“Funding and fellowships: insights from an NIHR Career Development Fellow” with Dr Emma Frew

Hello ECRAGers!

In November’s meeting we were lucky to have Dr. Emma Frew, reader in Health Economics, guiding us through the NIHR fellowships application process. The session was filled with practical examples that Emma drew from her experience as a member of the NIHR panel and as a NIHR fellow herself.  If you plan to apply for a fellowship in the future, or are currently with one in hands, you are lucky because we’ve summed up the most important points for you.

The session started with our usual ice-breaker round and this time the topic to be was: “What film/series have you watched recently that you enjoyed and would recommend?” Right on time for the winter season! A range of great suggestions were made but I felt the Halloween theme prevailed, with the Walking Dead, Stranger Things, Jeepers Creepers, and other spooky hits deserving a mention.

Now, back to business – let’s grab that fellowship!

Emma’s talk was divided in 5 sub-headings, which I will maintain:

  1. Background to fellowships/review process:

Fellowships are awesome when you get them, but expect a few challenging months whilst putting your application together. Regardless of the funding body you are going to apply to, it will be a highly competitive process and you will be tested at each stage.

As a starting point, it is a good idea to browse the funders’ website, download the available guidance and read it carefully. The NIHR has a good supporting platform for applicants so if you have any issues at any stage of your application, do contact them through email or phone.

When you start thinking about what fellowship you should apply to, make sure you are the right candidate by confirming that the skills required match your expertise. For example, if are applying to a Doctoral Research Fellowship you should bear in mind that funders will expect you to have already some research experience and  at least 1 paper published. Candidates for Post-Doctoral Fellowship need to provide evidence of high quality output from PhD research as well as evidence of successful small research funding.

  1. Writing the application

You will be expected to write about you, your research experience, your research plan for this particular fellowship, your training and development needs and the costs of your project. Each section has the same weight on your final score so be sure you allocate enough time and dedication to each of them!

  • About you

In the first section of your application you will be asked about you. You’ll need to prove you are the best candidate so don’t be shy and use this section to highlight all your strengths by describing what you are bringing to this application and why. If there are any talks you’ve been invited to give, and any poster or presentation prizes you’ve been awarded, this is the place to talk about it. The idea is to show that you have the potential to be a leading researcher in you field, but bear in mind that you aren’t one just yet. While you need to show how incredibly good you are, make sure you are realistic and don’t overdo it at any time. Your application will be assessed by an experienced panel that knows in what stage of your career you are and what is plausibly achievable. Insider tip for you to distinguish yourself from the other candidates: try to think of any relevant experience you may have outside research. For example, if you trained and worked as a pharmacist, that may have given you some practical HTA insights.

  • Research Experience

Think SMART! – Specific Measurable Action Oriented Realistic Time. Essentially, you want to describe all you have done and achieved so far as a researcher. Show what skills you have gained from your experience so far and what they can bring to your application. Make sure your skills are measurable and that you are able to clearly state how you are going to use them in this particular research project. Publications and awards are important but you might also want to mention former and present collaborations and how successfully you nurtured them. Remember, a good researcher is a round researcher.

  • Research Plan

Here you will be describing in detail what your aim is, the methods you will be using and the results you will be looking for. It doesn’t matter how complex your research might be, make sure you keep the application in plain English. This is very important as not all panel members will be experts in your field and you want to make sure you have everyone on board! NIHR expects a lot of the detail to go into this section. If you are worried about your world limit, make sure you give enough attention to sensitive methodological issues namely sampling, recruitment and data analysis.

The standard way of presenting your research plan is using work packages, each with clear defined methods and desired results. Insider tips: 1) don’t bet too ambitious, be conscious of the time frame and resources available; 2) show you have planned ahead and you are in control by presenting a plan in case any of the work packages doesn’t work as planned and finally, 3) remember that PPI is generally gold for funders so make sure you mention it, not only as a result but as informing your study design.

  • Training and development

You need to undertake training courses during your fellowship and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. You are not expected to know everything and the funders are willing to pay for the best training you can get, as long as you are able to justify it. So be careful when choosing which courses to take. On your application, explain why you need the course and why you are taking it in a particular place or institution.

The same applies to research visits. It is well regarded that you visit other research sites but you need to show you can justify the visit and that you have planned it well. Again, Make sure you describe why you want to do it, what you expect to gain from it and how it will help you to become successful in this project. If you are visiting other researchers or experts, show that you have already made contact and state how you are going to spend your time with them.

Additionally, you will need to state who your mentors will be. While you will want to choose experts in the methods you are using, Emma suggested a more personal mentor should be added. You are about to take on a big project where you will have to deal with a lot of data, deadlines, study participants, researchers and other professionals. It may get overwhelming at times and it is useful to have a mentor who can advise you while you go through the fellowship.

  • Costs

Costing your project is challenging! Not only is it hard to predict exactly how much money you will need for the next few years, but you are expected to count every penny, from stamps and stationary to travel and accommodation costs. To add to this challenge, once you are awarded the fellowship, you don’t have the opportunity to go back to your funder to ask for more money. The best way to cost your project is to ask for advice from both experienced researchers, and the finance team in your department. Moreover, you may want to look at other applications from colleagues and peers.


  1. Preparing for the interview

Hopefully all the hard work of putting your application together will be rewarded and you will be selected for an interview. Here’s what to expect:

NIHR provides support for those preparing for interview, including a chance of doing a mock interview. Make sure you use it, as well as any other opportunity to practice and get feedback.  The gold standard is: Practice, Practice, and Practice again.

The interview with the NIHR panel takes only 5 minutes, which may seem like a very short time for you to convince the panel you are worth funding.  On the other hand, the panel has a full day, from 9am-6pm, of interviews to listen to so don’t expect warm welcomes or open smiles while you are there. Try to keep it simple and clear, use plain English and be confidence. Also, wake-up the panel with a vivid and enthusiastic interview to make sure they’ll remember you by the end of the day.


  1. Dealing with rejection

So your application didn’t get through this time? It’s OK! NIHR fellowships, as well as most of the fellowships, have a very low success rate. Moreover, rejection is part being an academic, although this is not what we generally talk about.

First, take the time you need to recover. You’ve put a lot of effort and hope into this application and it can be daunting to be turned down. Next, rise again! You should re-evaluate your application. Look at the panel feedback and consider It carefully. Is it worth trying again? Was it the best time to apply? Was this the right project, with the right people? It may be helpful to share your thoughts and experience with other researchers who may be able to help you with planning your future steps.

In some cases, rejection can be a good thing as it gives you the opportunity to be involved in a better and more exciting project.

A good academic is not the one who doesn’t get rejected but the one who tries until he/she is successful.

Messages to take home:

  • The application takes a long time to put together so carefully allocate enough time for each section;
  • Funders will look for detail so throughout your application show you are able to describe well what you will be doing and why.
  • Keep positive J

I am looking forward to seeing you all soon in our Christmas party,



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