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New research funding for pharmacists is a game changer for the profession

Relatively few pharmacists have been involved in research up to now, but many aspire to be. In this article, Elizabeth Sukkar finds out what you need to do to secure funding

Undertaking a doctorate or a master’s degree is a major decision. You need to come up with an exciting research topic, decide if it will improve your career prospects, and mull over whether you can afford it.

Last week, pharmacists who are thinking about going down this academic path had something to celebrate. It was announced that a Government-funded clinical academic training programme that has been running for years and open to 16 health care professional groups has finally opened its doors to pharmacists (PJ 2014;292:3).

This means that pharmacists with at least one year’s experience can apply to get funding to develop their clinical skills while becoming proficient researchers at the master or doctorate level. The funding for the pilot, which comes from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and Health Education England, will fund a clinical doctoral research fellowship or a master’s in clinical research.

There has already been strong interest in the funding with around 30 enquiries to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s research team from pharmacists in their foundation years through to pharmacists engaged in advanced practice. 

But what next? How difficult is it to apply? And will you be successful?

Over the 2009 to 2012 period, of the 768 applications made for funding for a master’s award, 272 were successful, equating roughly to a 35 per cent success rate. And it gets even tougher for the PhD award: out of 290 applications made over the 2009 to 2013 period, only 63 were approved (roughly a 22 per cent success rate). Out of the 62 applications made in 2013, only 20 were approved (32 per cent of the total). Nurses and physiotherapists make up the bulk of the applications and successes for both awards, according to data from the NIHR (see Figure 1).


 Funding for PhD and Masters graph

Funding from the National Institute for Health Research and Health Education England for research awards for (a) the master’s 2009–12 programme and  (b) the doctorate 2009–13 programme by healthcare professional group. Nurses and physiotherapists make up the bulk of applications and successes for both awards, but will pharmacists make a dent in the figures this year?

Click here for a larger image.

Peter Thompson, senior manager at the NIHR trainees co-ordinating centre, told The Journal: “The key thing for anyone considering such an application is making sure all aspects of their application sit well together. The panel will assess the individual and their research track record, their potential to be a research leader, and the research itself, which needs to be of high calibre and be of benefit to patients and the public within five years of its completion.” The NIHR does not support basic research or work involving animals.

Also, the training and development needs that are proposed by the applicant have to be suitable for the research included in the application and the future career of the applicant.

Hopefully, it will interest those who want to develop their clinical skills and their research skills simultaneously. Dr Thompson says: “We would like to see active clinical academics apply as well as community pharmacists. You don’t have to be employed by the NHS to apply, but you will need to be working in an organisation providing services to the NHS. If you are not working in the NHS, we advise that you come and talk to us first before you apply.”

He emphasises: “A pharmacist’s research must benefit patients within five years after it is completed. That is very important as it forms the remit of the NIHR. I think pharmacists will be able to fulfil this remit considering the work they do with patients anyway.”

Clinical doctoral research fellowships

Applicants must first register with a higher education institute to do a PhD, but applications must come through the NIHR directly. The award opens for applications at the end of January and closes in late April, so pharmacists need to start thinking about their applications now.

The clinical doctoral research fellowship (C-DRF) application is extensive: it can be up to 90 pages long once completed. These fellowships fund the cost of the research (including consumables and equipment (limits apply), the cost of training and development, the indirect costs for the university or institute and the applicant’s salary.

“It is a prestigious award and provides on average around £250,000 to £350,000 in total,” Dr Thompson says. Awards are for three years but can be undertaken part-time and the funding is provided through HEE. Applications are assessed by an expert panel in a two-stage process (shortlisting and interviews). The panel then makes a recommendation to HEE and the Department of Health, which make the final decision on the numbers awarded funding. He notes: “To date, nurses make up at least 50 per cent of C-DRF applications awarded.”

If you are shortlisted, you will be invited for interview in October or November. “If successful, you start the fellowship the year following your application; and you are given a choice of start dates. This can start as early as January 2015 up to April 2015.”

Master’s award

With regard to the master’s level award, although it is funded by HEE, the award sits with higher education institutes. You need to apply for the master’s award now becasue places on the courses start in September. Dr Thompson says: “We offer around 150 places a year across 12 institutions in England and you apply directly to the university or institute. The university will pay the NHS trust to cover the applicant’s leave from work, while the applicant remains on salary. We also cover the tuition fees of the course, which can range from £4,000 to £13,000 for completion of a master’s award.”

