cancer Society, and the Life Science Research Foundation provide fellowships for postdocs and their applications contain sections dedicated to the applicant’s “training potential.” These kinds of fellowships aim to fund not only the best projects, but people with the greatest potential to become solid, contributing members of the academic research community. Read on to find tips for nailing down your training potential.

Research Potential

As I suspected, training potential does involve the physical aspects of working as a postdoc. Explain how your proposed project is distinct from your graduate work and how it will offer avenues of technological and scientific development. Here’s a section where it’s possible you could have learned too much in grad school. Going back to transitioning fields, the judges want to make sure you are proposing a project that is not a repeat of your graduate work. Make sure you balance a strong foundation with substantial room to grow. There are two basic frameworks to achieve this: application and lateral translation.

Application describes your research talents and how you can apply them to the new field. For example, in my own proposal, I emphasized my strengths in molecular biology and microbiology, and then outlined my plan to apply these skills to a field in which I have no experience, namely microbial ecology. Lateral translation emphasizes your comprehension of and experience with a specific field and the training potential is highlighted in the tackling of a new protocol or niche within the same field.

Finally, demonstrate your commitment to research and the impact your work will have on the field as a whole. However, edge away from “innovative” work because it could be deemed “too risky.”

Campus Opportunity

The training potential document should list the major resources available in your institution, including laboratory equipment and core facilities (e.g., sequencing, and microscopy). It should also outline the amazing seminars and courses your institution has to offer. Maybe there are also some great seminars that are not happening in your department? Doesn’t matter! If they are scientifically relevant to your project, mention them.

As for courses, look at your university’s or institution’s professional development website. There should be applicable courses for improving the interpersonal skills necessary to successfully run an academic research lab. My training plan included courses in scientific teaching, mentoring and leadership. To be really impressive, assemble the course information into a chart that includes a timeline with percentages of time you plan to spend on each activity. Ensure that research is your main focus but 1-5 hours a week for a secondary activity is only about 10 % of your time.

In addition to the physical opportunities, the training potential portion can describe the emotional and collaborative environment of your institution. I described my university as open, friendly, and helpful and I indicated that I felt emotionally supported by my mentor and institution of choice. Be sure to mention any collaborators for your project. I included a list of my PI’s past and potential collaborators. I also made sure to address potential weaknesses of my experimental setup and how a specific collaborator would be able to help in this situation. Judges appreciate honesty and awareness. As long as there are contingency plans in place, displaying intelligent critique is a good thing.

Sponsor Statement Integration

To demonstrate an open and supportive relationship with your mentor without mentioning it outright, integrate your personal training plan with your sponsor’s statement. Make sure he or she mentions the seminars/courses offered by the university that you have mentioned in your training potential statement. For bonus points, if your mentor includes any individualized training needs, address them in your training potential statement. For example, do you need to improve your scientific writing? Maybe your mentor suggests writing succinct descriptions of your research every month. Or perhaps he or she will allow you to help review scientific articles to experience the peer review process first-hand.

In short, the training potential portion of a postdoctoral fellowship, while not necessarily intuitive, is an important component of the application. It illustrates your dedication to research, the potential and possibilities for growth, and a focused plan to achieve that growth. It can also bolster the grant reviewer’s confidence in your choice of institution and mentor. To find out more about applying for postdoctoral fellowships, check out some of Bitesize Bio’s other articles about writing graduate and postdoctoral fellowship applications.

Good luck and show ‘em you’ve got potential!

Image Credit: Stefan Baudy

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