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Writing a Doctoral Fellowship application

Writing a Doctoral Fellowship application

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Before starting

The key elements to a Fellowship application are the 3Ps (PERSON, PLACE, PROJECT) and TRAINING.

Guidance on completing the application is often provided by the funder (e.g. guidance on word count limits, restrictions on what will / will not be funded etc.) Familiarise yourself with the guidance before starting and then again as you write each section.

Familiarise yourself with the funder’s website:

  • Check that you meet the eligibility requirements (e.g. they may specify that applicants must be at a certain stage of training or hold certain exams).
  • Read about their aims/objectives/vision - ensure that you demonstrate how your project aligns with them.
  • There may be information about additional support offered by the funder (e.g. separate public engagement grants; training days for their PhD Fellows) which you could refer to in the application.

Make a note of the following deadlines:

  • application submission
  • potential interview dates
  • potential grant start date.

Beware - some funders have multiple grant rounds open simultaneously.

Allow sufficient time to:

  • Write the application, receive feedback, revise drafts.
  • Collect relevant documentation/signatures from supervisors/Head of Department/Finance officers etc. Let all parties know well in advance and take into account annual leave and University holidays.
  • Request the following (as required):

  • Submit the application electronically (beware systems crashing in the final few days) or via post (send it tracked delivery).
  • Re-check word counts and formatting if you copy and paste from a Word document into an electronic grant submission system (as they may change in the process and need correcting.)
  • Get the finance team to sign off the application (this often happens after you’ve submitted the application electronically but still needs to occur within the application submission deadline). Allow more time during University holidays.

Check whether the application requires any additional documents to be submitted separately e.g. CV, letters of recommendation, letters from Head of Department etc.

If you’re unclear about anything, contact the funders (contact details will be on their website). This will not affect your application - it is in their interest to support good quality applications.

Below are the topics which typically feature in a Doctoral Fellowship application with points to consider:


Title of the application

  • Should be a concise summary of the whole project.
  • Should captivate.
  • Be aware that there’s often a word limit.

Proposed start date


  • When is the earliest the grant could possibly start (when will the funding decision be announced)?
  • Would you be in a position to start immediately? Would ethical approvals and samples/patient recruitment etc. be in place?
  • How would the project start date fit best with your training/exams (useful to discuss with your Educational Supervisor and TPD)?


This may or may not be required. You can apply online (register at


Your academic career aspirations

  • You are competing with the best academics from all specialities – sell yourself.
  • There is a word count so ensure sentences are content-rich and specific.
  • Your aspirations should be bold (e.g. Chair of Pathology) and show a realistic appreciation of how you intend to achieve them (e.g. PhD, Clinical Lectureship, Clinician Scientist Fellowship etc.)


  • Don’t worry if you don’t have many publications at this stage.
  • If permitted, include everything: published papers, submitted papers, educational articles.
  • If permitted, consider including details of your contribution to each paper and/or the skillset it demonstrates (e.g. case report versus systematic review versus lab research).
  • Use a reference manager to ensure consistent formatting. Highlight your name so that your position in the authorship list stands out.
  • Consider the best way to order your publications: most recent papers first or papers which are most relevant to your project first?


  • Don’t worry if you don’t have many grants at this stage.
  • If permitted, group grants into ‘current’, ‘previous’, ‘pending’:

    • Current/awarded grants demonstrate to funders that you are able to design a research project and convince a funder to support it.
    • Previous/completed grants demonstrate that you were able to manage a research project to completion.
    • Submitted/pending grants show that you are research active and industrious. Don’t forget to include grants from when you were at medical school.
  • Include details of:

    • the funder
    • the title of the grant and a brief description of the project
    • the list of co-applicants (highlighting your name and position within the list)
    • the start and end dates
    • the amount awarded
    • your role in the project
    • any output to-date

    Project & Place

    Justify the choice of project

    How a project is decided upon will vary. You may be joining an established group with a pre-determined project or you may work with your supervisor to design a project from scratch. Regardless, you should demonstrate:

    • Passion and enthusiasm for the project.
    • A detailed understanding of the project.
    • A commitment to the project. This is best demonstrated by initiating the project ahead of time e.g. engaging with a PPI group, applying for ethical approval, applying for RCPath and Deanery OOPR approval.
    • A belief in the project. The funders want reassurance that the project has a high likelihood of success – best evidenced by a comprehensive review of the literature and convincing pilot data.

