From January to June 2021, Ellen and Amy worked as Welsh Government Education Policy Research Interns. In this blogpost, they share their experiences of undertaking internships as part of their doctoral training.
Why did you apply for an internship with the Welsh Government?
Ellen: As was the case for everyone, Covid really disrupted my PhD research plans and changed the scope and aims of my project. The networking opportunities we all thought we would have, the chances to meet and work with new people, and opportunities to develop research skills through seminars, conferences etc. changed very quickly. I saw the advert for this internship on the DTP website and realised that this could be an opportunity to regain some of those changed experiences. The placement also aligned closely with my PhD research, but offered the opportunity to work in a slightly different discipline and in a new environment that I was keen to learn more about. Prior to my PhD, I worked as a practitioner in schools in England and I’ve always been interested in education policy and policy research. This seemed like a great chance to learn more. My supervisors were really supportive of my application which fortunately, was successful!
Amy: I had not previously considered taking a break from my PhD but when the Government Education Policy Research Internship advert pinged into my inbox it sparked my interest. Much like most postgraduate research students, the pandemic has caused disruptions to my research and has meant a year or so of working at home alone. The advert offered an opportunity to gain an experience of working within the public sector, within the field of education and networking with experts and decision makers within the field. Also, the internship offered an opportunity to connect and work with others (which was a nice break from working alone on my PhD), develop my research skills and I thought it would look good on my CV moving forward. A friend who had previously undergone a Welsh Government Internship and my supervisors supported my application and fortunately I was successful!
What did your role at the internship involve?
Ellen: My primary role at the internship was to write two evidence reviews that informed the National Strategy for Education Research and Enquiry in Wales. To do this, I worked closely with my internship supervisor, Professor David Egan, who provided me with assignment briefs which laid out the topics and evidence that required investigation. For the first of my assignments, I produced a review on developing a research-informed education profession in Wales. Taking an international case study approach, I conducted systematic literature searches and had discussions with education professionals, stakeholders, researchers and academics from Wales, other parts of the UK, Canada, Estonia, Finland, New Zealand and Singapore. For my second assignment, I explored the impact of professional learning on practitioners, pupils and school improvement. For this assignment, I conducted another systematic literature review and had discussions with education professionals and stakeholders, and also discussions with professionals from other sectors, such as Medicine, Social Care and Law.
My role also involved taking part in lots of team discussions, one-to-one supervisory meetings and professional collaborative network meetings. I worked closely with my supervisor, line manager and the other interns in the team to understand how to turn my research findings into a comprehensive, but accessible policy-style reports that will be used to inform the National Strategy. I also presented my findings to policy advisors, education professionals and key stakeholders.
The advert for the internship clearly outlined the aims and responsibilities of the internship. The primary purpose of the internship was to conduct two evidence reviews titled:
- Developing Educational Research Capacity and Volume in Higher Education: A Review of Evidence From Selected Case-Study Countries.
- School and Community Response to Lockdown in Wales: Mitigating the Harms of School Closures on Children and Young People.
The first evidence review was written to support the development of the National Strategy for Education Research and Enquiry in Wales. The evidence review adopted a geographical case study approach whereby six country case studies were produced, and an in-depth analysis of the development of each country’s higher educational institutions educational research capacity was conducted. This involved a systematic review of literature focused on how higher education research volume and capacity was developed and supported in each country. Subsequently, informal interviews were held with at least one stakeholder from each case study country. These interviews acted as a validation exercise and as an opportunity to explore the educational research capacity initiatives and strategies adopted by the participants home HEI’s.
The second evidence review investigated the harms of school closures on children and young people in Wales during the COVID-19 pandemic. The review produced a national-level case study and eight individual school-level case studies following interviews with school head teachers and deputy head teachers from across Wales. The evidence review provides evidence to support the effectiveness of multi-agency working and promotes community schools.
Whilst the posts were advertised as 3-month posts, there was the opportunity to extend the post to 6 months meaning 3 months were spent on each evidence review. There was a great amount of autonomy in relation to taking the research in a direction of focus, however seniors would offer support and guidance when necessary. In terms or networking, the internship provided opportunities to attend meetings and forums with policy makers and researchers within the civil service as well as within academia.
Did the internship help develop your research skills?
