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NIHR Doctoral Fellowship Rounds 7 and 8 Chair's Report


Published: 25 May 2023

Version: Final

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The vision of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (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 within this programme:

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

The Doctoral Fellowship offers 3 years full-time funding (up to 6 years based on 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 research training and development plan, and contribute to the research costs needed to complete an identified research project. The Doctoral

Fellowship is one of three doctoral-level awards within the NIHR Academy Programmes portfolio; the other two being:

  • Doctoral Clinical and Practitioner Academic Fellowship (known as DCAF, for registered health and care professionals), and
  • the Doctoral Local Authority Academic Fellowship (known as DLAF, staff based in local authorities and their services).

NIHR is also partnering with a number of charitable organisations to offer jointly-funded Partnership Fellowships at doctoral-level. More details can be found on the NIHR website.

Applications are invited from individuals working in any scientific discipline, within an eligible 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 Programmes have 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 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 checks all applications for eligibility and to identify applications outside of NIHR remit. All eligible applications are then assessed by three individual Selection Committee members. All eligible applications 
and their scores are then discussed at a shortlisting meeting, shortlisted applicants are then invited to interview.

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

Doctoral Fellowship Round 7 (October 2021) Competition

Interviews for the Doctoral Fellowship Round 7 took place on the 7-8 June 2022, 28 applications were deemed fundable by the Selection Committee and were funded by the Department of Health and Social Care.

Doctoral Fellowship Round 8 (April 2022) Competition 

Interviews for the Doctoral Fellowship Round 8 took place on the 15-16 November 2022, 21 applications were deemed fundable by the Selection Committee and were funded by the Department of Health and Social Care.

In both rounds, a number of applications were ineligible for the scheme based on the NIHR remit for Personal Awards and so rejected during this assessment process.

Applicants are asked to note that experimental and translational research proposals are ineligible for the Doctoral Fellowship scheme. Doctoral-level training in these fields is provided by the NIHR through the relevant infrastructure (e.g. Biomedical
Research Centres).

For both rounds, the Doctoral Fellowship Selection Committee conducted the interviews in a hybrid format as an ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic; the Selection Committee meet together in person and the candidates joined online.

Doctoral Fellowship Selection Committee Observations

Overall, the Selection Committee was pleased with the standard of applications received in Round 7, however this was not maintained to the same volume for Round 8 indicating that each round can look and feel very different in terms of both the number and quality of applications.

The Committee was encouraged to see a number of applications being received from allied health professionals, as well as non-traditional backgrounds and institutions.

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 Proposal

An ongoing issue, particularly at doctoral-level, is a lack of clarity within applications and interviews about who owns the research proposal being submitted. It wasn’t always apparent whether this was led by the applicant as part of their own career
vision, or a more senior researcher’s own portfolio of research. Whilst the Selection Committee expect that applicants will have had help and support from supervisors 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. Common feedback is that applicants refer to "we" not "‘I" throughout, and this indicates more than just semantics.


The Selection Committee strongly encourage supervisor engagement to support the applicant’s development of a proposal.

The Selection Committee still see applicants that are lacking supervision in methodological, qualitative and statistical support. When developing a proposal, applicants should identify any areas where expertise may be lacking and look to add a supervisor in this area to their supervisory team to address this gap, with a focus not just on the field/context of research, but also the methodologies they will be using to deliver the proposal.

Again, it was noted that some applicants had listed the most experienced Supervisor as the Primary Supervisor, where at interview it became apparent that the second and third Supervisors were providing the applicants with the most support. The Selection Committee felt this was reflective of applicants not identifying the primary supervisor based on who will be providing the primary support, instead on who is the most academically senior. The Selection Committee felt that this was discrediting the Supervisors providing the most support on the project and were concerned about the potential impact of this on research inclusion, the principles of which are taken very seriously by NIHR Funding Committees.

Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement (PPIE)

In these rounds, the understanding of and quality of PPIE activities planned within applications was not as high as previously received and applicants are asked to engage with the PPIE expertise available through the NIHR Research Design Services
and within their host organisations at the very earliest stages of planning their applications.

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 focused 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.

Useful Resources for Prospective Applicants

  • The NIHR Doctoral Fellowship Guidance Notes for current and previous rounds are available from the NIHR website. These provide full details of the Doctoral Fellowship scheme, including the remit, eligibility requirements, the funding available, the required employment arrangements and the assessment criteria used by the Doctoral Fellowship Selection Committee when reviewing applications. Please note that the updated Guidance Notes will be published with the launch of each Round competition. Applicants must ensure that they are referring to the most recent Guidance Notes when making an application. The Guidance Notes for the current round should be read in full before starting an application
  • Frequently Asked Questions can be found in within the Doctoral Fellowship Guidance Notes. The FAQ section answers common questions from prospective applicants
  • The What Makes An application Excellent blog written by the NIHR Doctoral Fellowship Selection Committee Chair, Professor Judith Rankin
  • Current and Previous NIHR training award holders are listed on the NIHR webpages and may be a useful resource for prospective applicants wishing to link in with previous awardees
  • A list of current members of the NIHR Doctoral Fellowship Selection Committee.

