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Academic clinical fellows

Academic clinical fellows

Academic clinical fellows

Academic Clinical Fellow (ACF) posts are designed for medically qualified individuals who demonstrate outstanding potential for a career in academic medicine. These posts enable doctors to perform both academic and clinical training, with both components being fully integrated. These positions allow trainees to gain experience in research, to develop their own research projects ideas, and to write applications for subsequent PhD training positions.

The ACF programme lasts for a maximum of 3 years (4 years for General Practice trainees). ACFs spend 75% of their time undertaking clinical training and the remaining 25% of their time is protected for research activities. Depending on the specialty, ACFs can begin anywhere between ST1 and ST4. Part time trainees are welcomed, and research time remains available in the same proportion (25%) but offered pro rata and for a longer, equivalent training period, depending on hours worked.

Importantly, both the clinical and academic components of ACFs training are funded (usually) by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR). Since the funding of ACF posts is separate from funding for more usual clinical training posts, this means that academic time can be protected, even when clinical services are under considerable stresses. So clinical academic trainees can expect to have regular research time, and not to lose this due to the demands of clinical services, except in truly extraordinary circumstances. Whilst patient safety remain a core priority for all doctors in clinical practice, these posts recognise the importance of research and research training in the economy of the NHS.

ACFs are employed by the NHS and enjoy all of the same employment rights as their clinical training colleagues. However, ACFs also hold an honorary contract with the University of Exeter which provides access to the University’s resources (library, laboratory space, IT support etc).

Frequently asked questions about clinical academic careers

1) Q. Do I have to do the mandatory modules in my first year as ACF? 

A. Not necessarily. If you are part time it is acceptable to spread the modules over 2 years. 

 If as an ACF trainee you want to split the core modules in two years it is strongly recommend that

In the first year you do: 

  • Fundamentals of Research Design HPDM092 and 
  • Systematic Reviews for Policy and Practice HPDM093 

In the second year: 

  • Statistics as Applied to Health HPDM054 and 
  • An optional module 

 2) Q.   What is the situation if I want to opt to do other “mandatory units from CMH” because I have done the ones  recommended.  Does the college pay for them? 

A:  Yes, as long as it is research training that is being provided (not leadership, management, education etc), it is relevant to your ACF post and it is no more than 60 credits (4x15 credit modules). You need to discuss this with your supervisor and to think about your research methods training needs.

If you decide that you have already covered the research methods training included in some or all of the mandatory modules, you should email Chris Dickens as the IAT lead (, providing details of previous research methods training you have completed and listing the alternate modules that you and your academic supervisor consider will better meet your training needs.


3) Q: For ACFs, will the medical school fund masters modules provided by colleges outside the Exeter Medical School as alternatives to the funded modules from the Masters in Health Research methods. 

  A: No. The medical school will consider funding alternative modules to those offered as standard if the trainee can make the case that the content of the proposed modules from the Masters in Health Research methods has already been covered by previous training. However, alternative modules need to be on the topic of research methods and need to be available from Masters programmes already on offer within the medical school. 

Academic training

As an ACF you can expect:

Each ACF is expected to attend masters level modules from Exeter’s Masters in Health Research Methods, usually in their first and / or second year covering basic research methods.

These modules are funded by the medical school and funding is not taken from trainees training budget or travel bursary (see below for more details). At the time of writing, we are the only University to offer additional funding for such Master level research methods training.

Modules are entitled: Fundamentals of Research Design; Systematic reviews for Policy and Practice; Statistics as Applied to Health; Qualitative methods and process evaluation. These modules, when completed successfully, entitle trainees to a Postgraduate Certificate in Health Research Methods. All trainees are strongly encouraged to take further modules to achieve the full Masters, for which some funding can be taken from the training budget provided by the NIHR

Whilst the modules listed are the ones most commonly chosen by trainees, it is important to note that this training is flexible and can be modified to best meet the training needs of the individual. Trainees with extensive previous research methods training, that covers topic listed above, may wish to choose from other Masters level modules available from the University.

All ACFs are required to have an experienced researcher as their academic supervisor. Some trainees know who this might be, from reading about the University and possibly visiting before they are appointed.

Some trainees need help finding a suitable supervisor, and the Integrated Academic Training (IAT) team are happy to help new trainees find an academic supervisor. Trainees are expected to meet regularly and frequently with their academic supervisors, and some more formal meetings are expected to provide information on academic progress that feeds into the usual ARCP process

Throughout their time, ACFs are encouraged to gain experience in a wide range of relevant research, to gain understanding in the choice of research methods and the implications of these choices. The aim of this is to quickly gain research experience, to help develop more of a focus on the types of research questions that interest the trainee and which might form the basis of further personal study. By second year, ACFs are expected to be developing research ideas themselves and to be engaging on small projects of their own, under the guidance of their academic supervisor, that will lead to publications and presentations at key meetings.

Currently Exeter hosts 2 mandatory meetings per year, which allow clinical academic trainees to meet each other, to undergo required training (induction etc) and to have the opportunities to present and discuss their research. Trainees are strongly encouraged to join our active peer network, which includes ACFs and ACLs in all years of their training. This provides an important resource for advice and support.

ACF posts are designed to equip clinical academic trainees with the skills to develop an application for a PhD fellowship for the next step in their clinical academic career following on from their ACF post. Whilst not all trainees decide to study for a subsequent PhD, those wanting to remain on the clinical academic career pathway are energetically supported to write an excellent PhD fellowship proposal during their time as ACF.

How to apply

ACF posts are secured via a competitive interview process, which is managed by Health Education England South West, via the NHS Oriel system. It is a definite advantage for trainees to demonstrate evidence of previous research activity, such as engagement in research, writing of research publications, presenting research at meetings.

Training allowance

All ACFs have

  • £4500 allowance over their 3 years training (4 years for GPs) to attend courses relevant to their training needs (for example, additional Masters level modules that can contribute to the full Master degree)
  • £1000 per year to attend conferences, meetings, travel etc

For further information

Professor Chris Dickens is the Integrated Academic training lead for ACFs and ACLs in Exeter and is happy to address further queries about these posts.