How to answer questions on the NHS scientist training programme application form

You'll face plenty of competition for a place on the NHS scientist training programme (STP). We give our tips for making a strong first impression when answering the application form questions.

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The NHS normally only allow scientist training programme applications for a month at the beginning of the year and it can be survival of the fittest. Thousands of applications are received for approximately 200–250 jobs on offer; this means that the application form is the crucial step in the hiring process. Use this guide to polish your answers and get ahead of the game.

Before you dive into the STP questions:

  • Type out your answers in a word processor and copy-paste to avoid the timeout feature (60 minutes) on the NHS application website.
  • This will also help when you get it checked by a family member or, even better, someone with a link to the profession who can help check for spelling, grammar and content.
  • Keep your answers concise, avoid unnecessary words and think to yourself – does this answer the question? You only have 200 words to play with and the website may measure by characters. Too much can be just as bad as too little.
  • Stay positive, it is estimated that 8,000 graduates apply every year for the 200-or-so positions. It’s common for graduates to try again and again. Just make sure that you come back with new experience or skills each time.

NHS STP application form question one: In no more than 200 words, please state why you have applied for the Healthcare Scientist Training Programme, outlining your motivation for the programme and what you plan to gain in terms of career development.

How to approach: Remember that the NHS is all about patient care. Without being so glib as to say ‘I just want to help people’, it should be clear in your answer that you have some compassion and empathy for patients and their circumstances. No need for sob stories to explain your reasoning – what the assessors want to know is whether you understand how a scientist actually helps patients, both directly and indirectly. This is a great opportunity to mention any lab experience you have or any placements with the NHS and what you liked about them.

Many students applying for the STP are keen to use the skills that they have learned at university. If you’re in this category, show them not only why you like the subjects, but also what you would like to be doing with this knowledge five or even ten years down the line. You may wish to explain why you have opted for the STP rather than the NHS management scheme. You could also compare the STP with graduate schemes at private science, research and development companies – why would you prefer to work in the public, rather than the private, sector? Another thing to consider is the actual structure of the STP in terms of rotations, professional qualifications and so on. How would you personally benefit from these? Do your research so you have a good idea of what the job and the professional qualification involves.

NHS STP application form question two: In no more than 200 words, please demonstrate your passion for science and/or technology and provide evidence about how you seek to implement constant improvement and innovation in your work/studies.

How to approach: Remember that every applicant is likely to have a scientific degree in some field. The areas of expertise you will be working in at the NHS are constantly evolving, so recruiters want to know that your interest is strong and that you will be willing to adapt to any changes.

Passion is a subjective term – think back to your first experiences of the subject. For example: many older physicists point to Carl Sagan as a childhood inspiration. Perhaps today it is Brian Cox or, in the field of medicine, Nobel Prize winners like Barry Marshall? Who or what first inspired you? Modules from your degree course are another good place to start. Presumably you have enjoyed some more than others – explain why. Was it because you felt some areas of science could achieve more than others?

You need to be self-analytical: do you prefer practical experiments or theories around treatments for diseases? Why do bacteria interest you more than organs? Why is understanding sleep apnoea so much more interesting than working out how to get the best out of an MRI machine (for example)?

Don’t forget to address the second part of the question. You will need to constantly observe and work out how treatments evolve and change with technology and breakthroughs. Read through journals that might be relevant to the specialism you’re going into and be sure to have the most important developments of the last few years lodged in your brain.

While at university, did you constantly try to improve your marks by identifying areas where you could improve your knowledge? What did you do outside the constraints of the university library to bring your marks up? Was there anything you discovered in the course of your theory or practical work at university that wasn’t in the textbooks? How did you deal with it? Did it prove to be a problem or a boon?

If you’ve undertaken a placement or a part-time job, think about any new practices you brought in to make your working day more efficient or a problem that you had to overcome to make the working day run smoother. How did you talk these matters over with your boss and get them implemented?