Annex A: Doctoral Fellowship Applications and Awards Summary

Table 1: Year of Round

RoundRound 1Round 2Round 3Round 4Round 5Round 6Round 7Round 8
Year of Round Launch Oct 2018 April 2019 Oct 2019 April 2020 Oct 2020 April 2021 Oct 2021 April 2021

Table 2a: Summary of Rounds 1–8 application and award numbers

RoundRound 1Round 2Round 3Round 4Round 5Round 6Round 7Round 8
Applied 130 90 100 104 112 90 107 75
Eligible 119 86 92 100 100 83 102 69
Shortlisted 47 37 46 37 46 42 50 39
Fundable 26 18 20 21 22 22 28 21
Awarded 24 18 12 17 22 20 28 21

Table 2b: Summary of Rounds 1–8 application and award percentage

RoundRound 1Round 2Round 3Round 4Round 5Round 6Round 7Round 8
Shortlisted 40% 43% 50% 37% 46% 51% 49% 57%
Fundable 22% 21% 22% 21% 22% 26% 27% 30%
Awarded 20% 21% 13% 17% 22% 24% 27% 30%

Table 3: Professional spread and success rates (Rounds 1–8 applications and awards)

Professional BackgroundRound 1 % AppliedRound 1 % FundedRound 2% AppliedRound 2 % FundedRound 3% AppliedRound 3 % FundedRound 4% AppliedRound 4 % FundedRound 5% AppliedRound 5 % FundedRound 6 % AppliedRound 6 % FundedRound 7 % AppliedRound 7 % FundedRound 8 % AppliedRound 8 % Funded
Medically Qualified 59%  60%  58%  67%  61%  80%  51%  64%  60%  64% 52% 50% 66% 71% 56% 43%
Not a Registered Health Professional 24%  16%  18%  11%  19%  5%  22%  9%  19%  23%  26% 32% 16% 18% 25% 33%
Other Registered Health Professional 6%  4%  6%  11%  6%  5%  9%  9%  9%  0%  7% 0% 9% 0% 4% 0%
Allied Health Professional 6%  0%  12%  11%  9%  5%  11%  9%  4%  9%  10% 18% 4% 0% 7% 9%
Dentist 4%  20%  1%  0%  2%  5%  1%  5%  1%  4%  1% 0% 2% 3% 1% 5%
Nurse 1%  0%  4%  0%  3%  0%  2%  0%  5%  0%  3% 0% 2% 3% 4% 5%
Midwife 0%  0%  1%  0%  0%  0%  2%  5%  2%  0%  1% 0% 1% 3% 3% 5%

Table 4: Summary of Applications who applied under a NIHR Academy Programmes Strategic Theme (Rounds 1–8 applications and awards)

Strategic ThemesRound 1 AppliedRound 1 FundedRound 2 AppliedRound 2 FundedRound 3 AppliedRound 3 FundedRound 4 AppliedRound 4 FundedRound 5 AppliedRound 5 FundedRound 6 AppliedRound 6 FundedRound 7 AppliedRound 7 FundedRound 8 AppliedRound 8 Funded
Health Data Science 27 7 15 8 6 4 27 8 23 3 15 7 30 9 29 8
Mental Health 14 3 11 1 5 1 17 4 12 3 10 7 15 5 14 3
Public Health 28 2 15 4 6 1 21 2 26 3 1 1 0 0 0 0
Social Care 4 0 1 0 1 1 3 0 1 0 6 3 14 4 9 2
Totals 79 12 42 13 18 7 68 14 62 9 32 18 59 18 52 13

Table 5: Summary of Applications who applied for a Partnerships Fellowship (DF rounds 1 - 8 applications and awards)

Partnership FellowshipRound 1 AppliedRound 1 FundedRound 2 AppliedRound 2 FundedRound 3 AppliedRound 3 FundedRound 4 AppliedRound 4 FundedRound 5 AppliedRound 5 FundedRound 6 AppliedRound 6 FundedRound 7 AppliedRound 7 FundedRound 8 AppliedRound 8 Funded
Number of Applications 6 1 8 1 5 0 11 1 6 1 10 1 7 0 14 1