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Applying for NIHR Fellowships: An Insides View

Applying for NIHR Fellowships: An Insides View

01 September 2018

Richard Hooper, Reader in Medical Statistics, RDS London

I have just completed my second year as a panellist for the NIHR Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme’s a hugely rewarding and interesting role. Panellists put their heart and soul into choosing a new cohort of Fellows every year and can see the effort put in by every one of the applicants.

The standard of applications is high, and so is the volume. Shortlisting must begin with a large number of candidates and is inevitably ruthless (read our fellowship tips blog for ideas on how to stand out!). If you want to be one of those who are shortlisted then it is worth thinking about the process from the point of view of the panel.

Each application is assigned to particular panellists, who review the application in detail and present it at the shortlisting meeting. This means that before it even gets sent for specialist peer-review these are the people you have to impress. Of course, you won’t know who they are, but that is the point - your application must be engaging and understandable to any of the panel members, whatever their background.

If you are lucky enough to be short-listed for interview, don’t rest on your laurels – keep on discussing the project with the people who are going to help you deliver it, and don’t be afraid to make changes. It is particularly refreshing to ask candidates questions at interview in relation to their application and discover that they have thought more about the issues and fixed things that weren’t working.

And so you’re invited into the lions’ den of the interview - what can you expect? NIHR allow Research Design Service advisers to observe interview panels, so your local RDS advisers will be able to offer you insights based on direct observation and might be able to offer you a mock interview! You might also have friends or colleagues who have gone through the process. One comment observers often make is that, despite a very crammed timetable, the meeting structure allows for fairness, efficiency and careful deliberation.

I would also like to add a quick comment about individual feedback. As an RDS adviser, and as an applicant for Fellowships and other grants, I know how frustrating it can be to try to decode the comments in written feedback from a panel. At NIHR Fellowship panels everyone takes notes which are collected. Discussions are then carefully itemised and summarised by the secretariat on the day. Summarising a multifactorial, nuanced, and sometimes impassioned debate on paper can be a tricky thing to do.

If you apply for a Fellowship and are unsuccessful, try not to view the feedback from the panel with frustration or negativity. Use it as positive stimulus to identify areas you could improve. Use reviewers comments (which are likely to be more detailed and specific) in the same way. Then go back next year and try again. I don’t know of any applicant who didn’t come back stronger as a result of this kind of reflective approach. Make sure you take advice from the RDS before you resubmit, as we can help to interpret the feedback you get.

Good luck if you are applying to the NIHR Fellowships programme in 2018 – NIHR has announced exciting changes to the programme starting this year. Look out for the Trainees Coordinating Centre Roadshow events showcasing the new schemes (request information from  as well as regional RDS seminars and workshops run to support applications!

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