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Case study: Supporting pre-doctoral research in local authority settings

The NIHR Pre-doctoral Local Authority Fellowship (PLAF) scheme supports early career researchers employed within local authorities or local authority supporting services to become competitive applicants for fully funded PhD study (a doctoral fellowship).

Looking for research-informed answers

Charlotte Ashworth, a social worker in child protection at Manchester City Council, is a member of the first NIHR Pre-doctoral Local Authority Fellowship (PLAF) cohort. This new scheme is designed to help local authority practitioners develop as health and/or social care researchers.

The scheme supports practitioners in local authority settings to develop competitive applications for funded PhD fellowships. A PLAF provides salaried time to prepare a proposal for doctoral study, and also funds an academic training and development plan that meets the specific needs of the awardee and their proposal.

Charlotte has worked in frontline social care for the past nine years and has come across many challenges, such as families struggling in relative poverty and difficulties in retaining social care staff.

“I’ve often found myself asking questions, trying to find research-informed answers and struggling to find them. There is so much practical knowledge on the frontline, but the pressures of child protection work, turnover of staff and the lack of a clear career pathway meant that there have not previously been opportunities to capitalise on this knowledge.”

Supporting research in local authority settings

The NIHR is committed to supporting local authorities and associated services to become more research active, and by offering research training opportunities to individuals embedded within local authority settings, the PLAF scheme will contribute to the development of a credible practitioner academic career pathway within local authorities and local authority supporting services.

“One of the benefits of the award for me is flexibility. Being able to stay in my current job whilst continuing with further study and research has taken away all the barriers that previously stopped me returning to academia after completing a MA in Social Work 10 years ago.”

Charlotte will use her PLAF to develop her knowledge of social science research design and methods and complete a competitive PhD application. Charlotte’s area of research interest is child protection and domestic abuse and violence. Charlotte will look at current social work and multi agency practice and the impact of this on children and families.

“I think that there is such a huge potential to develop practitioner-academics within children’s social work. There is an opportunity to lead research relevant to practice within the Local Authority and, in turn, influence social work policies and practice.”

Advice for future applicants

Charlotte’s top tips for future applicants are:

  • Read through the scheme’s guidance notes before you apply and again while you’re completing the application form to understand what is being asked.
  • Find a Primary Academic Supervisor and partner institution early in the process, they will be invaluable in giving you advice and support throughout the completion of the application form.
  • Make sure your application is individual to you and develops the skills you need in advance of submitting a competitive application for a PhD fellowship.
  • Explain how you’ll build your networks through the programme, combining your professional network and a wider academic community to achieve a fully informed viewpoint.
  • Think about your end goal - everything you plan to do during the PLAF should tie back to and improve the PhD proposal you intend to make.

Find out more about the NIHR PLAF scheme and how to apply.