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Undertaking a virtual academic career placement with the NIHR GHR SPARC scheme

Published: 19 January 2022

Safat Ullah undertook a GHR SPARC award with the University of York to develop his research skills and experience to take his career to the next level.



A placement at the University of York, part of the NIHR Global Health Research Group on Addressing Smokeless Tobacco and building Research Capacity in South Asia (ASTRA)

The NIHR Global Health Research Short Placement Award for Research Collaboration (GHR SPARC) scheme supports NIHR GHR Academy Members based in a part of the NIHR GHR Programme  to enhance their research training experience, CV and network and collaborate in another award. 

Safat Ullah, a Masters of Public Health (MPH) student and Research Assistant in the NIHR Global Health Research Group on Addressing Smokeless Tobacco and building Research Capacity in South Asia (ASTRA) at Khyber Medical University in Pakistan undertook a 6 month placement at the University of York (UK Lead Institution). 

The SPARC award provides funding up to £10,000 for NIHR GHR Academy Members whose academic career development is being supported by an NIHR GHR Programme. The award allows early career researchers to spend time in another part of the NIHR (including GHR Programmes and overseas partner institutions, as well as NIHR funded centres/sites based in the UK) to provide positive learning experiences and opportunities to enhance their careers through being part of something larger than their own local environment. For Safat, this placement enabled him to immerse himself and collaborate on a project using and developing qualitative research approaches. 

The training gave me protected time and support from leading academics in the ASTRA Group. At the end of my placement I was able to develop a PhD proposal and was delighted to start on my doctoral studies at Khyber Medical University in September 2021. 

During his GHR SPARC placement Safat undertook a number of taught modules (including ‘Randomised Control Trials’ and Qualitative Health Research’) that enabled him to gain comprehensive training on various methodological approaches. Safat was able to gain practical first-hand experience; undertaking qualitative data analysis and framework analysis, as well as undertaking part of a systematic review, reviewing 200 articles on tobacco policy across the world for eligibility in the study. It was also an opportunity to immerse himself in a different culture and to experience a variety of different teaching styles.

Starting in September 2020, Safat had to quickly adapt his research placement to the emerging worldwide pandemic.

I had the opportunity to take part in virtual bi-weekly Global Public Health Meetings, and meet and network with passionate and like minded Public Health PhD students, sharing our experiences of conducting research in LMIC and HIC countries and the opportunities and challenges this poses. Initially, it was planned to spend all the six months of placement at the host institution (The University of York), but due to the pandemic the plans were changed. The change in plans had both positive and negative impact. 

Developing as a researcher

With collaboration and participation moving online, Safat was able to participate in a Global Public Health forum, as well as complete an additional module in Qualitative Health Research. Following the completion of this module, Safat was able to use the skills he developed during his GHR SPARC placement to co-facilitate a 3-day ‘Qualitative Research Workshop’ for Masters in Health Research students at Khyber Medical University

The award has given me the confidence and equipped me with innovative and exciting ideas to deliver more capacity building and training workshops in more interactive ways at my home institution.  After the completion of the placement, I was able to Co-Lead a research project on “COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy in Peshawar, Pakistan”, where I led the qualitative aspects of the study, utilising the skills and experience I gained through the GHR SPARC training. I have learnt so much during this placement and really want to share this knowledge and learning with others and would thoroughly recommend taking the next step in developing your academic career and applying for a NIHR GHR SPARC award.

Saffat's advice for anyone considering applying for a GHR SPARC award

  • Be focused about your objectives for a short-term placement
  • Have a clear vision about how you might want to use your time and resources
  • Look for opportunities to connect with others
  • Enjoy the international perspective

Find out more about the NIHR GHR SPARC award.

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