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Case study: Undertaking a career placement with the NIHR SPARC scheme

The NIHR Short Placement Award for Research Collaboration (SPARC) scheme supports NIHR Academy Members working in a part of NIHR Infrastructure or NIHR Schools to enhance their research training experience, and network and collaborate in another part of the NIHR.

A placement at NIHR Imperial Biomedical Research Centre

Carmel McGrath, a critical care nurse, was in the final year of her PhD with NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), when she undertook a placement with NIHR Imperial College London BRC. This placement was supported by a Short Placement Award for Research Collaboration (SPARC), funded by NIHR Academy.

The SPARC award provides funding up to £5,000 for NIHR Academy Members who are undertaking a PhD or who are early career post-doctoral researchers within NIHR Infrastructure and Schools. The award allows the researcher to spend time in another part of the NIHR to provide positive learning experiences and opportunities to enhance their careers through being part of something larger than their own local environment.

Carmel’s PhD is exploring the impacts of public involvement in health research. During her time with Imperial BRC’s Patient Experience Research Centre, Carmel co-created a novel public involvement planning and impact assessment resource and infographic with input from public contributors, co-delivered public involvement basic training to Cancer Research UK PhD students, and reviewed Imperial’s public involvement online course.

Carmel was also able to observe researcher sessions, where she learnt more about public involvement practices within different areas of research, many of which she had not been exposed to before.

Carmel reflected on the benefits her placement, and how it informed the evolution of the planning and impact resource:

“This was an incredible learning and development opportunity, as it enabled me to link the theoretical aspects of the resource to its practical application and make improvements based on this.”

Developing as a researcher

Because of the range of activities she was able to undertake during the SPARC placement, Carmel has broadened her knowledge of public involvement theory and practice, as well as learning new skills that have improved her overall confidence as an early career researcher.

By speaking to and teaching people about the different areas of public involvement, she has grown in her own ability to support others. She has learnt more about her main research focus through discussions with colleagues and formed relationships with public contributors, who have brought fresh insights and perspectives to her PhD research.

Carmel said,

“I have a newfound appreciation of the value of collaboration. On this placement I have formed relationships with public contributors and colleagues at Imperial that, I hope, will continue beyond the scope of this placement.”

Due to the pandemic, the placement was entirely virtual. Although Carmel would have liked the opportunity to visit another institution and meet people in person, the virtual placement meant she was able to participate in a range of activities such as providing teaching, sitting in on public involvement meetings and reviewing the training courses.

Carmel’s advice for applicants

Carmel found the process of applying, undertaking and reporting the outputs and outcomes for the award very easy to follow and she valued the flexibility to continue her PhD studies alongside undertaking activities associated with the placement.

Carmel would advise anyone considering applying for a SPARC award to:

  • Research the host institution and think about the impact of potential activities relevant to your learning and development needs
  • Speak to the placement host institution and research team before applying for the award to scope out and maximise potential opportunities during the placement period
  • Keep a diary of activities and learnings that were gained during the placement. These important reflections could be beneficial for ongoing work and provide helpful reminders when sharing the award experiences with others
  • Maximise networking opportunities and invest time to maintain important relationships and collaborations after the award end date
  • Create spaces for discussion with your host supervisor to share positive experiences and provide feedback relating to any aspects of the placement that worked particularly well and to suggest areas that might be enhanced for future SPARC applicants.

Find out more about the SPARC scheme and how to apply.