Rowena Bermingham is a PhD student from the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge. Her research looks at British Sign Language and asks whether signers differ when describing events and if this affects their memory for events.
Rowena completed a POST Fellowship in June 2016 on the topic ‘Integrating health and social care’, and here she explains what a POST Fellowship involves. The 2016/2017 fellowship scheme is currently open for applications.
When I started telling people that I was taking three months off my PhD to work at the POST office, I was inundated with questions. I had shown no previous interest in the postal service and it seemingly had nothing to do with my research on British Sign Language. Even after pre-empting these questions by explaining that POST stood for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, I was still asked why I would want to do that. Having completed my three months working at POST earlier this year, I feel in a position to answer that question and explain why I think that it is crucial to explore research outside of academia.
How does it work?
First of all, I should explain what doing a Fellowship at POST entails. Applying for the Fellowship is a competitive process that first involves writing a short briefing on a topic of your choosing. From the briefings, candidates are narrowed down and invited to interview to discuss their briefings and why they want to do a Fellowship. Fellowships start in September, January or April and last for three months. If you live outside of London you can either move to London for the three months or commute there. The cost of whichever option you choose is covered by your Fellowship. You are also paid at your normal stipendiary rate during your time at POST as well as receiving a three month funding extension to the end of your PhD.
When you join POST you are assigned a topic on which you will write a type of briefing called a POSTnote. This topic will often have no connection with either your PhD or the area on which you chose to write your application briefing. Over the three months you read academic articles and policy documents on your topic, talk to experts in that field and write up a POSTnote which condenses all that acquired knowledge into four pages. POSTnotes go through a thorough process of internal review (where members of POST staff offer feedback) and external review (where experts and stakeholders provide critique and feedback). This process ensures the briefings are balanced and accurate. It might sound slightly terrifying to have lots of people picking apart your work, but it is actually reassuring to have experts confirm that you are representing their field appropriately.
The benefits of a POST fellowship
I thought that I understood how Parliament worked before I started at POST. I now realise that I had no idea how many different departments and committees were producing research and scrutinising policy decisions. Stepping out of academia and into Parliament was like pulling out into the fast lane. It made me realise how quickly research has to be available and decisions have to be made in politics. I was reassured to see how thoroughly Parliament engages with academia and astounded at the different routes that academic research can take to get to decision-makers. A few months ago, I was aware of two or three possible ways to engage with politics, but a previous POST fellow has suggested that there are actually at least nine different ways to get your research to policymakers.
If you wish to pursue a career in academia, then understanding how research feeds into policy is essential. Not only is it likely that you will want to see the fruits of your labour reaching a wider community, but institutions are now measured on their impact in the Research Excellence Framework. The best way to understand a system is to spend some time within it. Reading a website explaining how Parliament works is quite useful, but experiencing it first hand is even better. Working outside of academia might even encourage you to rethink your career ambitions and decide to pursue opportunities within Parliament instead.
Most of us are guilty of burying our heads in our particular speciality and only looking up occasionally to see what is happening in other fields. Working at POST drags you out of your comfort zone and mixes you in with people from lots of different academic disciplines. I worked on a topic that was completely unrelated to my PhD and I was worried that I would find this change too challenging. In actuality, it was a confidence builder to realise that the critical reading skills gained in one academic area can be easily applied to another. Writing a POSTnote in an unfamiliar area also hones your writing skills as you have to find a way to make your briefing as accessible as possible. Academics are often asked to given talks or write articles about their research for the general public and writing a POSTnote can help you refine strategies for making an academic topic interesting, relevant and understandable to a lay audience.
It was also great to see new perspectives from different disciplines and to talk to people researching diverse subjects. Working in a new area can also be a refreshing break from years of reading articles in a very narrow topic. It feels a bit like flinging the windows open and letting in some fresh air to a dusty and overflowing box room. When you return to your own research, you do so with more vibrancy and with some fresh ideas.
At the risk of sounding like an advertising campaign, working at POST affords some incredible opportunities. Talking to experts about their research topics is incredibly interesting and inspiring. Going along to Prime Minister’s Questions, an All Party Parliamentary Group meeting or a Select Committee hearing is a real privilege. You get to see the business of Parliament in action and you might even find that the work which you were discussing with one of your colleagues the previous week is now being debated in Parliament. You will probably also see a well-known MP whilst eating in one of the many cafes in the Houses of Parliament, or perhaps spot your local MP whilst having a pint in one of the Parliamentary bars. If you are lucky, you might even get a short meeting with an MP to talk about your POSTnote topic or your PhD work.
During my time at POST, there were two major political events which added to the general excitement. The first was the State Opening of Parliament, which I was lucky enough to attend. The second was the EU Referendum. For the rest of my life I will remember being in Parliament leading up to the referendum and in the immediate aftermath. There are so many experiences from my time at POST for which I am grateful. For myself and many of the other POST fellows, the time at POST has been a turning-point in our academic careers. I know that in years to come, I will be able to point to these three months and say that it was then that I finally worked out what I wanted to do in my research career.
POST runs several fellowship schemes with Research Councils, learned societies and charities, through which PhD students are sponsored to spend (usually) three months working at POST. Some fellowships are also open to postdoctoral researchers in academia and industry.
The 2016/2017 ESRC postgraduate fellowship scheme with POST is currently open for applications with a closing date of 20 November 2016.
Learn more about the Social Science Section at the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST).