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The common characteristics of a great Fellowship application

Professors Eileen Kaner and Umesh Kadam are co-chairs of the NIHR Advanced
Fellowship Funding Committee.

Published: 01 November 2023

Eileen Kaner, Professor of Public Health & Primary Care Research and Director of the Applied Research Collaboration for the North East and North Cumbria (ARC NENC), and Umesh Kadam, Professor of General Practice and Public Health Research, are co-chairs of the NIHR Advanced Fellowship Funding Committee. Together, they discuss what the committee looks for when shortlisting applications.

The NIHR Advanced Fellowships is a popular scheme. Successful applicants show they have a clear career plan, with independent ideas and a robust research project. Applicants will also identify relevant and diverse mentors and supervisors and a supportive host organisation. This combination is what we call Person, Project, Place (Mentors and Environment) and Training and Development. These four areas, alongside well-designed patient and public involvement, should form the structure of all applications.

Below we summarise the key principles of writing an excellent application for an NIHR Advanced Fellowship.

Good applications have common characteristics

The NIHR Advanced Fellowship supports researchers working in a range of methodological health and care disciplines, at any point in their postdoctoral career.

At a superficial level, an application from, say, an early career statistician may look very different to one from a senior sociologist wishing to do some ethnographic fieldwork or a consultant surgeon wanting to run a clinical trial.

But good applications have key common characteristics – they show distinctive ideas and a self-driven direction of growth. This is regardless of discipline, career seniority or the institution being applied from. It is these features which we look for when shortlisting applicants to interview.

Tell us why you need an NIHR Fellowship

A good application explains why the applicant needs a Fellowship at this stage of their career. Rather than another project grant.

We want to know:

  • what difference securing a Fellowship would make to your career – and why now? 
  • how will a Fellowship build on your existing experience and what new skills will it enable you to gain?
  • how will it develop your research partnerships within the NHS, public health or social care, charity organisations, industry or other organisations?

The training plan is important, get it right

A thorough training and development plan is central to your application. It should consider the range of skills you need to gain to progress to the next stage of your academic career.  Not just the technical know-how to complete your project.

We want to see evidence that you have assessed the gaps in your skillset, and what are your needs in further developing your abilities to build capacity, lead a team, communicate with a range of audiences using different media, or build up patient and public involvement in research?

Supervisors and Mentors

Linked to your training plan is your choice of supervisors and mentors. The balance between the two will depend on the stage of your career.

We have no view on whether an applicant should continue to work in the same institution with the same research team and supervisors, or whether an applicant should move to gain new experiences. However, we do expect you to justify carefully where and with whom you are going to work. As well as how a well thought out supervisory/mentorship team will support your development rather than just the project.

What we look for in Host organisation statements of support

This brings us to the Host support statement. The reputation of the institution does not have a bearing on how we view the strength of the applicant.
We often see applicants from the same institution have near-identical ‘cut-and-paste’ statements of support. These generic statements are not helpful to you. We want to know more about the specific support your institution will give you, such as:

  • is there an offer of funding or support for a PhD studentship?
  • is there an explicit commitment that your Fellowship-funded research and training time will be protected? 
  • at the end of the Fellowship, what is the likelihood of you being offered a substantive post?

The committee is aware that not all organisations can similarly afford additional funding, therefore it’s important to note that Host support is considered in context and in relation to each applicant.

Your Project

Your project is the platform upon which some of your training will be based. The NIHR funds research in all aspects of applied health and care research and we recommend you read our remit for personal awards when writing your application.

We look for applicants who base their project within the existing evidence-base and who argue why the work will add to knowledge and benefit patients and the public. For most applications, this means you will have undertaken a detailed literature review.

Your project does not need to be directly based on your doctoral or other recent work. However,  we do expect you to demonstrate some degree of continuity with your existing research experience or justify clearly why you are opting for a change in direction.

Your CV

We then come to you and to your CV.

We want to fund researchers who demonstrate progression in their career trajectory and who are likely to become the research leaders of the future. We understand that people can have pauses in their research careers,  work part-time due to caring responsibilities or have less time for research in practitioner-based roles. Some may have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Stating such mitigations is not a weakness. The committee will want to know, so they can judge your trajectory according to the time available for research.

We do not compare someone who has 10 years postdoctoral experience with someone who secured their PhD twelve months ago. Instead, we look at the stage of your career and consider carefully within your discipline and with the opportunities you have had to-date, whether your publications, your grants, your impact and your wider academic contribution is below average, about par, or above the norm.

Patient and Public Involvement

Finally, but crucially, well-designed patient and public involvement is vital. It should start from the outset to help shape ideas based on lived experience, which will strengthen your plans immeasurably. Diversity in actual research, the teams that you work with, and your ambitions, provides real indications that your research programme is also likely to maximise patient or public health benefit to the fullest. 

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