Laura Cox

Laura Cox, SWWDTP PhD research at the University of Exeter and the University of Southampton talks about her internship with UKRI Policy.

Hello! I’m Laura and I’m a PhD student in English Literature at the University of Exeter and the University of Southampton. At the end of my second year, I completed a three-month UKRI Policy Internship at the Office for Civil Society in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

My placement was arranged prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and I was pleased to begin as planned, although I’d be working remotely. As a PhD student, working alone had become the norm and I’d been looking forward to being part of a team.

However, it quickly became apparent that the team spirit carried on! My team at DCMS were fantastic and very accommodating. Although we weren’t able to work together in person, we started each day with a cup of tea together from our homes across the UK. The working day was varied, with different meetings and deadlines throughout the week. We also worked closely with external stakeholders, including The National Lottery Community Fund, and the Government Outcomes Lab at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford.

During the placement you have the chance to shape your project to suit your interests, and I found DCMS to be supportive in assisting me as I decided what the precise focus for my project would be. project at DCMS looked at Social Impact Bonds, a type of outcomes-based contracting for welfare provision. As part of my research, I conducted interviews with a range of stakeholders and submitted a policy briefing based on my findings.

The project culminated in a 10,000 word report, which will be shared with the Social Impact Bonds team and related stakeholders. My briefing will help to influence future policy decisions (something I find very exciting!).

View of the Houses of Parliament from the River Thames

The Houses of Parliament: home of the DCMS

I was made to feel very welcome at DCMS, not just within my own team, but the wider Government Inclusive Economy Unit too. From day 1, I was treated and valued as a member of the team. I also benefitted from the generosity of my colleagues across different departments, who were happy to meet to me to discuss not only ideas for my project, but also my career plans.

Even as a placement student, you have access to the same training and development tools that Civil Servants do. I felt that DCMS was really interested in supporting my development, and the time spent with the team has definitely influenced my career aspirations once I’ve finished my PhD.

I would advise PhD students who are considering the placement to submit an application! It doesn’t matter if you’ve not worked in policy before; your skills as a researcher, including analysing complex information and being able to communicate clearly, are highly valued within the Civil Service.

My colleagues across the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport came from different backgrounds, and told me that they value the ways in which those with a Humanities background in particular are able to filter complex information and communicate it clearly to an audience who may be interested and engaged, but not experts, in a given subject area.

I was initially concerned that my PhD project, (looking at landowning women in Thomas Hardy’s literature) seemed quite distant from the landscape of Social Impact Bonds. As I reached the end of the placement, however, I found it to be a really refreshing and valuable opportunity to push myself beyond my comfort zone and try something new. The first week was a little daunting, with lots of new abbreviations and technical language to pick up!

I was really supported by my manager and team in getting my knowledge on Social Impact Bonds and related topics up to speed. It’s rewarding to reflect on the ways in which my research skills were challenged and improved during the placement by working with a completely new topic area and new techniques.

Although three months can seem like quite a long time to be away from your thesis, I really value the ways in which the placement has helped me to develop as a researcher and in terms of my career planning. The UKRI placement scheme offers a fantastic opportunity to try something different, develop new skills, and enhance your employability. I am very grateful to both DCMS and SWW DTP for their support and encouragement throughout the placement.

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