NIHR Fellowships & ‘One NIHR’

I was lucky enough recently to visit my colleagues at the Research Design Service in the East Midlands (RDS EM), in Leicester to be specific. This was a first for me – to actually meet in person other RDS colleagues in their own patch. As I’ve written about before, we have a so-called ‘National Training Day’ the is held roughly every 2 years, but attending that has been, until now, been my only experience of meeting other RDS colleagues.

Social media can be a great enabler of actual face-to-face contact. My very first ‘follower’ on twitter was Sarah Seaton, an RDS adviser and NIHR doctoral fellow. Through twitter we’ve had numerous conversations on a wide range of health-research and RDS-related topics. As I’ve commented on before, the health research community on twitter is lively and varied. This interaction then led up to a hugely enjoyable Google hangout via the NIHR Hub (where there may or may not have been virtual hats involved at various points in proceedings), and finally to us deciding that it would be a good idea to arrange to meet up in person. Although we are badged as ‘one RDS’ and ‘one NIHR’, the fact still remains that many of us on-the-ground advisers don’t really have all that much contact with the wider, national RDS or, indeed, NIHR.

One of the things that Sarah does in RDS EM is to arrange a 2-hour NIHR Fellowship event every year. As she is herself an NIHR fellow, as well as being a RDS adviser, she is in the perfect position to do so. As we in the RDS SE were due to hold our fellowship event, for the first time, in a couple of weeks, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to visit, observe the event, and meet Sarah and her RDS EM colleagues.

Now, I can’t really write this particular post without sharing what I learned from the event. NIHR Fellowships, to quote Dawn Biram from the Trainees Coordinating Centre (TCC) who spoke, fund research and training to develop the research leaders of the future. With a variety of pathways open – for medics, clinically-trained health professionals, and non-clinical health researchers – at a variety of levels – Masters right the way up to Senior Lectureships – they are certainly a something worth considering when planning your research. And, as with all health and social care research applications, they are something on which your local RDS can provide advice, support and guidance.

Sarah had arranged for a range of speakers, all of whom play a different role in the fellowships. There was Dawn from the TCC, the secretariat which manage the fellowship scheme for the NIHR, Matt Bown, a current panel member for the doctoral fellowship pathway, Rhiannon Owen, a current NIHR fellow, Emma Watson, a doctoral fellow with Kidney Research UK, and finally Clare Gilles, an RDS EM adviser.

I was tweeting pretty much continuously during the event as there were so many tips and hints from each of the speakers. I use #NIHRtips, if anyone is interested, as this is a hashtag that I, and others, use for all sorts of NIHR and funding-related advice.

The overwhelming message from all the speakers was just how long it takes to put together a competitive application. These are huge endeavours and require input not just from yourself, but from a range of people both within and outside your NHS Trust or HEI. It is not unexpected for a fellowship application to take 6 months to a year to get right. Make sure you look at the guidance from last year’s competition and use that as a starting place – don’t wait until the new competition opens to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Try to get your hands on a successful fellow’s application form, so you can see what a really good application looks like (and just how long and complex it is!).

Applications are judged on 3 main things: you as an applicant, your research project & training plan and your institution (both NHS and HEI). Each one of these – person, plans, place – will require careful thought and preparation. So, update your CV, get that publication in, and apply for that small pot of funding to kick-start things. Talk to your local RDS about your plans and carry out a PPI consultation on your research ideas and design. Think about what other organisations you should involve – a clinical trials unit, the clinical research network, a charity or patient stakeholder group. Look at your options for HEIs, supervisors, and mentors. Approach the top people in your field and get advice. Get an idea of what training is out there and plan to attend the best there is available. Get your research networks started now.

There were also lots of tips about filling in the actual form. Panel members are only given a couple of weeks to shortlist 15 or so applications, so do whatever you can to make yours stand out. Be neat and careful with your spelling and grammar. Be consistent in your use of numbering and make sure your references are correct. Use bold, italics and underline to make your application clear and easy to read – don’t just have unbroken lines of dense text.

If you’re invited to interview, this is your chance to really demonstrate that you live up to your application in person – candidates are only interviewed if they are potentially fundable on paper. Make sure your presentation is second-perfect and set up as many mock interviews as you possibly can – your local RDS can help you with this. Google your panel and make sure you’re familiar with them, their research interests and their institutions. You can probably work out fairly easily who will be leading your interview, so anticipate what you might be asked. Be ready to defend your research plan, but don’t ignore input from the panel either. These people are experts in their fields, so give in to their greater experience if they suggest things to you. While you’re speaking, be confident and come out and move around the room. Remember, the panel is looking for future research leaders, so show your passion for your topic. Finally, your last slide will be left up during the Q&A portion of you interview, so use it to leave the panel with the message you want to convey.

Such events are invaluable and getting to talk to people directly can be really helpful if you’re planning to apply for an NIHR fellowship. Contact your local RDS and see if they’re doing something. Even if they’re not, they’ll have the experience of working with many NIHR fellows at various levels. They can help you with your application and may also be able to put you in touch with others who’ve been on the same journey.

From my point of view, it’s this collective experience that is so very valuable. When we share our experiences across the NIHR, we become stronger as a research community. We can help and support each other, offer advice and critical evaluation, and provide a network and a support group for researchers at all levels of the NIHR research pathway. I gained a lot from my visit, both in terms of knowing more about the NIHR fellowships, but also about what it means to be part of the larger NIHR and how, as a research community, we all have our parts to play in ensuring that patients and the public benefit from the very best evidence-based health and social care.