Undertaking a POST Policy Internship During Your PhD

Robert Mann is a PhD candidate based in the Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre (CHERC), University of Exeter. His research is investigating the typical training practices and injury risk-factors associated with adolescent distance runners. This research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and is in collaboration with England Athletics.  

I have recently completed a three-month fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), as part of my PhD. This opportunity was made available through the UK Research and Innovation policy internship scheme, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council.

POST is Parliament’s in-house source of independent, balanced and accessible analysis of public-policy issues related to science and technology. As a bicameral office, POST works on behalf of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Having been founded in 1989, POST largely focuses on writing four-page briefings, known as POSTnotes. These briefings are impartial, non-partisan, and peer reviewed. During my fellowship, I was tasked with writing a POSTnote on the topic of ‘non-custodial sentences’.

As my POSTnote is unlikely to be published soon, largely due to the General Election, I thought that I would attempt to convey three reasons why you should consider applying to undertake a fellowship at POST during your PhD:

  • You will be forced out of your comfort zone: The process of writing a POSTnote is challenging, in the best possible way. Within three-months, you are required to scope the literature; contact and arrange interviews with topic experts (including academics, third sector organisations and Government departments), condense this information into a POSTnote, before amending this work according to internal and external review comments. The difficult part of this is that your POSTnote topic does not always relate to your PhD research. Therefore, you are required to learn about a new topic and work at a pace that allows you to maintain balance and accuracy in your written work, without feeling too much like an impostor. Although this task can seem somewhat unsurmountable, it reinforces good practice for your PhD work, such as being able to manage a demanding workload and assessing the merits of research evidence.
  • You get to work on behalf of Parliament: One of the more obvious reasons to apply for a Fellowship at POST is the opportunity to work on behalf of Parliament. In the first few weeks this will be represented by your unique position of being able to watch political debate, quench your thirst at one of the Palace of Westminster bars, and start playing a game of MP “I Spy”. Most POST Fellows try to arrange a meeting with their local MP during their time in Westminster too. As shown in the photo, I was able to meet Ben Bradshaw (MP for Exeter) at Portcullis House.

Alongside this access, working on behalf of Parliament comes with the responsibility of making sure that the POSTnote is fully representative of the given topic area. As the initial target audience of a POSTnote is MPs and Peers, you need to be confident that the experts that were interviewed largely support the final document and agree that it as an accurate portrayal of the topic area. Much like having to respond to reviewer comments when submitting a journal article, the POSTnote is subject to peer-review from the majority of these experts. Therefore, amending the POSTnote according to this review process is the most demanding elements of the Fellowship. Regardless, it definitely improves the final output and develops your ability to maintain an impartial writing style.

  • Your output sits at the interface between research and policy: As a PhD student, it is typical to become academically pigeonholed. After three or four years of very specific research, you hope to come out the other side of the process with research that can be used to inform policy and develop other types of research impact. On the contrary, undertaking a Fellowship at POST allows you to work directly at the interface between research and policy. The output of which – the POSTnote – is used to inform political debate around the topic, potentially leading to policy changes. Due to the way that topics are chosen by POST (i.e. decided by a committee that includes members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords), the work that you conduct will always be of current interest to MPs and Peers. This can either be in response to certain events, such as the recent rise in knife crime, or more of a ‘horizon scanning’ activity, such as identifying the potential challenges of an increased use of wind power in the UK. This puts you in a unique position and one that teaches you a lot about how Parliament and Government uses research to influence its policy agenda. In turn, this experience can be used to develop your own knowledge about how to best use your PhD research to inform the research-policy interface.

I hope that these points have given some insight into my time at POST and encourage you to apply too. While my time at POST was demanding, it was also nothing but rewarding. If you are considering applying yourself, don’t hesitate to get in contact with me.

Please Note: This post was originally posted on the SWDTP website.

Written by: Robert Mann

Credit: SWDTP