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What makes an application excellent?

Published: 02 April 2019

To coincide with the launch of our Doctoral and Advanced Fellowships, we asked Gary Frost, Chair of the NIHR Doctoral Fellowship selection committee, to write about what he thinks makes an excellent application.

What makes an application excellent? Or to look at it in another way, given the diversity of the NIHR Academy portfolio (the number of professions applying for a diverse range of fellowships), is it possible to define an excellent application? 

I think there are common threads in many of the best applications I have come across as Chair of the NIHR Doctoral Fellowship selection committee. My personal views are listed below:

Clarity of writing

The first cut in the applications process is made by the selection committee. It is unlikely that your application will be a perfect academic fit for the shortlisting selection committee. Therefore, your application needs to be pitched so the informed non-expert can understand it. 

If you cannot communicate the importance of what you want to do, or 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.


You need to demonstrate 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 P’s:

  • Person
  • Place
  • Project
  • Patient and public involvement (PPI)


You need to demonstrate that you are passionate about developing a career as a clinical academic.  At PhD level this is demonstrating you are beginning to collect the tools together to drive your career forward. MSc, MRES and short courses all help.  As do publications, abstracts, presentations at meetings and involvement in structured research enquiry and audit. 

When applying to a Post-Doctoral Fellowship, publication and funding such as travel and small project awards become critical currency.  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, and further afield through Global Health initiatives. Your career aspirations should reflect this.

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.


Good research comes out of high-quality institutions and groups. You need to align yourself with the best of the best. 

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 academic social scientist.  You will also not get through if your supervisors have never supervised PhD students to competition.

I make no apologies for repeating this is a training Fellowship, you need people who understand your needs 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. It is trendy to use mixed methodologies; however this is complex and difficult to do well. 

If you have interconnecting projects, you need to consider 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 (PPI)

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 PPI 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 data driven AI projects. The best applications thread PPI 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.

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. In recent years this has come from a variety of professions from paramedics to physiotherapists to statisticians and physicians. 

Find out more about an NIHR Academy Doctoral or Advanced Fellowship.

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