workload. Eligibility requirements include:
• You must have a doctoral degree (MD, PhD, PsyD, PharmD,
• Your total amount of educational debt must be 20 percent
or more of your annual base salary.
• Your research must be supported by a domestic nonprofit
institution, such as a university, nonprofit foundation,
professional association or U.S. government agency.
• Research must constitute 50 percent — or 20 hours per
week — of your total work.
• Part-time federal employees are eligible if they are
also doing part-time work (under 20 hours per week) for a
qualifying nonprofit institution.
• You cannot have consolidated your debt with other, noneducational types of loans or with other people, such as a
spouse or a child.
Your research should fall into one of five areas: clinical,
pediatric, health disparities, contraception and infertility,
or clinical research for individuals from disadvantaged
backgrounds. If you’re accepted into the program and commit
to it for two years, it will take care of 25 percent of your total
debt, up to $35,000 per year. (For example, if you have $140,000
of debt or more, it will repay $35,000 per year; if you have
$60,000, NIH will repay $15,000 per year, and so on.) Unlike
the NHSC program, the NIH program pays the lenders directly,
so you don’t have to think about it. If your contract is renewed,
the program will repay 50 percent of your remaining debt, up to
$35,000 for each year or renewal.
“Out of the 3,200 applications we had last year, we were able
to fund just under half,” says Stephen J. Boehlert, director of
operations in the NIH Division of Loan Repayment. More than
300 of those successful applicants were specialists in mental
health — 274 PhDs in psychology and PsyDs, and 49 MDs
specializing in psychiatry.
About 70 percent of applicants are renewed after the first
two years, and renewals may be for either one or two years.
There is no upper limit on the number of renewals a person
can get, but in 2012, the largest number of prior awards for re-applicants was six. The average amount of debt for participants
in the program was $101,000, with nearly a quarter having
more than $150,000. For full statistics, see www.lrp.nih.gov/pdf/
NIH’s goal is to attract and keep young researchers doing
what they love, which is getting harder in this economic climate,
according to Boehlert. “As the funding opportunities become
scarcer, it oftentimes becomes a more attractive option to leave
research for clinical practice. Our programs are mandated by
Congress and designed to allow those individuals who very
much want to do research the monetary assistance that will
allow them to remain there. ”
In your application, you’ll have to detail the kind of research
you do, the problems you solve and the directions it will move
in the future — very much like a grant application. “The great
thing is that even if you get turned down the first time, it’s in
no way a waste of time,” says Shawn McClintock, PhD, MSCS,
an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences
at Duke University School of Medicine, and governance and
membership representative of APA’s Committee on Early
Career Psychologists. He was turned down on his first program
application, but just received his second renewal. “Applying for
the program is just like writing a grant application, so you can
easily use this info to write other grants. Because of this, it’s
worthwhile, however it turns out,” McClintock says.
Interested applicants should start preparing early,
McClintock advises. With a Nov. 15 deadline, he says, “don’t
wait until October to request academic transcripts and letters
of recommendation, because you’ll miss your deadline. Start
months in advance.” n
Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a writer in New York.
More options to explore
For students who don’t qualify for NIH or
NHSC programs, several other options may
be worth looking into. Many states have their
own loan-repayment programs. You can find a
database at http://nhsc.hrsa.gov/loanrepayment/
There are also loan forgiveness programs,
which work differently from repayment
programs. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Program (PSLP), for example, requires you to
make 10 years’ worth of minimum payments
before they kick in — and since the program
was created by Congress in 2007, only loan
payments made after Oct. 1, 2007, qualify,
meaning that the first loans will not be forgiven
As with the NHSC program, you must be
working at an approved site to qualify. To learn
more about the PSLP, visit the Department
of Education’s Student Aid website: http://
The important thing is to start the research
process early — preferably as an undergraduate
or early in graduate school — so you’ll be
situated to take advantage of these programs
that can help improve not only your debt, but
your quality of life as well.