Appying for an NIHR internship

This article was first published in Dietetics Today, March 2021.

Two years of dietetic practice had left me with a growing list of questions about clinical practice, a spirit of curiosity, and an inkling that I wanted to start pursuing a research aspect to my clinical career. The problem was where to start when I felt that I lacked the necessary experience and did not have time in my clinical role to explore research. Through a local Council for Allied Health Professions Research (CAHPR) meeting I discovered The National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) internship scheme. This internship is a short (around six months) programme for those with little or no research experience and provides an opportunity to experience the clinical academic research environment and develop research skills alongside your clinical role. It is a great starting place if you are considering a clinical academic career.

The scheme is managed regionally by Health Education England (HEE) and varies according to locality. Some areas provide a set programme with a cohort of other interns. In the South West area the internship involves a grant of up to £10,000. Through the application process you propose a budget which includes formal training in research, costs for the part-time backfill of your clinical role and academic supervision. If this is the case in your area, be specific about what you plan to do with your time. For example I included research shadowing, training, supervision and private study. I sketched out a timetable and added it to my budget; this shows you have thought through what you need to develop your skills and how you can achieve your objectives.

At one point I was hesitant about applying for the internship as I felt that I needed a developed research proposal, but the internship is really a starting point. You do need an area of research interest that you wish to develop further, and this forms part of your application and is discussed at interview. This should be an area where possible changes could impact patient care and the NHS. The internship provides time to further explore your chosen topic area and work towards a proposal of research for further funding.

“Dietetics needs clinical academics to lead research that will inform best practice”

Patient and public involvement (PPI) is crucial to clinical research and even the application process provided a good learning curve in this area. PPI is all about having patient and public input at every level of the research process, from prioritising what research is important to planning practical aspects of clinical trials. As part of the application, state how you intend to weave PPI into the internship; this may be further discussed at interview. Think this through and see it as crucial to your proposed area of research if you want a strong application. Take a look at the NIHR's INVOLVE site for further information on PPI.

The internship is the beginning of a possible clinical academic career, although it is competitive and the future uncertain, you need to show that you are interested in progressing through to becoming a clinical academic. Show that you are interested in doing a PhD and beyond that using the training to benefit patients. Find out about the vision for clinical academic careers with the NHS.


Support is needed if you plan to apply for an internship, the application includes a letter of backing from an academic supervisor and clinical manager.

Finding the right supervisor is important; ideally this should be someone who has a level of expertise within your area of interest and has supported others through a clinical academic training pathway. Supervision has been an invaluable part of the internship providing guidance and constructive feedback based on the wisdom of experience.

Having the backing of your clinical team leader is crucial and I have expressed my interest in research from the beginning of my career. It is recognised that patients treated in research-active organisations have better outcomes [1]; there are many benefits to having dietitians involved in research within a department.

I can see the benefit from just the first few weeks of my internship as an expediential growth in CPD that I would never have in my usual full-time role. Discuss with your team leaders early and highlight the benefits to them as well as your plans.

Networking within your organisation presents lots of opportunities; if you do not know where to start you could contact the research and development team at your local trust. Be open to opportunities and if research is being done in your work area, even if not dietetic related, ask questions and show interest. I was overwhelmed by the amount of support given by other allied health professionals and nurses when I was thinking about research. They provided application advice and a mock interview and still show continued support through my internship with research shadowing and other opportunities.

The October 2020 research column of Dietetics Today discussed how to build a strong CV, which you will need as part of your application. The internship is the beginning of your research career so you are not expected to have a list of publications but any experience that strengthens your application is beneficial. Have you carried out an audit or service evaluation that show you have the interest and skills transferable to research? Where have you shown the importance of evidence-based practice in your career? Have you been part of an online journal club? These are areas you can highlight in your CV whilst also trying to gain some experience in writing, presentation, and research skills as outlined in the previous article.

And so to end; foster a spirit of curiosity. The world of dietetics needs clinical academics to lead the way in research that will inform best clinical practice for our patients. We are not in a profession that stands still.

Wherever you are in your clinical career, if you want to explore the possibilities of research then the NIHR internship may be a good starting place.

Reference

[1] Hanney S, Boaz A, Jones T, Soper B. Engagement in research: an innovative three-stage review of the benefits for health-care performance. Heal Serv Deliv Res. 2013 Oct; Vol.1 (8): 1-152.