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Gemma Spiers (Newcastle) and Doug Hardman (Southampton)

In the spring of 2018, we were each awarded funding from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Short Placement Award for Research Collaboration (SPARC) scheme. Our destinations were the Personal Social Services Research Unit (PSSRU) at the NIHR School for Social Care, at the London School of Economics (Gemma); and the Oxford Empathy Programme at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford (Doug). Here we describe our experiences and impressions of this scheme.


For me, this placement was a fantastic opportunity to spend time in one of the most reputable social care research centres in the UK, and meet the experts at the hub of this activity.  These are the individuals driving much of the research on the broader topic of my PhD, and so getting to meet them in person was a privilege.   These meetings were a brilliant way to learn more about the work they do and discuss respective research interests.  I’ve made some great connections for the future.

Another advantage of this scheme is having the opportunity to see your own research through a slightly different disciplinary lens. I'm a social scientist by background, asking questions about health and social care. The PSSRU at the School for Social Care Research is multi-disciplinary, but with a particular focus on economics and policy. Through the discussions I had with staff within the school, and the seminar I gave about my PhD work, I was able to think about my work from a slightly different angle.

Finally, I used this placement to delve a bit deeper into different approaches to measuring wealth and socioeconomic status in older populations.  This has involved a critical scoping review and tackling some complex concepts. I would have engaged with this literature regardless of whether I undertook this placement. Even so, anchoring this work to my placement visits has helped to focus and drive this particular piece of work.


This placement gave me the funding and, perhaps just as importantly, the opportunity and impetus to spend time at the central hub of research into empathy in healthcare: the Oxford Empathy Programme. Much of the work done at the programme cross-cuts my current research on placebo effects and the therapeutic encounter. Spending time there gave me the chance to learn more about a related area I was interested in and provide me with a different, invaluable perspective on my own research.

The Oxford Empathy Programme is an interdisciplinary research group that includes medical practitioners, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists. As a social scientist this placement gave me a great opportunity to conduct work through a more philosophical lens, and learn new approaches to research from leading practitioners. And as Gemma notes, the opportunity to look at things from another disciplinary perspective can really improve your own work.

From a personal development perspective I have found the placement to be excellent. It gave me the chance to strengthen some embryonic relationships and, as a PhD student, helped build confidence to reach out and develop my own network, which (as I am often told by my supervisors) seems a key part of developing an academic career. I would like to thank the Oxford Empathy Programme – – and especially the programme director, Dr Jeremy Howick, for hosting me. You can reach out to them on twitter (@OxEmCare) if this has stirred your interest in empathy research!


Was it worth it?

Overall, we definitely recommend SPCR trainees to consider the NIHR SPARC scheme as part of their professional development. It’s a unique approach to facilitating collaborations and links, and this sort of chance may not be readily available post-PhD. We also suggest giving some thought to the timing and spacing of the placement.  Whereas one of us chose to undertake our placement in four separate one week visits, spaced over the year, the other conducted one visit supported by longer term remote contact.  The former allowed time to reflect between visits, while the latter gave more continuity. This shows that whatever your circumstances and project, you can make the scheme work for you. We have both really enjoyed the NIHR SPARC scheme and think it is an excellent opportunity to both improve current work and potentially open up future opportunities. We heartily encourage you to apply!


For more information about the SPARC programme visit: