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The common characteristics of a great Fellowship application

Published: 17 April 2019

Jayne Parry is Professor of Policy and Public Health in the Institute of Applied Health Research and chair of the NIHR Academy Advanced Fellowship Selection Committee. In this blog she gives her insight into what the committee looks for when shortlisting for interview.

Competition for NIHR Advanced Fellowships is high. To secure funding you need to be able to demonstrate an above-average career trajectory and propose a methodologically-robust project which will provide a platform for you to gain new skills and experiences in a supportive environment.

An excellent CV, a novel project or a well-thought through training plan on their own is not enough – all three are required to make a good application. Below I summarise the key principles of writing a really good application for an NIHR Advanced Fellowship.

Good applications have common characteristics

The NIHR Advanced Fellowship Committee supports researchers working in a range of methodological and clinically-orientated disciplines at any point in their post-doctoral 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 to one from a consultant surgeon wanting to run a clinical trial.

But good applications have common characteristics which are evident regardless of discipline or career seniority. It is these which Committee members and our reviewers look for when shortlisting applicants to interview.

Tell us why you need an NIHR Fellowship

Most importantly, a good application explains clearly and coherently why the applicant needs an NIHR 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 would a Fellowship build on your existing experience and what new skills will it enable you to acquire?

The training plan is important, get it right

A well thought-through training plan needs to be front and centre in your Fellowship application. It should consider the range of skills you need to gain to progress to the next stage of your academic career and not just the technical know-how to complete your project. 

We want to see evidence that you have assessed the gaps in your skill-set; for example, what are you needs in regard to further developing your abilities to build capacity, to lead a team, to communicate with a range of audiences using different media, or to 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 your stage of career.

The Committee has 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 you are going to work and with whom you are going to work. 

What we look for in institutional statements of support

This brings us on to the institutional statement.  The Committee sees many applications and more often than not, 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 if you secure a Fellowship.

For example, is there an offer of some matched funding for, say, 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?

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 research and I would strongly advise reviewing our remit for personal awards when writing your application.

We look for applicants who locate their proposed project within the existing evidence-base and who argue clearly as to why the work will add to knowledge and benefit patients and the public. For most applications this means you will have already undertaken a detailed review of the relevant literature. Your project need not build directly on your doctoral or other recent work, but we would expect you to demonstrate some degree of continuity with your existing research experience or to justify clearly why you are opting for a change in direction.

Your CV

And so, finally, we 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 do not compare someone who has 10 years post-doctoral experience with someone who secured their PhD twelve months previously when short-listing applicants and making awards. Rather, we look at the stage of your career and consider carefully whether within your specific discipline and with the opportunities you have had to-date, your publications, your grants, your impact and your wider academic contribution is below average, about par, or above the norm. 

Find out more about Doctoral and Advanced Fellowships from the NIHR Academy.


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