Internet Explorer is no longer supported by Microsoft. To browse the NIHR site please use a modern, secure browser like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Microsoft Edge.

NIHR Doctoral Fellowship Rounds 1 - 4 Chairs’ Report


Published: 10 February 2021

Version: 1.0 (Feb 21)

Print this document


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 the Charities page of the NIHR website.
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 1 (October 2018) Competition

Interviews for the Doctoral Fellowship Round 1 took place on the 4th and 5th June 2019, 26 applications were deemed fundable (this includes 1 Devolved Nation applicant), 24 applications were funded by the Department of Health and Social Care

DF Round 2 (April 2019) Competition

Interviews for the Doctoral Fellowship Round 2 took place on the 26th and 27th November 2019, 18 applications were deemed fundable, all 18 applications were funded by the Department of Health and Social Care

DF Round 3 (October 2019) Competition

Interviews for the Doctoral Fellowship Round 3 took place on the 8th and 9th September 2020, 20 applications were deemed fundable, 12 applicants were funded by the Department of Health and Social Care

DF Round 4 (April 2020) Competition

Interviews for the Doctoral Fellowship Round 4 took place on the 17th and 18th November 2020, 22 applications were deemed fundable, 17 applications were funded by the Department of Health and Social Care

Doctoral Fellowship Round 1 - 4 Selection Committee Observations

Overall, the Selection Committee was pleased with the high standard of applications that were received to rounds 1 - 4 of the Doctoral Fellowship programme. Several themes did emerge during the assessment and interviews of the applications and details of these are given below. The intention is to provide applicants applying to future rounds of the programme some general points to consider when putting together an application.

Ownership of the programme

Ownership of the project, particularly at Doctoral level, wasn’t always apparent. Whilst the Selection Committee expect that applicants will have had help and support when preparing a Fellowship application, it is very important that the applicant has ownership of the research they are presenting and that this comes across in the application form and at interview.

Patient and Public Involvement (PPI)

The Panels were pleased overall with the quality of patient and public involvement (PPI) being displayed within applications which has improved on previous rounds, especially in regards to the diversity of the PPI groups.
Applicants need to ensure that PPI is comprehensive and integrated within the project. The Selection Committee are looking for assurance that PPI is not an afterthought or solely focussed on one area of the project such as dissemination.
The Plain English Summary (PES) should provide a brief summary of the research proposal for patients and the public. This section (including the research title) must be clear, understandable and written in plain English, avoiding the use of jargon and the explanations of technical terms. 


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 some applicants had listed the most experienced Supervisor as the Primary Supervisor (often male), where at interview it became apparent that the second and third Supervisors (often female) were providing the applicants with the most support. The Selection Committee felt that this was discrediting the
Supervisors providing the most support on the project. 

Useful Resources for Prospective Applicants 

  • The NIHR Doctoral Fellowship Guidance Notes are available from the NIHR Fellowship Programme 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 competition. 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.
  • The What makes an application excellent? blog written by the Doctoral Fellowship Chair, Gary Frost
  • Current and previous NIHR training award holders are listed on the NIHR 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 - 4 applications and awards

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

Table 2: Professional spread and success rates (DF rounds 1 - 4 applications and awards)

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

Table 3: Summary of Applications who applied under a NIHR Academy Strategic Theme (DF rounds 1 – 4 applications and awards)

Strategic ThemesRound 1 AppliedRound 1 Funded Round 2 AppliedRound 2 Funded Round 3 AppliedRound 3 Funded Round 4 AppliedRound 4 Funded 
Health Data Science 27  15  27 
Mental Health 14  11  17 
Public Health 28  15  21 
Social Care
Totals 79  12  42  13  18  68  14 

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

Partnership Fellowship Round 1 AppliedRound 1 FundedRound 2 AppliedRound 2 FundedRound 3 AppliedRound 3 FundedRound 4 AppliedRound 4 Funded
Number of Applications 11