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What makes a NIHR Doctoral Fellowship application excellent?

Judith Rankin, Chair of the NIHR Doctoral Fellowship Selection Committee

Published: 04 May 2023

Judith Rankin is Professor of Maternal and Child Health at the University of Newcastle, and the Chair of the NIHR Doctoral Fellowship Selection Committee. As a researcher with an international reputation, she shares her thoughts on what makes an excellent application.

As an academic, I have worked on many research applications throughout my career. As the Chair of an NIHR Selection Committee, I am now one member of a panel that scrutinises Doctoral Fellowship applications. These are submitted by a diverse range of professional and practitioner backgrounds.

There are common threads in many of the best applications I have come across as Chair, which I hope will be useful and relevant as you prepare your application.

Write clearly

Your application needs to be pitched so that the informed non-expert can understand it. If you cannot communicate the importance of what you want to do, or if you write in highly specialised language that few people understand, the application is unlikely to succeed. I cannot emphasise this enough. One of the best ways you can make your application stand out is through writing clearly. Ask people to read your application and give you feedback, especially people outside of your field.

Good feedback can often be challenging to hear; however if you take it on board, it will help craft your application.

Show importance

You need to prove that what you are doing is important. Why should the NIHR invest in your work? What difference will it make? Make clear that your proposed research is applicable on a national level.
Then there are the five Ps:

  • Person
  • Place
  • Project
  • Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement (PPIE)
  • Prepare

Person: your career development

You need to show that you are passionate about developing a career as a health and care researcher. At PhD level this means proving that you are beginning to collect the tools together to drive your career forward. Short courses and masters level qualifications in research or science all help, along with publications, abstracts, presentations at meetings and involvement in structured research enquiry and audit.

Demonstrating how the Fellowship will develop your career is important; you need to be clear about what path you are on. The NIHR aims to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. Your career aspirations should reflect this, as should your application.

Aligned to the person part of the application is the training plan. This is critically important. You are applying for a Fellowship, not a research grant, so this is your chance to tell us about your development as a research leader of the future. Don’t just list graduate school courses: think about what weaknesses you have that challenge the delivery of your research and state how you will overcome these.

The best applicants align their training plan with their research.

Place: your host organisation

Make sure you align yourself with the right institutions and groups for your project. At PhD level, your choice of supervisors is critically important. You will not get through shortlisting if you do not have the right people to advise you. You need people who are experts in the area you are interested in and the methodology you intend to use.

For example, your application will not succeed if your project is social science based and you don’t have the support of an academic social scientist. You will also not get through if your supervisors have never supervised PhD students to competition.

Remember, this is a training Fellowship, and you will need people who understand your requirements as you progress through your PhD.


From the hypothesis to the research plan, your project needs to be exceptional.

There needs to be ordered progression in the scientific development that the informed non-expert can understand, and you must demonstrate that you own your project.

Reflect on your methodology and use methods that will be deliverable. Your project may benefit from the use of mixed methodologies; however this is complex and difficult to do well, so consider it carefully.

If you have interconnecting projects, you will need to think about what happens to your research if the first project is not delivered. You need to offer an alternative strategy for when things don’t go to plan.

Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement (PPIE)

This is as important as your project methodology. You must demonstrate how you are working in partnership with the patients of populations your project aims to help.

You should develop a PPIE plan at the beginning of the project that demonstrates how people will be involved and enhance your project from the initial idea to dissemination. This applies to all applicants, even those proposing methodology-based or data driven AI projects. The best applications thread PPIE throughout their proposal, and state how the project will impact on patients and populations in the medium and long term.


Finally, give yourself time to develop your application and do not rush. If you ask people who have been successful, they have crafted their application over many months and have sought advice and guidance from many people along the way.

From my point of view, one of the joys of being involved in the Doctoral Fellowship Selection Committee is the ‘wow’ factor from an applicant who has everything lined up and you just know they are going to make a difference.

The Selection Committee welcomes good-quality applications from a variety of professions, including social care practitioners, methodologists, occupational therapists, nurses, and medics; anyone from any professional background or discipline proposing research within the NIHR’s Remit for Personal Awards.

The Doctoral Fellowship is open to applications twice a year in April and October. See our funding opportunities for the latest round information.

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