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Things to consider when applying for clinical academic training funding

Are you thinking about applying for NIHR/HEE clinical academic training funding? In this article, Beth Allen and Peter Noyce suggests things to consider when putting pen to paper

The National Institute for Health Research/ Health Education England (NIHR/HEE) clinical academic training funding now available to pharmacists is a great opportunity for the profession to further engage in research for the benefit of patients and the public. However, applying for any research funding is challenging and the work involved should not be underestimated.

The announcement for this funding opportunity came in December 2013, so there is not much time to prepare for the Clinical Doctoral Research Fellowship (CDRF). A year of preparation is advised, so unless you are just embarking on the first year of your PhD, or you are in your first year of your professional doctorate and looking to convert to PhD, you might be better placed to apply for master level funding this year. The MRes/MClinRes is excellent preparation for your PhD, and will improve your competitive chances when applying for the CDRF.

To support those pharmacists in applying for this funding we have highlighted some key things to consider when thinking about putting pen to paper. Although the guidance below is specifically about the clinical academic funding, the principles translate to any research training funding you might be considering applying for.

Key points

NIHR clinical academic training funding is person-centred funding that is seeking to foster research leadership in clinical practice by supporting non-medical healthcare professionals, established in a clinical role,* to develop a career that combines research and continued clinical practice.

Funding covers salary back fill, training and development and research costs.

Training supported includes clinical and applied health research and social care.

Research proposed should have a clear potential for benefiting patients and the public within five years.

The project is important, but the person, training and environment should be given equal attention.

The person should have evidence of research involvement and clearly articulate how he or she hopes to combine research with continued clinical practice beyond the lifetime of the funded training.

The training should be bespoke to the individual and project needs, including an aligned clinical development plan.

The environment (clinical and academic): should demonstrate a culture of research capacity and capability building.

 

*Applicants must have been in clinical practice for a minimum of one year

Ambitions and timescales

Does the funding align with your ambitions and timescales?

Understanding the remit of the funding

You should ask yourself: “What is the NIHR/HEE trying to achieve with this funding and how can I contribute to this as a developing clinical research pharmacist?”

The funding is there to support healthcare professionals develop as clinicians and researchers for the benefit of patients and the public — developing leadership in clinical practice and research to improve the health and wealth of the nation.1 Funds are limited, which makes for a highly competitive application process. Therefore, you need to demonstrate your commitment to a clinical academic research career through your career to date (ie, your clinical and research activity and outputs) and your career trajectory (ie, where this funding opportunity is likely to take you). 

It is helpful to take a look at the expected outputs at all levels of the training pathway (ie, MRes/MClinRes, CDRF, clinical lectureship and senior clinical lectureship). These will illustrate the career trajectory that the NIHR/HEE training is seeking to foster. In essence, the MRes/MClinRes training (entry level) will provide successful applicants with a strong foundation in research and clinical skills, ensuring the necessary supporting infrastructure is in place at the beginning of their clinical academic career (eg, clinical mentoring, academic supervision, research training etc).

Those seeking to progress along the training pathway will be expected to further develop their clinical and research skills alongside building generic skills, such as management and leadership. The aspiration is that successful applicants will develop as independent researchers who can foster and lead research collaborations and develop research capacity and capability in their teams.

Not only should you be thinking about whether the funding fits with your career plans, but you also need to consider whether the research topic you are interested in fits within the NIHR remit. Although the funding is to support clinical academic careers, this is broader than clinical pharmacy research and encompasses clinical and applied health research, including social care.

Your proposed research will also need to demonstrate clear potential for benefiting patients and the public within five years of its completion. The CDRF has previously supported applicants in the development of their clinical skills for application in the formulation, evaluation and implementation of:

  • Interventions that improve the therapeutic outcomes for patients, particularly those with multiple or long-term conditions
  • Care packages for individuals, particularly those that are rehabilitative or support self-care management
  • Public health interventions and strategies that enhance the health status of populations

You can take a look at a list of 2013 CDRF funded projects at http://bit.ly/1i77tcm.

Understanding what is being asked of you

Read the guidance notes. Now read the guidance notes again! They are a comprehensive guide to what the reviewers expect to see in each section of the application form. They will also outline the application stages. (NIHR clinical academic training funding requires a written application followed by a panel interview, if you are shortlisted.)

Make note of the application deadline and aim to have completed the application well in advance of that. The more time you have to share your application with others for review and comment, the better.

You will also need plenty of time to get all the necessary signatures on your application (eg, academic supervisors, clinical supervisors, heads of department — clinical and academic, etc). Find out whether all the relevant signatories are going to be available well in advance of the deadline so that they have time to review your application. If you set yourself some clear deadlines and inform all the relevant parties in advance regarding when they will receive a first draft, a revised draft, and how much time they will have to review and comment, you should avoid any last minute obstacles.
If in doubt, ask questions. Do not leave anything to misunderstanding or misinterpretation. If you are unclear about any aspect of the application form or the process of application, then ask. The NIHR trainee
co-ordinating centre will be able to help you with any questions you might have (email cat@nihrtcc.org.uk).