    Justify whether you will undertake any clinical work during the PhD

    Decide whether you will undertake any clinical work during the PhD in discussion with your supervisor. On the one hand, clinical work might distract/detract from the PhD. On the other hand, some projects may benefit from maintained clinical skills.

    If you do decide to undertake some clinical duties during your PhD, check the funder’s requirements as there may be a maximum number of hours/week.

    Justify the choice of place

    You can make a case for moving to a new location and joining a new group or remaining with an established group on the basis of:

    • State of the art research facilities
    • Research expertise
    • Specific training
    • Supervision track record; ratio of Professors to trainees

    Avoid citing personal reasons.


    Justify the choice of supervisors

    The student / supervisor relationship is very important:

    • Explain how the supervisory team were chosen.
    • Explain the skillset which each supervisor will contribute.

    If the PhD will require additional skills beyond the expertise of the supervisory team, consider how you will access these skills (e.g. courses, collaborations).


    • There should be a clear plan about how supervision will be provided. Remember the PhD is a training Fellowship which should equip you with the skills to become more independent as a Clinical Lecturer.
    • Supervisors are usually extremely busy. Ask them if they’d like you to write a first draft of their section of the application which they can then edit/add to. Information about their CV / grants / publications can usually be found on their University webpage or contacting their secretary. Supervisors should select publications which highlight their track record in the project’s research area.
    • Supervisors should demonstrate a supervision track record but not be currently supervising so many PhD students that they won’t have adequate time to supervise you.
    • Allow sufficient time for your supervisors to edit their sections.
    • Check word counts and consider standardising the formatting across the different supervisors’ subsections.

    Research training

    • Include details of generic training offered by your department or University (ask current/previous PhD students for details).
    • Include academic-skills training delivered at the PathSoc National Academic Trainee Network meetings.
    • Check whether RCPath/PathSoc/BDIAP training courses will be useful (e.g. subject-specific study days, science communication training etc.)
    • Describe the specific training which will be delivered by your supervisors or collaborators. Consider whether you will need to attend specific formal training courses. Check who provides the courses, plan when you would undertake them and consider whether you need to cost for the courses in your budget.

    Letter of recommendation from supervisor or Head of Department

    • A letter of recommendation may be required. Check whether you need a separate letter from each supervisor or whether you can submit a combined one. Check whether you need ink signatures.
    • Ask your supervisor/ Head of Department in good time.
    • Supervisors and Heads of Department are usually extremely busy. Make things as easy as possible for them by supplying:

      • a Word template (with the Department’s address, logo and date)
      • a succinct summary of your key achievements and the project
      • an explanation of what specifically is required of them and by when (don’t expect them to always read the funder’s rules regarding this.)
    • If your supervisor is the Head of Department, you may need to ask someone to sign a letter of recommendation on their behalf (check whether this is the case and who this should be with the funder or your supervisor/University).
    • When emailing someone (e.g. a Head of Department) who you have never met, cc into the email their secretary and your supervisor.


    Research summary / abstract

    Put yourself in the reviewer’s shoes - they are likely to have to read multiple applications, so make yours stand out. Make it concise, clear, engaging and memorable.

    Lay summary

    There are often lay members on the application review and interview panels. They are particularly interested in what will be required of the study participants and the anticipated patient benefit.

    When designing the project, it is useful to involve members of a Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) group. Your University or Hospital R&D departments will usually hold their contact details.

    PPI groups may be able to contribute to/review the:

    • design of the research project
    • study documents e.g. questionnaires, consent forms, patient information leaflets etc.
    • ethical approval application
    • lay summary of your Fellowship application

    Contact them early in the process.

    You may be able to discuss the project via telephone/email. If you need to hold a meeting in person, consider applying for a small PPI-focused grant to cover expenses. If you haven’t involved a PPI group, ask non-medical friends/family to give feedback about the lay summary. Alternatively, explain the project to them and ask them to draft a lay summary based on their understanding. It is very important that you receive feedback from ‘lay’ people – we often use scientific/medical vocabulary without realising.

