It was one of those emails you get as a student. A few times a year they arrive in your inbox, you read them and think “Wow that would be cool”, then never get the time to act. The same email had registered in my periphery for the past 2 years, but this year I was thinking a lot more about what I was going to do post EngD.
It sounds silly and very cliche, but I have always wanted to do some good in the world. As a teacher and then head of learning community, I felt I was doing good for the students I taught and those in my community. And and now seeing those students go on and achieve awesome things is a great feeling. Leaving teaching was tough, actually tougher than I thought it was going to be, but I told myself that I could make a bigger difference to the world outside of teaching, so off I went into Environmental Engineering. I was attracted to the microbial source tracking EngD in the knowledge that it has been and could be useful to improve the environment and human health, especially in areas where contaminated sources of drinking water are a real problem for society. 3 years into the EngD and it is safe to say I questioned and still question (a lot) the value of my work. That’s not to say it has no value, I just didn’t (don’t) feel I made the world a better place. However, the two things I have come to realise is that the knowledge and skills I continue to gain through the EngD will help me achieve this goal in the future, and if I want my work to really do some good, I need a better understanding of policy and policy-making.
As a scientist policy is almost a mythical concept. It seems that we are always complaining about policies (For an example start a conversation in any bar about Health and Safety policy) or looking for loop holes to skirt around them (What do you mean the new expenses policy doesn’t include alcohol? Lets see if they know they can spell beer in Russian). We also talk a lot about how research can impact policy. While there are plenty of examples of what we perceive to be bad policies, there also seem to be some good. These good polices can change the way we think, open avenues for new research or innovation and even change the way society works. I really wanted to understand about policy, how do we make and implement the perfect policy? What does a perfect policy even look like?
So when the email came across my inbox for the 3rd year running it was an opportunity I know I couldn’t pass up and got to work immediately in applying for a NERC Policy Internship. These internships are available to RCUK funded PhD students to work for 3 months in highly influential policy organisations. This was the first year the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency decided to advertise these internships, which is fantastic for students in Scotland and the North of England with the vast majority of opportunities are around London.
The application involves writing a briefing note for an important issue, based on the style of POST notes. POST notes give an overview of a topic, issue or problem and if you are anything like me, once you start looking at all the notes topics you will get lost in there for hours, you have been warned! Writing this style was incredibly refreshing after so much academic writing, I would recommend to anyone who wants to improve their writing to explain a problem simply in 2 pages.
I submitted the application in August and was received an email inviting me for an interview in September. Between receiving the email in September and attending the interview in November I was in two minds whether moving to Scotland for 3 months was the right thing to do. It was going to be a busy year and as it stood I didn’t have a 3 month gap without any commitments (And it was only Nov!). After arriving at the interview, I knew it was something I really wanted to do! The Stirling office is a perfect introduction to SEPA, not too big, with beautiful views of Stirling Castle there are a couple of a nice modern space with break out spaces for informal meetings and for when you need some creativity time.
After bringing up the subject of missing some of these commitments at Newcastle, there seemed so many loops to jump through that it was going to be impossible to get 3 months off for the internship and get the money to pay for it (For NERC students these are paid for, but I had to pay for myself out of my PhD budget because I am EPSRC, so it is worth checking with your funding council before applying). Luckily, I was in Cranfield and managed to get some of the valuable time of Paul Jeffery director of the STREAM-IDC, who in his usual relaxed style and filled me full of confidence and assurances, so I ploughed on with preparing for the internship.
So in February I moved up to Stirling for 3 months and it is not what I expected at all. It’s probably fair to say that the traditional view of environmental protection agencies is probably that of bearded old men wearing Corbyn style cardigans, doing the same old things day in and day out and complaining about the state of the environment. Right from the start is was clear that this isn’t SEPA, there is a real buzz around the office, people are excited about their work and love telling you about the what they’re doing.
I am currently halfway through the internship and still learning a lot, but that is for another post. For anyone interested in the next round of internships I would encourage you to apply, bookmark this page and put a reminder in your calendar for the end of June. Start thinking about what topic you are going to write your briefing about (It shouldn’t be related to your PhD!) and if you have any questions about the application or interview experience please get in touch – Good luck!