Who is going to support you?

Evidence that the clinical and research environment you will undertake your research in are committed to developing research capacity and capability is an important part of the application and should be given significant consideration.

Identifying the right clinical support

Speak to your employer at the beginning. You cannot secure this funding without your employer’s full backing. Equally, balancing clinical practice and research (even with salary backfill) is challenging and you will need your colleagues’ support (moral or otherwise) to deliver your research.

Furthermore, you will need strong clinical mentorship and you may seek this from more than one individual. Consider the skills that you want to develop to progress a clinical academic career, and who could mentor you to develop your clinical, research, leadership or management skills.

Identifying the right academic support

Applicants tend to focus on the development of the project but give less attention to the sections of the application that focus on the academic environment, career aspirations and training and development. The project is important, but this funding is centred on the person and you must give all sections inspiring consideration, demonstrating that you are getting high quality support and opportunities to develop as a clinical research leader.

In the same way that you would research local schools to give your children the best start, you should do the same when identifying an academic setting for your master’s or PhD. In the case of the master’s level funding it is about identifying which of the 12 MRes/ MClinRes programmes best meet your needs. All courses are slightly different, so it is worth exploring the research expertise and interests of the teams and the part-time, full-time and distance learning opportunities. 

In the case of CDRF funding, getting the right academic support is of paramount importance. The supervisor-student relationship is one of the most important determinants in the success of a PhD, so identifying your principal supervisor is key. Not only is it important that your principal supervisor is someone whom you can work with, it is important that he or she has the right skills and experience to support you.

He or she should have relevant knowledge and expertise, ie, an established track record in the subject area and be an experienced researcher. He or she should also have experience as a PhD supervisor and sufficient time to commit to your supervision. You may want to include information in your application on the percentage of PhD students he or she has supervised who have completed within four years and the number of PhD students he or she currently supervises. (It should not be too many.)

If your supervisor has a track record of securing research grants from the NIHR or supervising CDRFs, all the better.

In many ways it is akin to building a project team around you: you will need a range of knowledge, skills and expertise to support you in your training. If you are at a loss as to where to start, have an exploratory conversation with existing academic contacts about your research interests. They might be able to support you or point you in the right direction. Alternatively, explore the literature in your area of interest and identify researchers with a published track record.

Preparing a brief outline of your research idea will help you to focus on what skills and expertise you might need from your academic supervisor(s). It will also help your potential supervisor(s) to consider what they can offer you and areas where you might seek further supervision or mentorship.

In addition to supervision arrangements, the academic environment and training programme are reviewed in the application. The Research Assessment Exercise rating of your chosen academic environment should be considered and details included in the application. (This will be the Research Excellence Framework rating in the future.) You should also describe the facilities available to you, for example, established peer support networks and wider training and development opportunities within the university department, faculty and university. Although there will be standard training available to PhD students you must describe how the training and development plan is clearly tailored to you, your project and your clinical and research skill gaps.

Reviewing your application

Knowing your audience

Find out who is on the review panel (eg, their professional discipline, their area of expertise, their publications, their career) as this will help you tailor your application accordingly.

The MRes/MClinRes application process is managed by the individual higher education institutes that run the course. They will each have their own review panel and will be able to provide you with more information on this.
There is a national assessment panel for the CDRF which comprises senior academics in nursing, including health visiting and midwifery, and allied health professions, eg, physiotherapy, podiatry, and speech and language therapy, and, this year, an academic pharmacist.

Seeking advice

If you want to know whether you are communicating clearly and effectively through your application, and that it will make sense to a variety of audiences, make sure that you get a number of different people to review and comment on it. You will need to take advice from supervisors, collaborators, mentors, methodologists, statisticians, finance leads etc.

However, you should also consider sharing your application with your peers, lay (patient and public) representatives and wider professional perspectives, for example, sharing your research with professionals of the same discipline as those on the review panel could be helpful.

You can also get in touch with current or previous award holders, details can be found on the NIHR website. They will have experiences and advice to share and will help to demystify the process.

Finally, all applicants should contact their local NIHR Research Design Service. This is a free service that will help you to develop your application, including identification of collaborators. The focus will be on developing the project, however, it is likely that the service will give you informal advice on other aspects of the application and usually help with patient, carer and public involvement and engagement. There is more about the service at http://bit.ly/MICi8D.

If you are thinking of applying you can contact the RPS research team (email practiceresearch@rpharms.com) for further advice and information.

Beth Allen is head of research at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and Peter Noyce is chairman of the HEE/MPC Clinical Academic Workforce Group. 

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2014.11135781

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