How I found the Topol Digital Fellowship and tips for your application

Published on 10 November 2022, by Simon Underwood

Learning and development, Fellowships and scholarships, NHS Digital Academy

The clocks have gone back, bonfires have been lit, and in shops across the country seasonal decorations have swapped from Halloween to Christmas. It can only mean one thing: it’s the time of the year when the Topol Digital Fellowship opens to applicants.

Only a year ago I was writing and rewriting my application, researching my chosen problem, and building support locally from those currently impacted by it and those who could influence its resolution. After an unnecessary number of proofreads I submitted it, hopeful but unsure of my chances. I then received an invitation to interview and although excited, was a little nervous as to how intense it may be. The interview was with a member of the programme team and a previous Topol Fellow, and it soon became clear my concerns were completely unfounded. The interviewers were extremely supportive with a genuine interest in not only hearing about your problem or vision, but about you as an individual, enabling and encouraging you to communicate your passion.

Fast forward to just over halfway through my Fellowship and I cannot recommend applying enough. Benefits such as the real-world application and upskilling of Agile methods, thought-provoking learning at lunch presentations from leaders in their field, and the creation of a community of digitally minded Fellows from different backgrounds, mean it is not only great for your development, but also a lot of fun. My Fellowship has involved working with an external company to develop software, locally improving digital literacy, working on automation solutions, and redesigning services. The concepts and tools provided by the Fellowship have enhanced every project and the focus on human centred design made it far more rewarding.

Tips for potential applicants

I found some notes and quotes from Topol Digital Fellowship webinars and presentations that I attended prior to submitting my application and thought the themes and concepts they covered could be useful to others when writing an application.

The first was that it’s more important to understand the problem than the solution. Try to establish the real world impact the problem is having at every step and every level, and why resolving it is a priority. Research what has or hasn’t been trialled already, what the lessons learnt were, or what guidance resulted. Start talking to those who would be involved or supporting you if your application is successful to get their perspective and show that your organisation is ready to assist you.  That’s not to say you shouldn’t be considering solutions and how they sit within the Topol Review, but just that the Fellowship itself will work with you directly on discovery and redesign, so you don’t need to have a polished solution but you do need to understand the problem.

The second was that no concept was too big or project too small. This means you don’t have to be transforming an entire profession or Integrated Care System with your Fellowship project, but that it should be considered a steppingstone that if successful creates a useful blueprint for others to follow, consider scaling, or apply to a different field. In that sense it is not necessarily what your project is, but what it could be.

The last is that you are just as important as the project. Once the Fellowship has been completed how will you continue to apply what you have learnt and assist in delivering a digital future for the NHS.

If you’re interested in applying to Cohort 4 of the Topol Digital Fellowship, join one of the drop in sessions to hear from current Fellows and the programme team and ask any questions, or watching a recording of the recruitment presentation .

SU Picture of Simon Underwood.

Simon Underwood

Clinical Informatics Pharmacist

University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust


Simon is a Clinical Informatics Pharmacist at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust and is currently enrolled on the Topol Digital Fellowship. His informatics role achieves quality improvement through implementation and development of digital solutions within the NHS, and the generation of actionable insights from data. Simon's fellowship project is focussed on utilising human centred design for the digitisation of an aseptic unit.

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