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Written by Jane Vennik, University of Southampton

I was privileged to attend the NIHR Doctoral Research Training camp at Ashridge House, Berkhamsted in July.  The event was designed to introduce PhD students and early career researchers to the skills and processes required for successful grant applications.

The course was based on a fictitious call from a Public Health funding body.  We were given the task of producing a funding application and presenting to a panel of experts on the final day.  Throughout the 3 days we also had lectures from inspirational senior researchers, including Professor Sir Doug Campbell who talked about building a post-doctoral career using his experience from his work with mitochondrial disease and Professor David Armstrong, director of RfPB giving advice about how to make a good funding application.  We also had the opportunity to present our research in a poster session which provided a good opportunity to meet the other delegates.

After the initial presentations and orientation, we were assigned to small groups of 7-8 researchers.  Each group included researchers from a range of disciplines including medical doctors, statisticians, health services researchers, health economists etc.  The first job was to agree a group name (my group was called ‘Optimae’, meaning ‘best’ in Latin!) and assign a team leader.  The next job was to agree a topic area in public health -the brief was to come up with something aspirational but achievable - easier than it sounds!  We spent quite a long time discussing the different public health issues, ranging from obesity and diabetes to poor dental health, in populations from children, teenagers, elderly and people with learning difficulties.  It was a challenge to agree on a topic because of the range of interests and backgrounds of group members but we finally agreed on improving oral health of children to prevent dental decay.  The first hurdle cleared, it was then on to the planning stage.  We explored everyone’s individual skills and experience, allocated appropriate tasks and drew up a project plan for the following day.  After a great evening meal and a quick drink at the bar, we headed to bed ready for an early start in the morning.

The second day was an intensive day of mini workshops, meetings with experts and working together to produce the written grant application.  I took responsibility for the PPI involvement, and attending a mini workshop and discussed our lay summary with a PPI panel who gave feedback to improve our application.  There were deadlines throughout the day, adding an element of pressure to the task, and a clock counting down the time until the submission deadline.  Unfortunately we had missed a tick box (!) on our form so our application was initially rejected, but we finally submitted only a couple of minutes late.    With everything done, we enjoyed an evening of drinks on the terrace, dinner in the stunning dining room and time to socialize and network with researchers from the other groups.

The final day involved presenting our research application to the mock panel of judges, answering questions, elaborating on the idea and defending decisions.  It was interesting to hear about the range of projects the other nine groups had chosen.  We waited hopefully for the outcome of the competitive process - the panel would fund one application, and there were prizes for best PPI involvement and best presentation.  Unfortunately, Optimae were not the best on this occasion, but we had a really valuable and enjoyable time undertaking the task, learning from each other, understanding the processes involved in a grant application and seeing the need for collaboration and compromise along the way.

Overall it was a fantastic opportunity to learn new skills and network with other researchers from all over the country, from different disciplines and a wide range of research interests.  On top of that it was set in the most beautiful location of Ashridge House, with super facilities and great food that kept us going through the intensive three days.  A really valuable and enjoyable experience which has given me the confidence and skills to contribute to future funding applications.