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NIHR Doctoral Fellowship Round 5 Chairs' Report


Published: 06 October 2021

Version: 1.0 (Sept 21)

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The vision of the NIHR is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research.

The NIHR Fellowship Programmes support individuals with the potential and on a trajectory to become future leaders in NIHR research. Applications are invited from individuals who can demonstrate a role in, or contribution to, improving health, health care or services. The Fellowships have been designed to support people at various points of their development to become leading researchers, from initial pre-doctoral training right through to senior post-doctoral research. Four different types of Fellowship are available:

  • Pre-Doctoral Fellowship
  • Doctoral Fellowship
  • Advanced Fellowship
  • Development and Skills Enhancement Award

The Doctoral Fellowship (DF) offers 3 years full-time funding (part time up to 6 years, with part time options from 50% - 100%) to undertake a PhD, and is aimed at individuals of outstanding potential early in their research careers.

NIHR Fellowships are personal awards designed to buy out an individual’s salary costs, support a training and development plan and to contribute to the research costs needed to complete an identified research project.

NIHR Academy is also partnering with a number of charitable organisations to offer jointly-funded Partnership Fellowships at both Doctoral and Advanced levels. More details can be found on our Charities page.

Applications were invited from individuals working in any scientific discipline or sector, within an institution sited in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who can demonstrate a role in, or a contribution to, improving health, health care or services.

The Doctoral Fellowship opens for applications twice a year in April and October.

Strategic Themes

NIHR Academy has a number of strategic areas which we are keen to develop expertise in, although applicants do not necessarily need to target these areas. Applicants proposing training which fits within one or more of these themes are asked to are asked to indicate this on the application form.

These themes are:

  • Social care
  • Public health
  • Mental health
  • Health data science

Doctoral Fellowship Competitions

Following the close of the competitions, NIHR Academy checks all applications for eligibility and to identify applications clearly outside of NIHR remit. All eligible applications are then assessed by three individual Selection Committee members. All eligible applications and their scores were then discussed at a shortlisting meeting held by teleconference, shortlisted applicants are then invited to interview.

The numbers of applications received, and the awards made are detailed in Annex A.

DF Round 5 (Oct 2020) Competition

Interviews for the Doctoral Fellowship Round 5 took place on the 8th and 9th June 2021. 22 applications were deemed fundable and were funded by the Department of Health and Social Care.

Doctoral Fellowship Round 5 Selection Committee Observations

Overall, the Selection Committee was pleased with the high standard of applications that were received to Round 5 of the Doctoral Fellowship programme. Several themes did emerge during the assessment and interviews of the applications, details of which are given below. The intention is to provide prospective applicants with some general points to consider when putting together an application.

Industry partnership applications

The NIHR are wanting to promote and increase the number of people with the necessary skills and experience to work at the interface between HEIs, industry and the NHS. Therefore, we are seeing an increase in partnership applications working with industry. The Selection Committee emphasised that applications need to be clear and transparent on the partners role in the research, detailing what each partner is bringing to the project.


The methodological approach needs to be very carefully considered and should be appropriate for the research being undertaken. It is vital that the research proposed is backed up by sound research methods. The Selection Committee would like to see applicants proposing innovative methodological approaches to their research. If an applicant doesn’t have the required expertise in the research methods they are proposing in their application, the Selection Committee will expect to see specific training as part of the training and development programme, and relevant support in the form of a suitable supervisor or mentor.


Applicants lacked supervision in methodological, qualitative, and statistical support. When developing their project, applicants should identify any areas where expertise may be lacking and look add a supervisor in this area to their supervisory team to address this gap.

It was noted that many applicants had 4 of 5 supervisors in their supervisory team. Clarity of thought needs to be clear as to why an applicant needs this number of supervisors.

Useful Resources for Prospective Applicants

  • The NIHR Doctoral Fellowship Guidance Notes are available from the NIHR Fellowships webpage. These provide full details of the DF scheme, including the eligibility requirements, the funding available, the required employment arrangements and the assessment criteria used by the DF Selection Committee when reviewing applications. The Applicant Guidance Notes should be read in full before starting an application

    Please note – Updated Guidance Notes will be published with the launch of each round. Applicants must ensure that they are referring to the most recent Applicant Guidance Notes when making an application.
  • Frequently Asked Questions can be found in Annex A of the Doctoral Fellowship Guidance notes. The FAQ section answers common questions from prospective applicants.
  • Read our blog: What makes a NIHR Doctoral Fellowship application excellent? by Professor Judith Rankin. 
  • Current and Previous NIHR training award holders are listed on the Funding and Awards website and may be a useful resource for prospective applicants wishing to link in with other non-medical clinical academics.

Annex A: Doctoral Fellowship Applications and Awards Summary

Table 1: Summary of DF rounds 1 - 5 applications and awards

RoundRound 1Round 2Round 3Round 4Round 5
Applied 130 90 100 104 112
Eligible 119 86 92 100 100
Shortlisted 47 37 48 (8 withdrew) 37 46 (8 withdrew)
Fundable 26 18 20 22 22
Awarded 24 18 12 17 22

Table 2: Professional spread and success rates (DF rounds 1 - 5 applications and awards)

Professional BackgroundRound 1 % AppliedRound 1 % FundedRound 2% AppliedRound 2 % FundedRound 3% AppliedRound 3 % FundedRound 4% Applied Round 4 % FundedRound 5% AppliedRound 5 % Funded
 Medically Qualified 59%  60%  58%  67%  61%  80%  51%  64%  60%  64%
 Not a Registered Health Professional 24%  16%  18%  11%  19%  5%  22%  9%  19%  23% 
 Other Registered Health Professional 6%  4%  6%  11%  6%  5%  9%  9%  9%  0% 
 Allied Health Professional 6%  0%  12%  11%  9%  5%  11%  9%  4%  9% 
 Dentist 4%  20%  1%  0%  2%  5%  1%  5%  1%  4% 
 Nurse 1%  0%  4%  0%  3%  0%  2%  0%  5%  0% 
 Midwife 0%  0%  1%  0%  0%  0%  2%  5%  2%  0% 
 Total 100%  100%  100%  100%  100%  100%   100% 100%  100%  100% 

Table 3: Summary of Applications who applied under a NIHR Academy Strategic Theme (DF rounds 1 – 5 applications and awards)

Strategic ThemesRound 1 AppliedRound 1 FundedRound 2 AppliedRound 2 FundedRound 3 AppliedRound 3 FundedRound 4 AppliedRound 4 FundedRound 5 AppliedRound 5 Funded
Health Data Science 27 7 15 8 6 4 27 8 23 3
Mental Health 14 3 11 1 5 1 17 4 12 3
Public Health 28 2 15 4 6 1 21 2 26 3
Social Care 4 0 1 0 1 1 3 0 1 0
Totals 79 12 42 13 18 7 68 14 62 9

Table 4: Summary of Applications who applied for a Partnerships Fellowship (DF rounds 1 - 5 applications and awards)

Partnership FellowshipRound 1 AppliedRound 1 FundedRound 2 AppliedRound 2 FundedRound 3 AppliedRound 3 FundedRound 4 AppliedRound 4 FundedRound 5 AppliedRound 5 Funded
Number of Applications 6 1 8 1 5 0 11 1 6 1