Policy, Research, and Internships – a Real World View

Published on: Author: Lauren Elise White

Organised by the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS), internships can offer a real insight in to the workings of government and the application of research. Two more PhD students at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, Lauren Elsie White and Karl Ferguson, recently spent three months with the Scottish Government. Both their internships focused on the Family Nurse Partnership (FNP) programme in Scotland in which specially trained nurses work with first-time teenage mothers to develop their parenting capacity and support them to make positive choices for themselves and their children. Lauren and Karl reflect on their experiences of working in government and undertaking an internship during their studies.

The Scottish Government building on Victoria Quay in Leith, Edinburgh, with a person visible in the main doorway. The building was officially opened in 1996.

PhD Pause – Lauren Elsie White
Every year the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) offers internships for PhD students to work at The Scottish Government. These internships aim to provide PhD students with the experience of working outside academia, as well as a break from their PhDs, and as these internships are highly sought after, and I was lucky enough to be accepted onto one last year.

From August to November 2017, I worked in the Directorate of Children and Families based at the Victoria Quay office. The department focuses specifically on the needs of children and families in Scotland, and covers health, social care, criminal justice as well as several other policy areas. I was working on the Family Nurse Partnership (FNP) intervention, and my project was to conduct a review of the outcomes measured in all the randomised-controlled trials examining this intervention that was available through the peer-reviewed journal articles. As the FNP is an early years intervention that aims to improve the social and health outcomes of young, first-time mothers and their babies, it became clear to me within a few days of beginning my internship, that FNP is a complex intervention with a long history and that any literature review was going to be tricky to complete in the three month timescale.

So, I had to get to know FNP quickly, and from there identify all associated literature. At the end of the three months, I produced a report that highlighted the measured outcomes as well as key areas for the department to examine further and presented this to the department. The project itself was extremely interesting, particularly when considering the complexities that exist around the intervention.

The Scottish Government is an interesting place to work. It is always busy, with lots of exciting projects going on. My line manager provided me with many opportunities to explore the different departments, one opportunity being to present on my own research to the Diet and Obesity team in the Health and Social Care Directorate. This experience was invaluable, as it not only allowed me to present to a non-academic audience but to also demonstrate already some form of impact (that all important word!) beyond my research unit and university. Being exposed to so many different parts of the government not only meant I had a wide-ranging experience during the internship, but also allowed me to see how my PhD research could be important to many different departments. This left me feeling pretty excited about going back to my PhD.

The staff at the Scottish Government were all very welcoming, and this really helped me to enjoy my time there. I am extremely grateful to my line manager, who was really accommodating and kind (especially as I was going through physiotherapy for an injury, and appointments were always during the day!). I was also grateful to be working alongside other PhD interns, which was a great support system to have while there. I would also like to take time to thank a particular colleague whose coffee knowledge knew no bounds and always was up for a good chat.

Lastly, I would just like to highlight why undertaking an internship during your PhD is a great opportunity. It allows you to explore different working environments, to see if academia is or is not for you. I found this to be extremely valuable. It also gives you a well-deserved break from your PhD.
Although I was somewhat still working away on my research during the internship, not having to focus on it full-time allowed me to gain some much-needed perspective. It meant that when I came back from the internship I was ready to get moving on with my fieldwork, and had also had time to reflect on the work done so far. This time away was invaluable. The internship is also great for your CV, as it demonstrates your ability to work in a different environment under different pressures (not a bad thing!). In a world that is increasingly competitive, this is a great item to have in your toolbox.

Lauren Elsie White is a 3rd year PhD student at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, with the Informing Healthy Public Policy, whose research focuses on the advertising of unhealthy food to children through digital channels and its regulation.

Reflections on an Internship in Government Research – Karl Ferguson
In order to develop swiftly as an early career researcher, I suspect it is important to experience research in different settings. This is why I found the idea of a short internship in government research so appealing. The application process was thorough without being off-putting and I was lucky enough to be able to relocate to Edinburgh for the duration of the project.

As part of a team working on the Family Nurse Partnership (FNP) I learned that the policy concern behind this intervention is the idea that parenting can be very challenging for young first-time mothers, and that assistance could benefit the mother and child. The intervention sees first-time mothers under the age of 20 and their new family unit assigned a family nurse, who visits regularly from pregnancy until the child’s second birthday. The mechanism of change is complicated but can be posited as the nurturing of a close relationship between the nurse and the mother which can then facilitate the development of positive parenting practices. In terms of outcomes of interest, FNP takes broad aim at child-based outcomes (such as physical, social and cognitive development; exposure to trauma; etc.) and maternal outcomes (including economic engagement; mental health; delayed second pregnancy; etc.).

Even without my interest in complex interventions, FNP is a fascinating programme with a long international history and has an exciting role in contemporary Scottish society where it has been operating for several years. However, like all complex interventions, evaluation is tricky business. As a solution, the Scottish Government has identified an opportunity to evaluate participants by treating them as something akin to a birth cohort – a source of longitudinal data which can be analysed from a lifecourse perspective to try and understand the lasting impacts of the programme on the mothers and their children.

And this is where I came in. My assignment for the duration of my placement was to generate a proposal outlining the practical, ethical, and analytical considerations involved in such an undertaking. My training up until this point has largely focused on what to do with data once it’s collected. As such, I found working on a project geared towards the earliest thinking on data collection to be a great learning experience – my understanding of ‘data’ grew in leaps and bounds in short time. The meat of the work was not dissimilar to a literature review – read; assess; apply; write.

However, government is a busy hive of activity with projects, deadlines, and pressures taking a very different form to those I’ve so far observed in academia. Which was great for me, as I had the opportunity to contribute to several other pieces of work. My favourite was taking part in a preliminary session on how the Scottish Government plans to evaluate the new Minimum Unit Pricing policy for alcohol when the legislation comes in. I am eternally grateful to my line manager for affording me several such opportunities.

On that note, it would be impossible (and pointless) to write about the internship without mentioning the people I worked alongside. There were multiple standouts, including another intern who works in a similar field to me and with whom I had multiple energetic discussions; a recently graduated PhD student who was starting their new position as a research scientist in government who was full of sage PhD wisdom; my line manager who encouraged me to be creative and kindly valued my input; and the men and women I played five-a-side football with who gave me my starkest lessons. I found the staff to be dedicated, highly qualified, and very welcoming.

One final point would be to address other PhD students thinking about doing an internship in government. In short – do it. It’s a rare and cathartic opportunity to complete a bite-size project (in comparison to a PhD) and you will learn valuable lessons not on the agenda at a university. Not to mention it looks great on the CV.

Karl D. Ferguson is a third year PhD student whose studies are part of the Complex Systems Science theme of the Complexity in Health Improvement research programme at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow. He recently completed a three month internship in the Scottish Government organised through the Scottish Graduate School of Social Sciences. Here he reflects on his experience working alongside government researchers.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the authors.

The MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit is funded by the Medical Research Council and the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Medical Research Council nor the Scottish Government.