    Detailed description of the research project

    Follow the structure and sub-headings suggested by the funder. If a structure isn’t specified, consider covering:

    • background: what is the clinical need; what is the research gap; what is novel?
    • aims and objectives: what is the ultimate goal (aim) and what are the research questions which need to be answered in order to achieve it (objectives)
    • pilot work: this can have been performed by the group which you will be joining (demonstrates sound methodology) or by yourself (additionally demonstrates your engagement with the project and acquisition of some of the necessary skills)
    • study design and methodology: sample size will need to be justified (speak with a statistician); include contingency plans (ideally run sub-projects in parallel rather than sequentially so that the whole project is not dependent upon one set of experiments working)
    • anticipated results/clinical impact
    • training
    • timeline: useful to include a Gantt chart

    In an effort to meet the word/page limit, do not be tempted to make font too small, margins too tight or to use hyphens or abbreviations excessively. The project description needs to be easily readable.

    The reviewers may not be experts in your specific field of research - explain concepts clearly.


    The references that you select should demonstrate a sound knowledge of the literature. References should indicate the robustness of the chosen methodology, knowledge gaps, clinical need and achievability. Ideally the majority should be from journals with a high impact factor.

    • Your University may offer training in conducting a literature search or your University librarian may be able to help.
    • Use reference manager software rather than referencing by hand. This updates the order of your references as you make changes to your application and ensures a consistent referencing style. Your University may have a subscription and provide training, if not free reference managers are available e.g. Mendeley.
    • Follow the referencing style recommended by the funder. Check that all of your references are correctly formatted.

    Data management

    A data management plan requires you to demonstrate that you have systems in place to store samples and data securely in a way that is backed-up and auditable.


    • how data will be shared – this increases the impact potential of the research and allows subsequent meta-analysis. There may be an online repository which is suitable for your data.
    • whether any resources will be required to implement your data management plan – these may need to be included in the grant costings.
    • when you would share the data relative to publication and how you would anonymise it.

    Most departments will have an existing data management policy – ask to use it as a template for your own data management plan.

    Public engagement

    Consider the following:

    Explore whether your research group has any established public engagement activities / links which you could join at no extra cost.

    Build public engagement training and activities into your timeline and Gantt chart.


    Collaborators may provide:

    • samples
    • equipment
    • services
    • training
    • skills

    If the project depends upon a collaboration, demonstrate that the collaboration has been secured. You may need to provide a letter of agreement.

    It is useful to meet your collaborators to form a professional relationship and to gain insight into the logistics of the collaboration. This will help you to plan the project and speak about it with confidence at interview.

    Undertaking a secondment

    • Would it be beneficial to your project or your training to undertake part of your fellowship abroad. Check the funder’s website for rules and regulations.
    • Work abroad will need to be factored into your costing and timeline.

    Justification of resources

    • You may need to cost the consumables part of the grant yourself.
    • Contact the University finance team early. They will cost your salary, calculate FEC etc. and check this section of your grant. They may require details and scanned documents from you (e.g. payslips) or from your supervisors (e.g. number of hours/week they will spend on the project).
    • Check the funder’s website carefully as to what can and can’t be included in the costings. Every item should be carefully justified regarding cost and essentialness to the project.
    • It is important to get the costings right. You don’t want the project to be so expensive it is un-fundable (ideally it should offer ‘value for money’) but equally, you need to be able to deliver the project within the requested budget (as once the budget is approved, requests for further funding are usually not allowed).


    Include details of:

    • Approved ethics: this demonstrates your commitment to the project and reassures the reviewers that the project is ethically sound and that there is no risk of unforeseen delays pending ethical approval
    • Pending ethics: demonstrates your commitment to the project
    • Not yet submitted ethics: ideally explain why ethical approval has not yet been sought and aim to do this prior to the interview. Mention if similar projects have been granted ethical approval, as this may reassure the reviewers.
    • Any other approvals that you may need to access samples/clinical data etc.

    Animal research

    If your project will involve working with animals, get advice from your supervisor about how to plan for this. Things to consider include:

    • undertaking the necessary training and obtaining the necessary licenses in good time
    • justification of the project design and numbers required (statistical input is likely to be needed)
    • associated costs