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Blog: Reflections on the NIHR Tenth Infrastructure Doctoral Research Training Camp by Vicky Carlisle, SPHR PhD Student

It was my privilege to represent the School for Public Health Research (SPHR) at the NIHR’s tenth Infrastructure Doctoral Research Training Camp. This year the theme was ‘Attracting Further Research Funding’. We were warned that it would be an ‘intense’ 48-hours, but I don’t think I really knew the meaning of the word before!

The camp was structured around a fictitious (but realistic) NIHR funding call for the ‘Making People Healthier’ research programme (MPHrp) – with a multi-disciplinary, public health focus. The first day, we saw a series of presentations and workshops from previous attendees, current NIHR fellows and senior academics. All of the talks were insightful and engaging but I particularly enjoyed hearing from David Keane and Justine Tomlinson about their experiences of applying for NIHR funding and their career journeys so far. Giles Yeo was another highlight – a bundle of energy on stage and some excellent tips on the ‘Why, how and what’ of framing your research question.

After the talks, we met our groups for the first time – 6 other PhD students from across the NIHR network. Each group was allocated a mentor to guide us through the application process; I don’t know what we’d have done without Channa Jayasena’s calm and encouraging approach over the next 24-hours! We were a mixture of clinicians and non-clinicians and so each bought something different to the group.

Me (front-left) and the rest of ‘Team Telepubbies’ shortly after submitting our application

The next day, the real work began. We had seven hours to produce a full grant application and an extra 30-minutes to submit our slides on our project, to be presented in front of the panel the next morning. The first deadline came very quickly – producing a Plain English Summary of our research in less than two hours. This meant that we very quickly had to finalise our research question and plans for conducting the project. We then had the opportunity to discuss this with a PPI representative, which was invaluable. As a result, we tweaked some of our plans. The next few hours were a blur – it was both hugely pressured and a lot of fun. Somehow, by 5pm, we had pulled together a full application and were ready to submit. We were really proud of the way that we worked together as a team to get it all done, make new friendships along the way and still be smiling at the end.

Emotions were running high by the evening and I wasn’t the only one to be moved by Dave Jones’ excellent speech. What stuck with me was how important it is to share your wins with your loved ones as they are with you throughout the difficult times (Dave was reflecting on being awarded his OBE in front of his young son). As someone who came into academia as a mature student with children, this was close to my heart and a welcome reminder of the sacrifices made so far and (possible) celebrations to come.

The next morning, we were first to present. The panel questions were challenging, as expected but it was a great opportunity to get a feel for the kind of questions you might be asked and to think about how to answer them. Being able to watch the other nine groups meant that we were exposed to a wide range of gruelling questions and some excellent come-backs. I was so impressed with what all of the groups had produced in such a short timeframe.

What I learnt from the experience:

  • It’s surprising how much can be achieved in a short time, through effective collaboration (and in the relentless presence of a huge countdown timer!).
  • Extremely valuable skills that I can apply going forward. I would now feel confident in applying for funding in the future.
  • As a 2nd year PhD student with my first publications not quite ready, I know that I’m not currently ready to apply for a fellowship, however I have learnt about alternative routes of funding, such a ‘Research for Patient Benefit’ that encourage applications from early-career researchers.
  • What I find interesting and relevant might be very different to what funders perceive as important and worth investing in – risk is a key factor.
  • I knew PPI was important but I really gained an appreciation for how integral this aspect is to NIHR funding and of what an important role PPI representatives play in all of NIHR’s research.
  • It’s going to be a tough journey full of knock backs. Successful people are the ones that keep going, despite the knocks.

I would wholeheartedly recommend the experience to other NIHR PhD students and am very grateful to the SPHR and the course Directors for the opportunity to attend and gain such valuable insights into the funding process.


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