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Ben Bowers, SPCR PhD Student at the University of Cambridge, talks about his experiences of the NIHR Doctoral Research Training Camp at Ashridge Park.

 

When I saw the title NIHR Doctorial Research ‘Boot Camp’ I got a little uneasy about what I had signed up for. I shouldn’t have. Having just attended 10th NIHR Doctoral Research Training Boot Camp on Attracting Further Research Funding at Ashridge House in July 2019, I can highly recommend it.

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The three day event started with an afternoon of inspiring lectures from researchers at different stages in their careers on putting together successful research grant applications. We also got some really helpful tips on what the NIHR are looking for in fellowship applications and research proposals. At the end of the first afternoon, we were allocated into teams and given the brief to write a high quality competitive application in the field of public health. Oh, and we had 8 hours the following day to do it in… so no pressure.  

Ben (back row, far right) and his team.

Despite having never met before and coming from diverse research backgrounds including lab based research, cardiology, neonatal care, end of life care and epidemiology, we quickly bonded as a team and brainstormed ideas."

It’s the sort of challenge that focuses the mind and fosters great teamwork. Despite having never met before and coming from diverse research backgrounds including lab based research, cardiology, neonatal care, end of life care and epidemiology, we quickly bonded as a team and brainstormed ideas. We used our collective skills and knowledge to find a real problem we wanted to solve and decided on how we could do this within the brief and scope of a fictitious NIHR public health grant application call. My colleagues from different disciplines took a leap of faith in embracing qualitative research methods and the idea of co-designing a cardiac rehabilitation intervention with patients. With our idea formed, we decided on a team name (Team SPACE) and divided the key tasks we needed to complete.

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Rather than just learning about the research application process and the importance of Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) in seminars, we lived each aspect through the 8 hour process. This involved successive meetings with the NIHR programme director, PPI representatives, Research and Design Service, and NIHR finance director, with some serious fast typing and a few surprises thrown in along the way. When you condense 9 months of a NIHR grant application process into 8 hours, it becomes evident that different advisors give contrasting or conflicting advice. If we had listened to every suggestion we were given we would have re-written our grant application 5 times. Equally, to ignore good advice is foolish. It was a hard balance to find and it was the only time Cath Exley, our excellent mentor, stepped in to say go with the way that feels right and answers your question in the way you want to. Some sage advice for real life grant applications too!

So, when the next NIHR Infrastructure Doctoral Research Training Camp is advertised, is it worth applying for? Definitely, go for it. It’s a great way to learn how to put together a successful competitive application, build confidence and have fun during the process."

After an epic 8 hours of furious writing, last minute proof checking and the amalgamation of the different sections on the application, we got it in on time. Much to the credit and awesome skills of my colleagues Kiran, Nye, Jennifer, Lavanya and Dimitris. This left us a whole 30 minutes to draft and submit a PowerPoint ahead of presenting the application to the NIHR grant panel the next morning.  

bb4The fictitious NIHR panel were thorough in their scrutiny and asked every group some difficult and challenging questions. It was great practice to experience this part of the process without it being ‘real’ – although it was tough to be on the receiving end of the panel’s comments at times. As a team we breathed a collective sigh of relief when the chair asked us if we were already doing our proposed research in real life. After an intense interview process, we were fortunate enough to win the best application award.

 The surroundings at Ashridge House and gardens are beautiful. It was a great setting to meeting some new friends and colleagues, many of whom I hope to stay in touch with. The networking aspects are not to be underestimated. Attendees are doing very diverse research and come from a wealth of backgrounds, but we are all on our PhD journeys and have a lot in common.

Ben (far left, bottom row) and his team.

So, when the next NIHR Infrastructure Doctoral Research Training Camp is advertised, is it worth applying for? Definitely, go for it. It’s a great way to learn how to put together a successful competitive application, build confidence and have fun during the process.