Why all PhD students should do a policy placement

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I recently did a three month placement at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) and thoroughly enjoyed myself. But when I talk to other students, many seem somewhat disinterested in the idea of spending three months working in science policy.

The most common excuses I hear are:

  1. I don’t have time/ my supervisor doesn’t think I have time
  2. I don’t have the money
  3. I’m not really that interested in policy

When we talk a bit more, it’s obvious that mostly, these are pretty feeble excuses:

  1. Your PhD is extended by 3 months, so time is not really an issue. In addition, a lot of the placements are very flexible about when you start. In an extreme case, some people actually do the placement after they’ve submitted their thesis (although depending on the funder, you may have to do the placement before you’ve had your viva).
  2. Most of the organisations sponsoring placements extend your PhD stipend for an extra 3 months, and will pay reasonable travel and accommodation costs. The British Ecological Society (BES) Placement actually pays more than the average stipend: a whopping £5000 for the three month placement.
  3. You don’t have to want a job in policy to take an interest. Even in academia, researchers are increasingly required to demonstrate how their work influences the outside world. Case in point from the NERC grant application guidelines:

All researchers are required to submit a pathways to impact plan with their grant application

So, whether you’re excited by policy or cynical of the process, the placements are an excellent opportunity to see how scientists inform policymakers, and how policymakers interact with scientists. And you really shouldn’t be impacted financially, or in your PhD, if you plan your timing carefully with your institution and supervisor.

My experience

My placement at POST involved quite a lot of different things. First up was writing a POSTnote on Ancient Woodland. Not only was it a very different topic to my line of research, it was also a very different way of working: instead of spending all my time reading the literature and formulating my own argument, I spent a little time reading to identify some knowledgeable folk, and then picked their brains over an interview. Three reviews steps (and a lot of red biro marks) later and it’s published and (hopefully) informing parliamentary debates.

320px-Open_Access_logo_PLoS_white.svgOne of the interesting things I learnt while writing my POSTnote was the importance of publishing my work open access. The level of access to journals was far lower than I had expected (it was actually shocking) – I ended up using my academic access throughout my placement.

Secondly, I got the chance to organise an event on the National Pollinator Strategy. Despite vastly underestimating the number of people who would show up (amongst other issues on the day), it was a really good session. Although I am biased – not because I organised the event, but because my PhD is on pollinators so I got to hear some really interesting and relevant talks.

At POST, they’re very willing to let you take time off writing and organising to go to things that interest you. Like going to an All Party Parliamentary Group Meeting (kind of like BES special interest groups, but for MPs and Peers) on flood mitigation and dredging, and sitting in on a Select Committee Inquiry into the latest IPCC report. These all give you the chance to see how scientists interact with MPs and vice-versa – spotting what leads to an effective discussion and what causes everyone in the room to look away in horror as MP and scientist clash terribly.

Then there’s all the other stuff, like going on a tour of the Houses of Parliament and the Elizabeth Tower to see Big Ben, going to Prime Minister’s Questions, and having a drink in the Sport’s Bar in Parliament. There are definitely worse places to spend three months.

Other placements

My placement was at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, but there are plenty of other options too. Depending on who funds your placement, you could go to:

  • Scottish Parliament Information Centre
  • The Research Service (National Assembly Wales)
  • The Royal Society
  • The British Library
  • Centre for Science and Policy
  • Government Office for Science
  • Society of Biology

What you work on will depend on the institution, but could include writing reports, organising events, participating in an inquiry, running a workshop or any combination of the above!

Final thought

Don’t underestimate the boost that being away from your PhD for three months can actually give to your productivity! I absolutely love my PhD, but three months away made me even more enthused when I finally got back to it.

Apply

I can only really speak for POST, but I had a tremendously varied and enjoyable placement. My writing and communication skills have vastly improved, thanks to the really helpful critique that I received throughout from all those at POST, who come from a variety of scientific backgrounds.

If you are interested in doing a policy placement, you can apply through these organisations:

BBSRC, NERC & AHRC

British Ecological Society

Thank you!

A huge thank you to everyone at POST for making my placement so enjoyable. And thank you to BBSRC and Imperial College London for supporting my placement.

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4 responses to “Why all PhD students should do a policy placement

  1. Pingback: Advice for journal-publishing academic societies - Ross Mounce·

  2. Hi Adriana! Thanks for your post. For the last couple of years I’ve been desperately trying to get this placement but as of yet can’t even seem to get an interview!

    I was just wondering what advice you’d have for the application process?

    • Hi Stephen!
      I can only speak from my own experience applying for this placement and what I wrote in my application, but here are my thoughts:
      The application can be quite tricky as (unless things have changed) they don’t accept CVs. So you need to make sure all your relevant experience is in there. And it’s not just direct policy experience that’s important. If you have that, that’s great, but if not, don’t worry. The placements are all quite collaborative (whether you’re writing a POSTnote or organising an event). Have you worked with multiple authors on a paper? Do you work as a large collaborative group? Prove you can communicate with different audiences in different ways (do you present your science to the public? teach students? communicate in reports, with graphics, posters?). But don’t forget to mention why you actually want to do the placement. Prove that you’re interested in policy (do you do applied work?) and that you have the experience needed to succeed, but also explain why it the placement will help you in your career (whether that be in policy or academia).

      On the briefing, I think the most important thing is to write about a topic that is new to you. I chose a topic with very different literature than what I’m used to (social science and economics rather than ecology). Make sure you get someone from outside of science to read it – you want to make sure your writing is clear for not just a non-specialist, but a non-scientist. You can read my briefing here: https://figshare.com/articles/Women_in_STEM_an_untapped_resource/707323

      My briefing and application did get me an interview for the BES scheme and the NERC/BBSRC one, but that’s a small sample size and I have no idea how many people applied… I also didn’t get past the interview at BES! But I hope my comments help.

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