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

How To Stop Putting Tasks Off

Sarah Lane is an Integrative Counsellor and Mindfulness Facilitator based in the Wellbeing Centre

It’s very natural to put off important tasks in favour of other activities which may seem more interesting or enjoyable. In fact, research suggests that approximately 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators and 75-95% of university students procrastinate. Sometimes this is a conscious decision but it can also become a habit. It will often lead to negative consequences and can wrongly be mistaken for laziness. However, there are some simple things you can do to address procrastination:

  1. Find your optimum time and place to work. Choose your most productive, energised or creative time of day for challenging tasks. Also consider in which environments you achieve the most and are least distracted.
  2. You probably already use “To Do” lists but it’s worth considering a couple of extra points about them. How realistic are you being about the number of tasks you hope to achieve in a particular time frame? If we constantly feel that we are not achieving everything we have intended to, this can leave us feeling demoralised, stressed and unmotivated. It’s better to feel satisfied for having been able to complete a shorter list for the day. If your initial list doesn’t seem realistic, decide which tasks can be postponed for a later date. It’s also helpful to prioritise the activities according to what is most important and urgent.
  3. Break tasks down into all the little steps involved in their completion to make large tasks seem less overwhelming and small tasks seem more straightforward. Having smaller tasks also means you can complete them much quicker so you won’t need to wait until you have large spaces of time to do them.
  4. Schedule tasks by keeping a detailed diary. Enter in existing commitments and usual routine. Fit “chunks” of tasks that need to be completed around these activities.
  5. Plan rewards and time for enjoying yourself. Often activities which we could use to reward ourselves (e.g. socialising) are the same things that distract us and cause us to procrastinate in the first place. The more you plan regular rewards for your achievements, the less you will feel like you are missing out in the meantime. Allowing these rewards to be guilt-free by having them planned and fitting them around work that needs doing is critical. Rewards, leisure and pleasure help to replenish energy.
  6. Consider different ways of ordering tasks. You could start with the worst first which is particularly good for small but dreaded tasks. The alternative is to use momentum and start by doing a task that you enjoy which energises you and then, without a break, quickly switch to a task that you have been putting off.
  7. Setting time limits for how long you will spend on a task can be really beneficial. A technique a lot of students find helpful is the “Just 5 minutes” principle where you initially commit to doing the task just for this length of time to get you started. Then once you are underway, you might feel like doing 5 minutes more and you can continue building up in this way. The other alternative is to set a specific time period to work on a task and then stop. Be realistic about how long this should be, bearing in my mind your concentration levels at the time.
  8. It can be helpful to start measuring time. People who procrastinate often underestimate how long a task will take and therefore do not allocate enough time for it, or overestimate which puts them off doing it. If you think either of these happens for you, then it’s worth practising estimating how long you think tasks will take. Next time and record how long they actually take for future reference.
  9. Follow the “remember then do” principle. For small irritating tasks that often get forgotten, do them as soon as you think of them.
  10. Visualise yourself doing the task. Bring a very vivid picture into your mind. Notice any obstacles arising which block you doing the task, and imagine successfully overcoming these to complete the task. Focus on the positive feelings of having achieved the task. Use the momentum from the visualisation to start the task in reality.
  11. If you feel unsettled when attempting to start a task, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Breathe from your belly rather than your chest. Try to lengthen each in and out breath, slowing down your breathing to steady it. Spend 5-10 minutes focusing on your breath then return to the task. Come back to focusing on the breath again if the unsettled feelings recur.

Written by: Sarah Lane

If you would like to learn more about how to tackle procrastination, then you can read our full booklet on the Wellbeing section of the website or book onto the one-off workshop “How to Just DO IT!”