Academic Toolkit - ACT!

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Pre-PhD preparation
Initial planning
Find a supervisor

Develop your research question

Start 1 year before funding application deadline and complete by 10 months before funding application deadline

Pin down the scope of your research.


At an early stage, it can often be difficult to identify a clear question.  Many of us come across “interesting ideas” in clinical practice but we don’t know how to turn these ideas into research questions.

Even if we do have a “light bulb moment”, it can still be difficult to formulate a question that is answerable within the constraints of time, money and other factors.  Here are some ideas about how to address that.

  1. Realise that patients (and their families) have probably been thinking about their problems longer than you have – ask them what they want to see done! You might find it easier to do this by working with a patient organization (particularly if your patient has a rare disease), or you can get a patient group together at a local level and listen carefully to what they say. (See PPI section.)
  2. Check out existing research prioritisation exercises such as those led by the James Lind Alliance.
  3. Have a question structure to work within – e.g. PICO
  4. Check if there are any systematic reviews or meta-analyses relevant to your area of interest - read them and see what has been identified as gaps or future research needs.
  5. Look at other sources to see what is already written about the subject and see if your idea is really novel, or whether it has already been done – check resources like to see if a relevant trial is registered
  6. Talk to your own network – do your peers like your idea?
  7. Talk to your educational supervisor – they may know about the subject, or know someone else who could give a more informed view.
  8. Consider whether it has support of relevant clinical groups (such as NIHR CRN Clinical Studies Groups (CSGs), local CSGs, parent groups) and relevant charities.
  9. Common pitfalls:
    1. Question that is too broad
    2. Question that will require too much time/funding to answer
    3. Question that does not have sufficient impact to impress funders
Plan for OOP and inform TPD
Find your collaborators
Investigate funders
Think about feasibility
Find a mentor
Approvals for clinical projects
Check whether your study is research
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