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The NIHR Fellowship Programme: A pathway to new ideas and opportunities


The new NIHR Doctoral Fellowships launched at the beginning of October, so we asked current award holder Lisa Newington to blog about the benefits of the Fellowship and how it’s helped her achieve her research aims.

I have reached that stage of my PhD when I find it slightly irritating to be asked “when is it going to be finished?”! However, as I approach the final six months of my NIHR Doctoral Research Fellowship, it’s a good opportunity to look back at what exactly I have been doing over the last three years, why I decided to take this path, and equally importantly, what do I plan to do next?

My motivation: a lack of evidence in my field

Throughout my 10 years as a clinical physiotherapist (hand therapy), there was no getting away from the lack of robust evidence to support much of the treatment used to manage our patients. Furthermore, the available surgical research often listed ‘physiotherapy’, ‘hand therapy’ or ‘occupational therapy’ as if this was a specific treatment entity without unpicking the details of what this actually entailed. This wasn’t much help to me and my therapist colleagues.

So, with this background and with a lot of support from established medical, surgical and AHP academics, I decided to apply for the NIHR Doctoral Research Fellowship and, hedging my bets, the NIHR Clinical Doctoral Research Fellowship (2015).

Applying for an NIHR Fellowship

I will be honest: preparing these applications while working full time clinically is quite an undertaking. However, when I came to start my PhD, there were enormous benefits. I had already conducted a scoping review of the topic, already had a general plan for my studies, and had already made links with potential recruiting sites.

Furthermore, the PhD proposal had been peer reviewed by top notch clinical researchers. A fantastic starting point!

But, let me no side step over The Interview. I know for many (me included), this is a really daunting prospect. The idea of having to promote your proposed work, your team of supervisors, and ultimately yourself is all a bit too much like Dragon’s Den.

However in my experience, it really wasn’t that bad and having mock interviews definitely helped. The interview was carefully MCed by friendly members of the NIHR team, who gently ushered me and my cohort of interviewees to the right place at the right time and made excellent efforts to calm our nerves. The interview panel asked challenging and thought-provoking questions, but all without malice!

The benefits

Having an NIHR PhD fellowship has brought enormous benefits. I had the opportunity to participate in lots of external training, from specific research methodologies to project management and leadership.

Funding for external training has allowed me to bring new ideas into my department and share these with other PhD students.

I have also been welcomed in to the NIHR Academy, invited to take part in various engagement activities and had the opportunity to network with many successful clinical academics.

This has helped me to build an informal network of mentors, which is extremely helpful as I navigate my own path from full-time clinician to clinical academic.

The downside

The one downside of being an NIHR PhD fellow is that people then have really high expectations for you. I have spent the past three years with the fear that one day my supervisors, or someone I speak to at a conference, will suddenly realise that I actually don’t know anything. I am assured that it is normal to feel this way, but still, I am waiting to be caught out…

So would I recommend applying for an NIHR Doctoral Fellowship?

Even with the high expectations and the mounting pressure as I enter the final six months of my Phd, I have to answer most definitely!

It is an amazing opportunity with real investment in your own development as well as enabling high quality research for the benefit of patients and the public.

There is nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Lisa Newington is an NIHR Doctoral Research Fellow and Specialist Physiotherapist in Hand Therapy. She is based at Arthritis Research UK - MRC Centre for Musculoskeletal Health and Work; and MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton.

The NIHR Doctoral Fellowships is a 3 year full time award that supports individuals to undertake a PhD in an area of NIHR research.

Find out much more about NIHR Doctoral Fellowships, including key dates and criteria for applying.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health and Social Care.