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Chairs’ Report for Round 3 (2020) of HEE/NIHR ICA Pre-doctoral Clinical Academic Fellowship Scheme


Published: 10 November 2020

Version: 1.0 (Nov 2020)

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The HEE/NIHR ICA Pre-doctoral Clinical Academic Fellowship (PCAF) scheme supports early career researchers from the ICA Eligible Professions to become competitive applicants for a doctoral level research training fellowship. 
The scheme funds dedicated time to prepare an application for a competitive, peer-reviewed doctoral level research training fellowship as well as a personalised programme of academic training.

PCAF candidates may have received little formal academic training, or have limited research experience at the point of application, but should be able to demonstrate their commitment to a career as a clinical academic and have outstanding potential for development as a future clinical academic leader.

PCAF Round 3 Competition (2020) 

The third PCAF scheme competition launched on 30th January 2020 and closed on 9th April 2020. The numbers of applications received and awards made are detailed in Annex A at the end of this document along with information regarding application and success by region and profession. 
Each eligible application was assessed by three members of the ICA PCAF Selection Committee prior to the PCAF Selection Committee meeting on the 10th and 11th June 2020, at which the Round 3 applications were discussed and recommendations for funding were made. 
Following this meeting, the Chair and the Deputy Chair of the Selection Committee have made observations of the general strengths and weaknesses of the Round 3 applications and discussed areas that future applicants should consider in order to strengthen their applications. These are summarised below.

PCAF Round 3 Selection Committee Observations and Advice for Prospective Applicants

The Selection Committee agreed that the Round 3 competition was highly competitive and the amount of interest in the scheme was seen as a positive reflection on the increasing support and awareness of non-medical clinical academic careers.

Research and Clinical Experience

As part of their assessment, the Selection Committee consider “the suitability and commitment of the applicant to a career as a clinical academic”.
Applicants are advised to clearly describe the relevant clinical and academic skills and experience they have developed to date, how they will ensure the continuation of their clinical career development (their career in their stated profession) while undertaking the award, and their plans for the continuation of their clinical academic career post-award. Applicants should clearly articulate the impact this Fellowship will have on their career, justifying how the fellowship will provide a step change in their career trajectory. In addition to supporting the Selection Committee’s assessment of the applicant’s clinical academic career potential, this detail contextualises the training and development proposal and supports the justification provided for the training proposed.

There is an opportunity for applicants to detail both their relevant clinical and academic experience in the CV section of the application form (“present and previous positions”) and in response to the question “Please describe your research career to date” (which, for this scheme, would incorporate clinical academic career experience). 

Applicants with Negligible Research Experience/ Limited links with Research Groups

Prospective applicants with negligible research experience to date and/ or limited links with research groups may wish to consider whether an ICA Internship may be an appropriate first step in their clinical academic career.  ICA Internships are available annually and run for six months. They provide a range of both taught and academically supervised training opportunities that engage and expose the intern to the clinical academic research environment, and provide them with the practical skills to undertake a research project supported by an expert clinical academic supervisor.
The funding for ICA Internships is managed by HEE’s local teams. Any queries regarding the Internship opportunities should be directed to the appropriate local contact.

Research Outputs

A candidate’s publication record is a key area of assessment for future doctoral level applications. Evidence of PCAF candidate’s publication record to date and their plans to develop their outputs before doctoral application submission should, therefore, be clearly detailed in the PCAF application.  If an applicant has a limited publication record to date, they are advised to propose a plan in their application for strengthening their publication record. Applicants to the PCAF Bridge would be expected to have a strong publication record or clear evidence that there will be time to improve their research outputs before their doctoral application submission.

Proposed Training and Development Programme

The training and development proposed in a PCAF application should provide candidates with all the required components for progression to a doctoral fellowship.  The training proposed for a PCAF award must be tailored around the applicant’s demonstrable training needs, taking into account their previous formal academic training experience and their previous research experience and the research area in which they wish to develop their clinical academic career. Applicants are also encouraged to detail how they developed the training and development programme.
Applicants must detail in their application how the proposed training plan will support their development as a clinical academic, how it meets their unique training needs and how the training plan will support the development of a competitive doctoral fellowship application.
The training may include, but is not limited to:
  • formal courses (including Masters modules)
  • training in specialist skills and research methodologies
  • placements with other research groups or centres
  • leadership training
  • conference attendance
  • research visits
  • Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) training
  • Dissemination of relevant research undertaken by the applicant
It is also possible to build in research activities (including PPI) as part of the training and development programme in order to build up experience of undertaking research, although applicants should be mindful that the award itself does not fund research costs.
The completion of a formal academic qualification, such as a Master’s degree, can be supported as part of the training plan if appropriate to the developmental needs of the applicant.  
PCAF Bridge applicants only – if no additional training is required, applicants can request time to develop a doctoral level application only. The reasoning behind this decision should be discussed in the application, however.
In addition, candidates are advised to consider the following:
  • Research Area
Applicants need to have a clear idea of the research area in which they will be developing their clinical academic career (and therefore their doctoral fellowship proposal). The research area will inform the proposed training plan and the proposed supervisory team and should align with the applicant’s clinical work.
If the applicant’s current clinical work does not align with their area of research interest, the applicant will need to clearly demonstrate how they will work towards such alignment to support a competitive doctoral fellowship application.
  • Doctoral Fellowship Development

At the end of a PCAF award, applicants should be in a position to submit a competitive doctoral fellowship application. Candidates are advised to develop their PCAF application with this in mind, identifying any areas of weakness that need to be addressed over the course of the award. Applicants are also advised to clearly articulate in their application their plans for submission of a doctoral fellowship application and how the support they will receive over the course of their PCAF will be managed to facilitate this.

