In September 2020 I started an internship at the Department for Education (DfE). Its in London, I was in Lancaster. Such is the deal with an internship taking place during in a major public health situation – interning from home.
Starting at a new place of work is always a daunting experience, but starting a new job remotely, where idle chitchat at the water cooler or with the person at the next desk isn’t really a thing, and casual conversation takes the form of a less-than-spontaneous pre-arranged Teams meeting, is all the more so. There are fewer low effort, low risk opportunities to get to know your new colleagues. But I needn’t have worried – my new co-workers were welcoming, and it felt like I was instantly part of the team. It helped that another PhD intern was starting at the same time, so I wasn’t alone.
Working in a government department during a pandemic was enlightening. Especially because I was in a team whose primary focus was Covid-19. To be precise, I was in the Covid-19 Insights Function (CIF). The name is a little cryptic – ordinarily the team would be the Behavioural Insight Unit (BIU), which is perhaps a little clearer – they apply insights from behavioural science, psychology and economics to education policy. The only difference is that, currently, that focus is mostly on Covid-based education policy.
The work was interesting – ranging from discussions with groups such as OfSTED and the Association of Colleges, about the environment in which post-18 educational decisions are being made, to meetings with other teams throughout DfE and beyond, to feed into a “Horizon Scanning” project. Horizon scanning is essentially management/Civil Service speak for “what problems are coming up that we ought to do something about”. This project was interesting, covered a wide range of policy areas and involved meetings with senior DfE staff. This included the opportunity for me to present to the Deputy Director for my division and staff from the Minister’s Private Office.
More generally, everyone was friendly and willing to chat about their work. A benefit of working remotely was the ease with which half hour “coffees” could be scheduled with people from all over the DfE. This meant I chatted to loads of people from the Central Analysis Unit (CAU) – the place where cool quantitative work goes on – or others working in higher education or special needs and disadvantage teams, or the Delivery Unit (DU) who focus on the implementation of policy on the ground. I also spoke to staff from the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, and the Department for Work and Pensions.
In a break between lockdowns I was able to go to London to physically enter the DfE. Those four days were great, and probably more exciting for being so scarce. The novelty of seeing Ministers and the Secretary of State going about their business certainly didn’t wear off in the few days I was there. And though my team in the CIF had made remote working work, it was no substitute for being able to see colleagues in person (in a socially distanced manner of course).
For those thinking of an internship in future, or those wondering if one would be valuable, I would say – do it! The insight into policy making was interesting. So too was the chance to find out the areas that Civil Servants (making decisions that impact so many lives) believe need more of an evidence base. That makes an internship useful even if you don’t intend to go into the Civil Service after your PhD. At a time when academia is often perceived to reside in an ivory tower, taking on opportunities like that provided by UKRI can make our work and research more relevant to a greater number of people.