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New investigators can’t apply for NIHR research funding… can they?

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Justine Tomlinson is a specialist pharmacist and doctoral training fellow at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and the University of Bradford. She successfully applied for an NIHR Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB) award during her PhD and has shared her advice to encourage other doctoral students to apply.

Why did you decide to apply for research funding?

Since I qualified as a community pharmacist in 2010, I have been involved in numerous audits, quality improvement projects and patient surveys. However, I hadn’t done anything large scale or that could be considered primary research.

I had always aspired to work towards a PhD. In October 2016 I began a new, exciting research post that was my absolute dream role – research combined with a clinical role and teaching.

To allow me to conduct the research that I felt was necessary for my PhD, I knew that I needed to apply for funding. I hadn’t really considered who could and could not apply and whether I would be eligible – I just knew this was something I needed to explore further.

What is the research idea that you applied for funding to address?

My main research interest is continuity of medicines at transitions. We know that older people (particularly those with polypharmacy and multimorbidity) have multiple medicines changes when they have a hospital stay, which can lead to confusion and anxiety after discharge. This often leads to re-admission or poorer quality of life. I personally feel that more could be done to support this vulnerable population, and I struggled to find many studies exploring this issue from the perspective of patients.

My RfPB project involves investigating medicines-related care after discharge for older people living with long term conditions, namely type II diabetes and frailty. We aim to explore the challenges that these people face and use their experiences and co-design methodology to create a new intervention to support post-discharge medicines management.

What made you apply to the RfPB programme with your research idea?

My supervisors and I decided I should apply for a personal award from the HEE/NIHR Clinical Doctoral Research Fellowship (CDRF) scheme. However, the advice from the NIHR Research Design Service (RDS) was that I did not have the necessary publication profile of my own to apply to this scheme. I was initially quite disheartened by this, but I continued and used the NIHR website to identify other funding schemes that were available.

I believed that my project fit the criteria for the RfPB programme and that the level of funding and timescales were appropriate for my project.

How did you develop your research idea into a full proposal?

In February 2017, I attended a two-day workshop held by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society that centred around writing a grant application. I had no idea of all the background work that was necessary to build a strong application!

I got in touch with my local RDS immediately after coming home from the workshop. It was of immense value to be able to discuss my project with them: they challenged me on various points and also offered me further things to consider. I am very glad that I sought their advice at an early stage and would encourage anyone applying for a research award to do so.

How did you go about writing the research application itself?

I have to confess, I felt like a complete novice when it came to writing the research application. I focused on how the research might lead to patient benefit, because I knew how important this was for the NIHR RfPB programme.

I spoke to experienced colleagues who had successfully applied for research awards, and they gave lots of useful advice about who to contact within my organisation for support with things like intellectual property. I made sure to present my research idea and grant application outline to my peers and used their feedback and constructive suggestions to improve the application.

Writing my research application was an iterative process and took an incredible amount of time (6 months full time), but it was worthwhile.

What did the decision-making process involve?

Applying for NIHR RfPB funding involves a two-stage application process, with the application assessed by a Regional Advisory Panel at each stage.

The stage 1 feedback from the panel offered recommendations that were very valuable and helped shape my stage 2 application. On reflection I had been overly ambitious in my stage 1 application, combining exploratory, intervention design and feasibility work.

The five peer reviews of the stage 2 application were very detailed. At first it was quite overwhelming to read all the comments and to not take them to heart. But the peer reviewers offered balanced feedback and suggested areas where I could do something different or offered further reference sources to support my application.

My named contact at the RfPB programme has been incredibly supportive throughout. With this being my first successful research award, I was sometimes unsure of process or what needs to happen. She never makes me feel embarrassed when I ask what I consider to be silly questions!

What happened once you found out that your project had been awarded funding?

I felt incredibly happy, lucky and grateful! I couldn’t wait to share the news with my patient and public involvement (PPI) group and co-applicants. And then the realisation set in that I am an NIHR grant holder. There’s an accountability that you feel – a pressure to perform. I think this is because it’s my first successful research award and I don’t want to disappoint the funders, my colleagues or PPI.

What it was like leading your first research project?

It was incredibly daunting leading my first research project and involved an exceptionally steep learning curve! There’s so much I have yet to learn, and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t find out something new.

To help support me with this process, I factored in 8 hours per week of mentoring from my co-applicants to help my development. During my monthly supervision meetings we spend some time focusing on how I feel things are progressing and how I could do things differently next time.

What are your main pieces of advice for other early career researchers who are considering applying for research funding?

I tried my best to involve as many people as I could in writing my application to ensure that I was adhering to the correct organisational procedures and that I was working within the RfPB guidelines. If you haven’t done this before, it is really difficult to know who you need and/ or want to involve – my advice is speak to as many people as possible and just ask the question!

I think that being able to appreciate other people’s workloads and being flexible enough to work to their timescales is an important skill for leading a research project. It’s frustrating at first, but once you understand their routines it gets easier.

How to apply for NIHR RfPB Funding

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