There are many routes to doctoral funding. In addition to the NIHR Doctoral Fellowship and HEE/NIHR ICA Clinical Doctoral Research Fellowship, applicants may wish to consider the opportunities available through disease-specific charities and professional bodies.
  • Scale and Scope

Over the course of their award, Fellows are required to complete the training plan as described in their application and to develop a doctoral fellowship application.  Applicants are advised to consider carefully the amount of formal training proposed and the feasibility of undertaking this training in addition to the development of a doctoral fellowship proposal.


The choice of supervisors must be clearly justified in the application and applicants are advised to consider the supervisory team for their PCAF proposal carefully.  Areas for consideration: 
  • Availability of the supervisor/ time commitment required from the supervisor
  • Fit of the supervisor’s expertise with the stated area of research that the applicant is developing their research career within
  • Record of conversion of Masters to PhD students.
  • Doctoral supervision experience – at least one supervisor should have doctoral supervision experience.
  • It may be that both supervisors have varied experience that combined provides the necessary expertise. 
  • “Full” PCAF can propose interim supervisors appropriate for a PCAF and plans to identify doctoral supervisors over the course of the award
  • PCAF Bridge – the supervisory team should be individuals appropriate for doctoral supervision.

Statement of Support

PCAF applications must include a “Statement of Support” from the Host Organisation. The statement should detail the experience of the organisation in supporting Masters students to progress to doctoral level research and the organisation’s support for non-medical clinical academic careers.  The statement must also clearly describe how the institution will support the applicant and must be tailored to the applicant. 

PCAF or PCAF Bridge

The primary outcome for both a “full” PCAF and a PCAF Bridge is the submission of a competitive doctoral fellowship application. Applicants to the PCAF Bridge are expected to be demonstrably closer to doctoral level application submission, and therefore requiring less training time. In considering whether the “full” PCAF or the PCAF Bridge is the most suitable award to apply for, applicants should consider the following:
  • Research Outputs – please see above. If research outputs need strengthening, will there be sufficient time and sufficient data to do this over the course of a PCAF Bridge?
  • Doctoral research question – “full” PCAF applicants should have a clear idea of the research area their doctorate will be developed around but will plan to develop this over the course of their award into a research proposal. PCAF Bridge applicants are required to already have a well-developed research question, which can be refined over the course of the PCAF Bridge award. 


Although the PCAF award cannot fund PPI activities (these are research costs and, therefore, outside of the scope of this award) applicants are expected to demonstrate an awareness of the need for PPI in their research and to describe their experience to date and any training needs in this area. The PCAF award can support the applicant’s time to undertake PPI activities and fund PPI training. 

Changes for PCAF Round 4 (2021)

  • From Round 4 onwards it will be mandatory to name a second supervisor in PCAF applications. 

Useful Resource for Prospective Applicants

  • Applicant Guidance Notes are available from the ICA webpages. These provide details of the PCAF scheme, including the eligibility requirements, the funding available, the required employment arrangements and the assessment criteria used by the PCAF Selection Committee when reviewing applications. The Applicant Guidance Notes should be read in full before starting an application.
Please note – Applicants must ensure that they are referring to the most recent Applicant Guidance Notes when making an application.

Annex A 

PCAF Round 3 Summary

Scheme Number of applications submittedNumber of applications considered fundableNumber of applications funded
PCAF  81 62 30
PACF Bridge 24 20 20
Total 105 82 50

PCAF Round 3 Applications by Region


Region% of Total Applications% of Fundable Applications% of Funded Applications
East Midlands 9 8 3
East of England 7 10 0
London 33 34 50
North East 7 8 3
North West 6 5 3
South Central 10 10 7
South East Coast 6 5 7
South West 7 8 13
West Midlands 1 2 3
Yorkshire and Humber 12 11 10

PCAF Bridge

Region% of Total Applications% of Fundable and Funded Applications
East Midlands 0 0
East of England 8 10
London 38 40
North East 4 5
North West 13 15
South Central 8 5
South East Coast 13 15
South West 0 0
West Midlands 0 0
Yorkshire and Humber 17 10

PCAF Round 3 Applications by Profession


Region% of Total Applications% of Fundable Applications% of Funded Applications
Dental Therapist 0 0 0
Dietitian 1 2 3
Healthcare Scientist 5 5 3
Midwife 7 6 3
Nurse 36 34 37
Occupational Therapist 2 3 3
Pharmacist 6 8 3
Paramedic 0 0 0
Physiotherapist 23 24 27
Podiatrist 1 0 0
Practitioner Psychologist 0 0 0
Prosthetist/ Orthotist 1 2 3
Radiographer (Diagnostic) 1 0 0
Speech and Language Therapist 15 16 17

PCAF Bridge

Region% of Total Applications% Fundable and Funded Applications
Dental Therapist 4 5
Dietitian 4 5
Healthcare Scientist 8 5
Midwife 0 0
Nurse 4 5
Occupational Therapist 4 0
Pharmacist 0 0
Paramedic 4 5
Physiotherapist 42 40
Podiatrist 0 0
Practitioner Psychologist 8 10
Prosthetist/ Orthotist 4 5
Radiographer (Diagnostic) 0 0
Speech and Language Therapist 17 20