Feedback on applications to the 2023 round of the Multiple PhD Studentship scheme

We recently let applicants to our Multiple PhD Studentship scheme – to which we received many high-quality submissions – know of the outcome of their applications. The overall success rate was 47%. Owing to the number of applications received, it is not possible to provide detailed feedback on individual applications, however, themes that distinguished the applications that were funded and areas that could have been improved upon are listed below. We hope that this will prove useful in strengthening applications for future rounds of this scheme.

  • A cohort approach – We appreciated applications that gave a sense that the students would form a supportive cohort which would maintain a close relationship throughout the duration of their studies, rather than the award being used to fund a number of separate PhD students/projects. It was encouraging to see that students would train together, either as part of their projects or through other activities such as organising outreach events. Relatedly, applicants that demonstrated experience of running similar PhD programmes and/or included bespoke cohort-specific training activities stood out. Outstanding applications also emphasised how the proposed cohort would fit within their institution’s current and/or future strategic commitment to ageing-related research.
  • Track record of PhD completion – In general, not enough detail was provided for this element of the application. Ideally, we would like to have seen details of:
    • How many students the Department/Centre/School has hosted over the past 5 years.
    • How many of these completed their studies.
    • Details of ageing-related projects.

In particular, it was not always clear whether it was the Department/Centre/School being referred to when student numbers were quoted. We appreciate that it may not always be possible to acquire this data, however, where this may have been the case, it was often not clearly stated. In addition, if the DMT have supported cohorts within the same institution and/or on similar themes, we ideally would have expected these to be referenced and how the current proposal complements these on-going PhD programmes. The guidelines provided links to the previous awards made during the 2020 and 2022 rounds of the Multiple PhD Studentship scheme.

  • Research culture – When describing the research culture, a number of applications focussed on institutional policies which affect academic staff. While this is important, it was also key to demonstrate what the environment is like for students specifically.
  • Student selection – Applications that stood-out included elements such as independent oversight, the inclusion of PPIE representatives, informational webinars, and providing feedback to unsuccessful candidates.
  • Supervisor/project selection – This element was not always so well-addressed. We were looking for a description of how the supervisors/projects were/will be chosen, i.e. a description of the process that was/will be followed, who was/will be involved in the selection, what the criteria were/will be. Ideally, we wanted a demonstration that the process was/will be open and inclusive, including to any early career post-doctoral researchers who wished to be part of the supervisory teams, where appropriate. If specific themes/projects were proposed, applications which explained the importance of the topic area and what is already known about it also stood out.
  • Career development and training – Although the provision for training was typically well-described, we found that for many applications, this element was limited to generic graduate school training which should be provided to all post-graduate students. As mentioned above, applications that stood out provided for cohort-specific training/career development opportunities outside of this and included related funds in the budget.
  • The risk register – In general the consideration of risk included an overview of the risks related to:
    • Students/staff
    • Cohort management
    • Finances/resource
    • Individual projects
    • Data management/IP

However, the mitigation of risks was not so well-addressed and was often very project specific. Ideally, we would have liked to have understood 1) the procedures/structures that are in place to reduce the likelihood that the risk will come to pass and 2) a plan of what will take place should the risk come to pass. For example, many identified that student illness/withdrawal was a significant risk, but very few applications included a description of what they would do in this situation.

  • Timelines – In general, the Gantt charts provided a good level of detail regarding the period between the grant offer and the start of the projects.
  • Patient, carer, and public involvement and engagement (PPIE) – As well as considering how PPIE would be involved throughout the student’s activities, applications which had completed some PPIE activity prior to application and demonstrated how this had contributed to the proposal’s development stood out. It was encouraging to see that some proposals referenced the UK Standards for Public Involvement, which is a useful resource.
  • Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) – EDI needs to be considered in all elements of the proposal, not just in staffing and recruitment. For example, how will EDI be considered within the research projects? Or if projects have not yet been selected, what structures are in place to ensure that this is a consideration in the project selection process? A consideration of EDI principles in laboratory studies is also expected, for example, applications could include reference to the sex of the tissues/cells to be studied etc.
  • Dissemination and impact – Often, the potential impact of the projects was identified, but there was insufficient detail on how students would be supported to set themselves on the pathway to achieving impact. This section should focus on the students’ activities rather than the projects or the Department/Centre/School’s previous accomplishments.
  • Funding – For each specific activity proposed within the application form, it is important that appropriate funding is allocated in the budget table. For example, if a specific training course is proposed, it should be clear from the budget table that the relevant funds have been included and where the funds are coming from. In particular, this section of the application form could have been used to emphasise the institution’s clear strategic commitment to ageing-related research in terms of funding and support. Furthermore, and as stated in the guidelines, overheads should not be included as part of the budget. Institutions receive a contribution to overhead via the Charities Research Support Fund.
  • For all sections of the application Try to avoid aspirational claims without supporting detail. We want to know what you plan to do, how you will do it, who will be involved, what has already been done, what is the proposed timeline etc. In a few instances we also noticed the use of the term “elderly”. Whilst we didn’t factor this into our assessment, we thought it would be helpful to highlight this and signpost to some useful guidance – in particular,  the Centre for Ageing Better’s Age-friendly communication principles advocates for the use of “older person” instead of “elderly”. Finally, we provide generic feedback for many of our schemes, including a previous round of the Multiple PhD Studentship scheme. As stated in the guidelines, prospective applicants should always look at this feedback to help them develop their future applications.  

We appreciate the time and effort put into developing each application and wish those that were unsuccessful the very best for the future rounds of this scheme.