Ellen: Yes! I learnt so much at the internship that has helped me develop my research skills. Specifically, I think my ability to synthesise large volumes of literature and assess what is really relevant and necessary to my main research aims has really improved. I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and/or a bit lost when trying to find and decipher what is important in literature searches and reviews of evidence. My internship experience has made me feel more confident in making decisions about what to use when and also has helped develop my organisation skills when doing this. Pre-internship, I had folders here there and everywhere of ‘things to read’, ‘this is important’, ‘read me!’. Having to work quickly to such focused goals has taught me how to read and record things more efficiently, and also to be more confident in turning the ‘read pile’ into the ‘written pile’. The internship also helped me to reflect and think more critically about information I’m reading or discussions I’ve had, and write in a more succinct and accessible manner.
Amy: Definitely! For the evidence reviews I conducted a total of 21 interviews with stakeholders from a range of different fields including, education, health and social care, academia, public services and policy. This supported the further development of my interview skills and analysis of qualitative data. The internship also involved the rapid reviewing of evidence and the synthesis of large amounts of literature. This is something I have always found a challenge but due to the timescale of the projects it was fundamental to synthesise and process large amounts of literature rapidly. Also, the style of writing for policy is different to the style of writing in academia and it was really enjoyable to write in a manner that felt more accessible and concise.
Do you think your experiences at the internship will influence your PhD research?
Ellen: The things I’ve learnt at the internship will definitely influence how I approach my PhD, but also aspects of the research topic itself, too. Although primarily a linguistic study, my PhD research is schools-based and speaking to so many practitioners and professionals from across Wales has made me think about how certain practical aspects of my data collection will work. I will also reflect on my initial plans for data analysis, as findings from the evidence reviews and discussions have made me reconsider the tools I may use to analyse my data. Some of the literature I’ve read as part of this experience will also definitely influence my research going forwards. On a more practical level, this internship has also made me think about how I might disseminate findings from my research, how I consider and discuss the concept of ‘impact’ in my own research, and my position as a researcher within the education community. I’m now really looking forward to getting back to my PhD and thinking about how all these things may work in practice.
Amy: Yes! In terms of the practical side of things, the internship has really helped me to develop the speed at which I can synthesise literature and evidence and this is something that is going to be of massive help now I return to my PhD. Also, in relation to the content of the projects the second project around the harms of school closures on children and young people is closely aligned with my research interest. The literature review that I conducted for the evidence national case study kind of acted as a scoping review for my PhD research and will inform the literature I search for in relation to my PhD literature review. To reiterate what Ellen said, there was also opportunities to disseminate our research findings to those in the Welsh Government. This is something I have limited experience of, and it was a great learning and confidence boosting opportunity.
What advice would you have for anyone considering an internship as part of their doctoral training?
Ellen: Go for it! It’s a challenging experience, but one you will learn lots of new skills from. It can feel daunting to apply, but it’s a really friendly and accessible process. It’s also a great opportunity to meet and work with new people and gain experience in something different. I really enjoyed the whole experience and would encourage anyone to apply!
Amy: As Ellen says, go for it! It is a fantastic opportunity to work with a great team on research that may have an impact on policy. There is the potential to develop lots of new skills, there are networking opportunities, and all round it is a great career development opportunity. Most importantly for me, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and one I would highly recommend. There are currently 3 internships advertised so go ahead and apply!
Adverts for all current Wales DTP internships can be found here: https://walesdtp.ac.uk/events/welsh-government-internship-opportunities/
Ellen Bristow is PhD researcher on the Wales DTP’s Linguistics pathway. Based in Cardiff University’s Centre for Language and Communication Research, Ellen’s doctoral project explores whether explicit teaching of word parts, word history and vocabulary decoding skill could influence pupils’ ability to comprehend complex academic vocabulary at the transition from primary to secondary school.
You can view Ellen’s ESRC Wales DTP Profile here.
Amy Simpson is a PhD researcher on the Wales DTP’s Education pathway based in the Centre for Development, Evaluation, Complexity and Implementation in Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer) within the School of Social Sciences. Amy’s research has utilised the Welsh Government funded ‘Food and Fun’ School Holiday Enrichment Programme as a case study and is primarily interested in parental involvement in schooling and parental engagement in learning. As a Welsh Government Education Policy Research Intern, Amy wrote two evidence reviews which informed the National Strategy for Education Research and Enquiry in Wales.
You can view Amy’s ESRC Wales DTP Profile here.