Internship and making research “useful”

Eleonore Perrin, Development and Humanitarianism in an Unequal World, University of Liverpool, 2017 Cohort 

In 2017, I resumed my studies and embarked on a PhD focusing on co-operatives in Northern Ireland. Since I had previously worked in the sector, I wanted this research to be useful to the co-operatives I had worked with. I was adamant research should deliver impact. During fieldwork, I waitressed at a café, I cleaned offices, I shared workspaces with participants, and I even made “Frida” plant pots out of recycled cans! It provided a means to “give back” to hardworking research participants without whom – let’s acknowledge it – research would not happen.

Yet, as I was getting in-depth insight into the world of co-operatives, I realised that their social value was hindered by a striking lack of awareness at policy level. This is where impact can be tricky to deliver. I am glad I helped participants in their day-to-day tasks but it did little to offset the fact that few policy-makers seemed to understand what a co-operative was. Academic outputs – thesis and articles – do play a role in raising awareness about your topic, but they are not necessarily accessible to those who matter most when it comes to making change happen on the ground: for instance practitioners, policy-makers. 

This is where the idea of doing an internship came in. In my third year, right at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I did a six month internship (for the most part remotely) with a co-operative development organisation based in Belfast called Co-operative Alternatives. I produced policy-briefs, building the case for co-operatives’ contribution in fostering a more sustainable and inclusive economy; and helped raise the profile of co-operatives through webinars and meetings with public servants, councillors, etc. As co-operatives were asking “who are we?”, “How many of us are there?”, I worked on gathering quantitative data – definitely not my forte by any means – assessing numbers of co-ops, membership, workforce, turnover and assets. It would simply have been impossible to do all this within the confine of a PhD, especially since the approach to my research project was qualitative. Besides, as the world came to a halt (literally!), the internship not only gave me the respite from writing and opportunity to refine my ideas that all 3rd year PhD students crave for. It also helped at a particularly critical time showcase the role of co-operatives in emerging debates on the economic policy direction post Covid-19. I would strongly encourage NWSSDTP students to make use of this unique opportunity!

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