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Keep The Thread Policy

The Intramural Keep the Thread Program offers current NIH Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA)/Cancer Research Training Award (CRTA) postdoctoral fellows several options for increasing flexibility and temporarily reducing effort wile remaining connected to their research and the NIH community during times of intense family needs. The program incorporates a variety of flexible arrangements, to be mutually agreed upon by the fellow and Principal Investigator (PI), with approval by the Scientific Director (SD). These arrangements vary from increased use of telework and flexible scheduling to temporary reductions in effort, and would include necessary modifications of project timelines. The program is open to female and male NIH Postdoctoral IRTA/CRTA fellows who have been at the NIH for at least six months and have an established research project. Foreign nationals on J-1 visas are not eligible for part-time options or special volunteer status. These options are not intended to take the place of standard parental leave, which entitles IRTA fellows to 12 weeks of paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child. These policies may be implemented upon returning from parental leave or when faced with family situations not covered by the NIH parental leave policy.

The goal of this program is to retain NIH fellows through short periods in their careers when they require accommodations to successfully balance their research with family responsibilities. By increasing flexibility and enabling reduction to part-time status, fellows will be given options that facilitate “keeping the thread” of their research programs during a period of flexibility before they are ready to completely re-enter the scientific workforce. This program is designed to create a framework through which fellows and PIs can explore all mutually agreeable options that would allow the fellow to attend to family responsibilities while pursuing a productive research career, while at the same time recognizing the importance of minimal disruption to a PI’s research program.

The Keep-the-Thread Program is a multi-faceted approach that maximizes flexibility. Individual fellows should work with their PIs to create a mutually agreeable plan appropriate for their situation. Examples of relevant policies include:

  • Flexible schedule options
  • Part-time work options, available to IRTA fellows able to work at least 40% time (16 hours per week). The NIH manual chapter allows fellows to work part time at their supervisor’s discretion. See NIH Policy Manual 2300-320-7. Fellows must work at least 40% time (16 hours per week), and will have their stipends adjusted accordingly. In order to retain full coverage of health benefits, fellows must work a minimum of 80% time (32 hours per week). Fellows working 40-80% time are still eligible for FAES health insurance but must contribute a percentage of health costs equivalent to their percent reduction of effort. After two years, fellows must return to at least 80% effort. Fellows working at least 40% time may stay on the waiting list for NIH childcare centers. The 5-year fellowship clock may be prorated for these fellows, at the discretion of the Office of Intramural Research. Note that while exemptions may pause the clock to compensate for periods of reduced effort, the total duration of paid work as a postdoctoral fellow may not exceed five years of effort (which may stretch beyond than five calendar years).
  • Fee-for-service options – Fellows intending to work part-time, but unable to commit to 16 hours per week, may be hired on professional services contracts for a maximum of 12 cumulative months. Note that this is a procurement action that may have other requirements ( Such fellows will not be eligible for health benefits nor will they have access to NIH child care centers.
  • Special Volunteer (SV) status for fellows who are unable to work at this time. Fellows converted to special volunteer status will not be paid, but will retain access to the NIH campus, library facilities, computers, and on-line resources. They will still be eligible for NIH health insurance, but must pay for it out of pocket, and are eligible for the NIH childcare facilities. Assuming special volunteer status will allow fellows to remain connected to the NIH and their research even if they are not able to commit substantial effort. For more information on special volunteer status, see NIH Policy Manual 2300-308-1. This is not intended as a mechanism for fellows to work without compensation, but rather as a way for fellows to maintain access to NIH resources while on leave. Since the five-year policy counts time spent on a non-FTE position in any capacity, including as SV, the DDIR will make exception to the five-year rule, if necessary, for Keep-the-Thread cases, which must be submitted in advance to OIR for approval of this exception.
  • Re-entry facilitation – Facilitating reentry is a major goal of the Keep-the-Thread Program. PIs and SDs should consider creative solutions to meet the needs of the laboratory while preserving the fellow’s ability to return to full time work when ready. When possible, a fellow’s full-time position will be guaranteed for the equivalent of one year's stipend, up to two years maximum. For instance, fellows working 50% time will have their positions held for two years. After that point, fellows must return to 80-100% effort. Fellows converted to special volunteer status will have their positions held for one year. Consistent with standard termination policies, all fellows should be given at least twelve months notice prior to termination. For additional information, please review the Guidelines for Early Termination of Awards to Postdoctoral Fellows page of this Sourcebook.

Taking advantage of any accommodation would require a written agreement between the supervisor and the fellow, signed by the SD. This document will confirm agreement on the details of the arrangement, such as the accommodations the fellow will use, the number of hours the fellow will work, the degree of flexibility, and the duration of the arrangement. Changes to the prearranged agreement would require approval by the SD or lab/branch chief as appropriate. Please use the checklist provided to ensure that all relevant topics are discussed. The PI, SD, and fellow will all be required to sign the checklist indicating that they have reached agreement on all issues.

For questions about the program, or for additional information, please contact Judie Walters.

The page was last updated on Thursday, April 16, 2020 - 11:23am