Published: 06 June 2023
Discover how the Development and Skills Enhancement Award lays the foundations of a successful career in research
Dr Maria Loades is a practising clinical psychologist based at the University of Bath specialising in child and adolescent mental health. After successfully completing an NIHR Doctoral Fellowship, she chose the Development and Skills Enhancement (DSE) Award as the next step in her research career. Now an advocate for the DSE Award at her university, here she explains what inspired her application.
The DSE Award is a one-year training opportunity designed to be the bridge between a Doctoral Fellowship and an Advanced Fellowship (AF) or other post-doctoral awards. Its funding covers researchers’ salaries and training, including any mentorship costs.
The DSE Award gives mid-career researchers the time to identify where their research skills and knowledge need developing, fine-tuning them ahead of the next step in their research careers. This could be anything from learning new data analysis skills, to developing a greater understanding of co-designing and delivering interventions.
For the first time, the DSE Award is open to non-NIHR Academy Members, and a perpetual submission window (rather than specific deadlines) means that researchers can apply throughout the year, and at their own pace.
Early career trajectory
Maria already had research experience through the NIHR Doctoral Fellowship, but identified the need to refine her skills and knowledge before preparing her AF application. She said:
“Through my work as a practising clinical psychologist in the NHS, I had already designed and delivered clinical trials in children and adolescent services, and the NIHR Doctoral Fellowship developed my skills. But as I was thinking about my next steps, I realised that I wanted to pivot the focus of my research area from mental health in a very specific population of young people with chronic fatigue to encompass wider issues around depression in teenagers, who were being particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. To do this, I wanted time to work up my research ideas plan before submitting an AF application.
“I also identified where I needed to build on my skills, which were lacking in some areas. For example, I needed a better understanding of how to run a grant-funded clinical trial.”
“I don’t think I could have built my successful NIHR AF submission without my DSE Award.”
As well as her programme of research, which included proposals for co-designing, trialling and implementing scalable mental health interventions for adolescents, Maria also set out a training plan to enable her to meet her objectives. She said:
“The DSE Award’s one-year time frame made me think realistically about what I could achieve in a year. It also gave me the opportunity to access quite bespoke training, which was fantastic. During my year, I was able to complete four placements, and there was a lot of variety of experiences across them. One placement was with a Clinical Trials Unit, who are collaborators on the clinical trial I will be conducting within my AF with whom I collaborated to develop the research programme that they are now trialling.
“Another was with MindTech, a national centre focusing on new technologies for mental health and dementia, based in Nottingham. By working alongside these teams, I was able to develop my skills in important areas, such as data analysis for clinical trialsco-production with young people and planning clinical trials.
“My advice to other researchers is to make the most of your placements by choosing them carefully; planning how many days you will spend at each one; aligning your placements closely with your objectives and projected outcomes, and by forging professional relationships and contacts which could bear fruit in the future.”
“What was wonderful about the DSE Award was that I was required to seek mentors outside my organisation.”
During her year as a DSE Award researcher, Maria worked with two mentors, who she carefully selected as part of her training plan: one was Professor Roz Shafran, Chair of Translational Psychology at University College London, and the other was just finishing an NIHR post-doctoral fellowship who could share their experiences of how they successfully progressed through the NIHR Fellowship Programme.
The DSE Award covers mentorship costs of up to £1,000, and Maria encourages any researchers thinking about applying to make the most of the opportunities that this funding can offer. She said:
“I think it’s crucial to have mentors who are outside your own organisation or specialism. The mentors that I had really pushed me, and challenged me to see things from a different perspective. I would definitely recommend other researchers to do the same.
“Every collaborator and mentor helped to give me the time I needed to develop the best programme of research that I could, and their experience was invaluable.”
Completing the DSE
The most significant outcome from Maria’s DSE Award was her success with the AF application, which means that she can progress her research career along with her clinical practice. She said:
“The DSE Award was a fantastic foundation for the AF.
“My ultimate goal is to secure a professorship, and I knew that through the DSE Award, the NIHR would enable me to submit a competitive and impactful application for an AF. I can now go on to use the skills I have learnt during the lifetime of the award as part of the AF, for the benefit of young people with depression.
“I think the most important piece of advice that I can give to anyone thinking of applying for a DSE Award is not to overload your training plan to the point that you can’t take advantage of opportunities that might come your way. For example, while I was at a placement I got the opportunity to co-author the chapter of a book, in collaboration with colleagues from MindTech. This was a great experience, but if I had overloaded my development plan, it wouldn’t have been possible.
“I’m now looking forward to keeping the momentum going with my AF, so I would definitely recommend the DSE Award to other researchers.”
The DSE Award is open for applications all year round, with three submission windows a year when all applications are reviewed. These windows close in August, December and April.