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Written by Kieran Ayling and Priyanka Chandratre

We were recently lucky enough to be selected to attend the fifth NIHR Infrastructure Doctoral Research Training Camp at Ashridge Business School, Hertfordshire on the 9th-11th July. The setting was nothing short of exquisite. Ashridge Business School is set in a large, imposing country estate, which, in the sunshine looked like a cross-between Downton Abbey and Hogwarts. It certainly set the tone for what was to come.

This theme of this year’s training camp was “Developing Your Post-doctoral Career: Attracting Health Research Funding” and began with a talk from Professor Beate Kampmann, Imperial College London on building your post-doctoral career. This was followed by two presentations from selected delegates about their PhD research and a poster session where the breath of research conducted by NIHR trainees was on display.

After this, the real work began. We were split into ten groups of 6-8 trainees with an academic mentor, with each group intentionally made up of students from different backgrounds (clinical and non-clinician scientists), institutions and at different stages of their PhD. Our challenge, we were told, was to put together a funding application for up to £500,000 to the fictitious ‘Making People Healthier Research Programme’. The application process closely mirrored that of the NIHR funding calls, with the slight exception that we had to submit our completed application by 5pm the next day.

The first order of business was to get to know the members of our groups, choose a team name and group leader. The results would make any BBC Apprentice wannabe proud with ‘infinity’ and ‘the magnificent 7’ among the final names. Kieran was chosen to be group leader of ‘Pro-Health’ and Priyanka’s group was named ‘Collaboration’. After this, a series of useful workshops on grant application building (including what makes a good grant application and presentation skills) were put on and group discussions focussed on what topic area we might research. This was no easy task as most groups had no two students doing even similar topics and the remit of the funding call was broad – encompassing all public health improvement research. Once this decision was made, the day was officially over – with the main application writing to come the next morning: although that didn’t stop some groups having meetings late into the evening (often while watching the football in the bar!).

The next day started bright and early with three back-to-back inspirational talks from leading international academics on the economics of health research, designing the ‘perfect study’ and utilising patient and public involvement. Then we turned to the task at hand. The application form was long and many decisions needed to be made. There would be no time for the group to work together through each section, instead different people would have to work of different sections for Background, Finances, Study Design, PPI etc. As a further challenge, we would regularly receive letters from the ‘funding office’ with updated deadlines and challenges, which kept us constantly on our toes. Appointments could be made to see the ‘Director of Science’, ‘Head of Finance’, Research Design Service and Public and Patient Involvement panels to get the information we needed to complete our application.

Getting the application completed in time was definitely a scramble with three groups handing in a few minutes past the deadline – much to the scorn of the funding office. Kieran’s group handed in with 2 minutes to spare and involved a less than dignified sprint down the corridor the get a signature from the finance office with 4 minutes to deadline! But once we submitted, we were able to relax in the fantastic grounds and reflect on what we had all achieved in just a few hours. That evening there was a formal dinner, with Professor Dame Sally Davis present, with prizes presented for best posters and abstracts submitted prior to the Training Camp.

The final day was arguably the most nerve racking, with each group required to present their application to an imposing panel – in front of the other 70 or so people there - and answer a barrage of questions regarding the application they had only put together over about seven hours! The breadth and quality of the funding ideas presented was impressive and was a testament to how much a multidisciplinary group, working together, can achieve in such a short space of time. After all groups had presented, the panel deliberated and brought back their verdicts for runners-up, overall winners and best PPI strategy. Kieran’s group were awarded the runners-up prize for their proposal to tackle Pre-diabetes in South Asian populations.

Overall, the training camp was a fantastic, if intense, experience. We got an insight into the trials and tribulations of grant application writing and meeting other NIHR trainees and working closely together in such a beautiful setting was a fun and rewarding experience. There were plenty of networking opportunities over scrumptious dinners too! If you get the chance to go to something like this in the future, we’d highly recommend it!

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