NHS STP application form question three: In no more than 200 words, please describe the two values which you consider to be the most important to deliver high quality, safe and effective healthcare services to people, and give a recent example of when you have displayed these values.

How to approach: This is a question that will catch people out, as many will answer in an overly-sentimental fashion. Though having sympathy for patients is important, no NHS employee can become so emotionally attached to an issue that they lose sight of the realities of what they can and can’t achieve. If you really want to hone your answer, the NHS keeps its seven core principles and values on its website which supposedly guide working practice. Refer to those and formulate an answer with your own insights.

The question is asking two things. The first, the two values, is looking to see that you understand the job and that your mind set will match the NHS’. If you read the question again: high-quality, safe, effective, healthcare and people are your keywords. You have two values to address so make sure one of them fits the patient care mandate of the NHS and common sense would suggest that some value centred on scientific diligence, competence or efficiency would complete the picture.

The second part is more direct. They want to see cold, hard experience – either in a workplace dealing with patients or demonstrating your diligence in a lab or equivalent. You may also have taken part in voluntary work or a practical final-year project that can help back up your values. However, if you’ve been on an NHS-accredited course, there’s a fair chance that you have already had some experience dealing with patients. Assuming that you have, when was the last time you helped a patient? And how did you check you were correct in providing help? What sort of steps did you take to make them feel comfortable?

If you’ve not worked yet, when did you last help someone with specialist knowledge that you possessed? And how did you make sure that knowledge was up to date? An example would be: helping a stranger fix their car thanks to an extracurricular car maintenance course you took. You can show how you worked to make the person comfortable, used your specialist knowledge, and confirmed that knowledge by reading a recent Haynes manual. Look at examples from your own life and decide how to use them.

NHS STP application form question four: In no more than 200 words demonstrate how you have worked as part of a team and outline the skills you used to influence the outputs of that team. Please summarise your achievements in order to demonstrate you are a high achieving individual.

How to approach: As a trainee healthcare scientist, you’ll need to be able to make others aware of your opinions, explain your research and experimental findings to those who may not understand the complexities involved, and ensure that targets are met. You’ll have done this in almost any team that you have been a part of – a study group, as a swimming coach, an intern in a bank – anything. You don’t need to have officially led a team to have had an influence on its output.

The tricky part is in summarising all of your achievements because these are subjective to the individual. What you consider a personal achievement may not come across that way on paper, so it’s important that you write your answer in a way that makes things clear. It could be something as complex as achieving an almost unattainable sales volume of a product or something more simple, such as developing a personal skill or learning something new that you found complicated.

Don’t allow your answers to revolve solely around academia. A strong academic record is impressive, but it’s good to give examples from other areas of your life. Helping someone achieve something they might not have thought possible – something that may well arise in a role involving therapies for sleep disorders or physical disabilities for example – could be a strong example of ‘high’ achievement.

NHS STP application form question five: In no more than 200 words, tell us what actions you have undertaken to increase your knowledge of healthcare science and to find out more about the training scheme?

How to approach: This is a good opportunity to show your research skills – what extra sources have you used aside from the NHS website and TARGETjobs? Have you spoken with current STP trainees or NHS professionals? Has this led you to investigate different specialisms with your university lecturers for example?

The key here is not necessarily to be wildly different, but to illustrate that you have gone further than the majority of other applicants by seeking out more information. The question is fairly ambiguous in mentioning healthcare science, so any knowledge, experience or research, even outside the NHS would be valuable. However, given that the NHS accounts for the majority of healthcare in the country, speaking with NHS scientists is a logical way of getting more knowledge; failing that, showing that you have put time into researching different specialisms before making a definite choice will show that you have thought about the role you wish to apply for, both in the immediate future and in considering where that path will take you in the longer term.

Do remember that action is the keyword here. Checking the internet is not the most pragmatic thing you can do. Visiting hospitals, clinics, conferences, conventions or an NHS public outreach event is a bit more hands-on and shows that you’re keen. Try to find events that are relevant to your field.

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