Why do it? Impact on you and patients

Beth Allen, who is head of research at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and whose team helps develop research capacity in pharmacy by creating resources and opportunities, believes pharmacists should take the opportunity to apply for the awards because it “is not just about developing research skills, but also developing clinical skills and leadership to support better patient care”.

She does acknowledge that this is highly competitive funding and that pharmacists have to be committed to pursuing a clinical-academic research career.

“We are aware that a number of pharmacists have tried to apply for this funding in previous years, but were ineligible. Now that we have this opportunity it is important that we make the most of it. As pharmacists are educated to master’s level they have a head start on some of the other non-medical professionals and it is important that pharmacists articulate this education and their wider experience and exposure to research, evaluation and audit when applying,” she says.

But as pharmacists already have a master’s level degree, some may not want to do another one. She thinks the master’s in research will help them develop “a broader research skill set, providing a strong research foundation on which to build a clinical-academic career. Without this foundation, pharmacists may find it difficult to compete for PhD funding. Your research topic will be directly relevant to both the direction in which you wish to take your career and  your clinical practice.”

Although pursuing further academic education can improve your career prospects, what impact will doing a master’s degree or a PhD have on patients? She says demonstrating impact can be challenging for novice researchers. National (or wider) impact requires good leadership skills and strong stakeholder engagement.

“However, it is likely that their research will have local impact, for example, improvements to service delivery, improved protocols, greater patient satisfaction and improved patient outcomes. Therefore, it is possible to show impact on patients within the five-year period stipulated by the NIHR remit.” She adds that patients experience better care in healthcare settings tht are engaged in research.

Support and community pharmacists

Pharmacists considering going down this path will need resources to support them in their applications. The RPS is moving quickly on this. It is hosting a fee-payable, two-part course in February and April and is planning to publish guidance on the application process later this month. The NIHR is also offering a free event on 10 March for non-medical  professionals (see Panel).
Community pharmacists may feel disinclined to apply for the awards, but Ms Allen says they are eligible to do so. “The funding is as relevant to community pharmacists as it is to colleagues in secondary care and we really want to see applications from both sectors. It is challenging for any healthcare professional to find the time to commit to developing an application and, if successful, balancing research and practice on a day-to-day basis. However, the benefits of professional development, improved patient care and outcomes means it is worth going the extra mile.”

Janet Flint, clinical and partner engagement manager in the directorate of education and quality at HEE, says: “Pharmacists are absolutely good candidates for becoming practitioner researchers. Why should we be different from any other health care professional?”

According to anecdotal evidence, there have been relatively few pharmacists participating in research or holding teaching posts at universities so “this is a really important initiative in terms of developing clinical practitioners who are receptive to research and innovation and therefore will drive improvements in patient outcomes”, says Ms Flint.

She has no suggestions for research topics, saying that the NIHR has left this “deliberately open as the research can be in any area, not necessarily limited to clinical practice, but must aim to show benefits to patients five years after it is completed”.

Ms Flint expects that in the beginning, only a handful of pharmacists will apply but this is a good start. Although she thinks, that predominantly, NHS pharmacists will apply who have links to existing research teams, community pharmacists should not feel left out. “There are increasingly more and more community pharmacists becoming active researchers. It is not just about people working in the NHS and we hope community pharmacists won’t be discouraged from applying.”

For a graduate, she thinks the master’s level would be a good entry point, since it is most suited to the early stages of a pharmacist’s career, but younger pharmacists should also consider applying for the PhD programme.

It can only be hoped that a range of practitioners and academics show interest in the programmes because they will enable more pharmacists to become research leaders who are able to combine their research with clinical practice.

Further information

Course The Royal Pharmaceutical Society is providing a course.

Meeting The National Institute for Health Research is holding a free one-day meeting, “Being a clinical health researcher: career advice from the front line”, in London on 10 March 2014. The meeting will provide you with information to start your career in clinical health research and will cover the experiences of clinical researchers. Contact: Professional Briefings (tel 01920 487672; email

National Institute for Health Research  Email or telephone 0113 346 6260 and ask to speak to a member of the personal awards team.

Resources RPS guidance on the application process is expected later this month.


Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2014.11132890

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