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Guest Blog – Future funding: Applying for an NIHR advanced fellowship

In June 2015 I remember sitting in a waiting room, in a large hotel in Leeds, with four men all dressed in suits, feeling like an imposter. I was waiting to go into an interview for my NIHR Doctoral Research Fellowship application I had submitted earlier that year. I couldn’t decide whether to leave my cardigan on or take it off and I felt completely out of my depth. So, I gritted my teeth, decided I had nothing to lose and smiled my way through my interview with a panel of 18 interviewers. A couple of months later I started my NIHR Doctoral Research Fellowship at UCL. I had four years of part time NIHR funding. A dream. When I started my PhD I realised that all the work I’d put in compiling my application, writing in the evenings and at weekends had not only secured me financially (paid my wages, pension, leave, conference fees etc) but also meant I had done a whole heap of work already. I knew what my PhD would look like, when things would happen and who would be involved.

As I came towards the end of my PhD it slowly dawned on me that there was to be another period of applying for research funding. I wanted to continue as a researcher, and though clinical work beckoned I wanted to continue the work I had begun. I still had data to analyse from my PhD, I just hadn’t had time to look at it all. I had new ideas of how to further the work I had begun. I applied for an NIHR Doctoral Skills Enhancement award. Now this one is a bit different from the fellowship application. This is a briefer award- a bit like a bridging award. The aim being to enable you to develop yourself- do any training you need, and benefit from mentorship, in order to prepare for the next application. The DSE application requires you to explain this story, to demonstrate where you are up to and where you are hoping to go. I had to outline my career to date and the research training that would benefit me. Most importantly perhaps I had to ask my employer- the Higher Education Institution where I work to demonstrate their support for me by matching the award. It caught me off guard this time, I applied and was awarded the funding.

NIHR funds approximately 250 Academic Clinical Fellowships (ACFs) and 100 Clinical Lectureships (CLs) in medicine each year.

Now 9 months into my DSE award I have just submitted an application for an NIHR Advanced Fellowship. This is the next step on the ladder of the NIHR research career pathway for me. It’ll be the third application. If successful, this would secure another 5 years of funding for me and my research. It would allow me to continue working on my research with the collaborators and mentors I have chosen. A fellowship feels like a really concrete way of progressing my career.

In the interim I have been successful in applying for other smaller amounts of money through Alzheimer’s Research UK and UCL Grand Challenges. Neither of these were anywhere near the amount of money I asked for in my NIHR applications, but they are also nowhere near as much work. Perhaps it is a good thing to have started my academic career with my NIHR DRF application- alongside my recent advance fellowship application these have felt the hardest. And by the hardest I mean both physically and emotionally. I guess this meant I wasn’t surprised about how much hard work it involved the second time round.

A colleague who was himself applying for an NIHR grant, casually advised me that one must remain relatively sanguine when making an NIHR application. I kind of agree but also don’t agree.

I have found that I had to invest my whole entire self in the writing, otherwise I wouldn’t have got it done. I wouldn’t have persevered through the negotiations with the NHS finance person who costed my NHS costs AND the two university finance departments at both universities involved in my application. I wouldn’t have asked for so much feedback and forced myself to be so thorough if I didn’t really really care. I think I needed to be incredibly invested to get the 55-page application done and submitted. I needed to really really want it. Just submitting it feels like a huge milestone. And now with a couple of weeks distance between the submission process and this blog I have become a bit more philosophical. If I get an interview that would be wonderful. If not, I will try again or try somewhere else.

So, for all those people who are considering this route, be prepared to care in order to get it done. Here are a few more tips and hints that I found to be helpful:

Author [1]

Dr Anna Volkmer [2] is a Speech and Language Therapist and researcher in Language and Cognition, Department of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London. Anna is researching Speech and language therapy interventions in language led dementia and was once voted scariest speech and language therapist (even her children agree).

Follow @volkmer_anna [3]