SPHR Doctoral students Davara Bennett (LiLaC, Liverpool University), Mario Martinez-Jimenez (LiLaC, Lancaster University), and Sarah Ledden (UCL) were nominated to attend the Twelfth NIHR Infrastructure Doctoral Research Training Camp hosted by the NIHR Academy. Sixty doctoral students from across the NIHR Infrastructure gathered in Leamington Spa for a three-day residential camp centred around the theme of “Applying for further funding”.
After a full day of talks and workshops, which were streamed online to a further contingent of NIHR doctoral students and early career researchers, attendees were split into teams of 6-7 and given the task of writing a grant proposal in a day for the fictitious ‘NIHR Making People Healthier’ research programme. Teams had to identify a research aim around improving the health of the general public, and multi-disciplinary team involvement and integrated Public and Patient Involvement (PPI) were integral to a successful application. Teams were supported by an experienced array of academic mentors and had options to make appointments with replications of the Research Design Service (RDS), PPI representatives, the finance office, and the programme director to guide and enhance their research proposals throughout the exercise. The submission deadline for the Research Proposal was that same day at 5pm and 5.30pm for the presentation slides. The final day of the camp saw teams pitch their submitted research proposals to a panel with a presentation and panel Q&A.
“NIHR doctoral research training camp is a challenging experience due to the preparation of a research grant application in less than 24 hours with a group of people that you just met. However, the whole process is inspirational and stimulating because of the opportunity of meeting a high-skilled group of researchers with a completely different background but with the same goal as you: improving people’s health and well-being. I had the opportunity to meet great people as well as to network with medical doctors and professors from everywhere in the UK. Although there were intense three days, I totally recommend attending to this camp those who are lucky enough to be selected.” Mario Martinez-Jimenez
The winning team featured SPHR UCL doctoral student, Sarah Ledden. Team EDEN (Early Diagnosis for Endometriosis), mentored by Professor Vicki Goodwin, devised a research proposal to understand and address delays in diagnosis in endometriosis with mixed qualitative and quantitative elements.
“The NIHR Doctoral Research Training Camp was a great experience. I was incredibly lucky to be paired with a team that gelled instantly and were really open to listening and learning from each other. I gained so much from the camp, both in terms of hard skills around grant proposals and presenting but also soft skills in relationship-building, delegation, and teamwork. To have an in-person event like this really showed just how much creativity and inspiration can be cultivated when you put a random selection of people from different disciplines in a room together.” Sarah Ledden
Davara Bennett documented her reflections and experiences from the event in her blog piece:
Confessions of a Training Camp attendee
I like the quiet life. When the School for Public Health Research first circulated details of the 12th NIHR Infrastructure Doctoral Research Training Camp, I was pleasantly stuck in rural Ontario where life couldn’t have been quieter. Armed with an iron-clad excuse – an ocean in the way – I unflagged the opportunity and put it from my mind. Then, all of a sudden, pandemic restrictions were lifted, the opportunity came back around, and I was out of excuses. Before I knew it, I was at a conference centre in Leamington Spa, getting advice from PPI experts on a research project conjured seemingly out of thin air by a team of peers I’d only just met. By 5pm that same day, we would submit a fully costed grant application with minutes to spare.
Why the apprehension? Well, I’d dutifully read past generations of blogs. I couldn’t fail to note the ubiquitous, carefully contextualised references to the challenges in store. Amid the positivity and graceful writing, adjectives like ‘intense’ and ‘pressured’, leapt out at me. My eyes flicked upwards to the branding accompanying these blogs and I wondered…
I won’t leave you wondering. Blogs are a confessional medium; you can spot self-censorship a mile off. This. Was. Stressful. It was at times overwhelming. It was designed to be so. For introverts who like the quiet life, who would have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Dragon’s Den, who don’t feed off the pressure, it was especially tough. At one point, in the thick of it, an intuitive team member placed a gentle hand on my arm and reminded me of the fictional nature of our endeavour, to general mirth.
There is my confession. So now, when I encourage every one of my PhD colleagues to sign up for next year’s training camp – the introverts especially – you’ll know I mean what I write. Do it. Just do it. Because of course, there is much, much more to the experience. You’ll also get advice from the best, throughout the training camp, on a range of topics, in the form of lectures and presentations, speeches and one-to-one discussion. You’ll find camaraderie everywhere, on coaches, at the coffee machine, in your team-room and later at the bar. You’ll be guided by brilliant mentors, in my case the incomparable Dr Vicky Booth. You’ll be awed by your peers – shoutout to my ‘healthy futures collaboration’ colleagues and kudos to fellow SPHR member Sarah Ledden, a member of the winning team – and find that you too had a great deal to contribute. The elation you’ll feel after your grilling by a formidable panel will be more than just relief at the thing being over. You’ll have proven to yourself what you can do as part of a team.
On the final day, after the adrenaline slump and faced with the feedback form, I searched my mind for gentler ways to arrive at the same kinds of knowledge. I couldn’t come up with much. Maybe, possibly, just perhaps, the learning that accompanies full immersion in this kind of collaborative task is worth the stress. Already, in the days since the event, I’ve been less easily daunted, more willing to put myself forward. I know that if I decide to pursue a career in academia, I’m in a much better position now than I was before. I know how much support is built into the NIHR infrastructure.
And if I haven’t yet persuaded you to go for it, I should add that the food was great, the coffee unlimited and the pick-n-mix bar stocked with mini eggs outside of mini egg season. The NIHR know how to look after their early career researchers.
I really hope that many more of my peers benefit from the Training Camp experience. And if you’d like more unvarnished truth don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can get in contact via firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to find out more.