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Dr Jane Parry, Lecturer and Director of Research for HRM and Organisational Behaviour within Southampton Business School at the University of Southampton, conducted a review of PhD fellowships in Parliament. This was as part of a Parliamentary Academic Fellowship hosted by POST and funded by the ESRC and Public Policy|Southampton.
The majority of the findings in the accompanying paper are very positive. POST Fellowships can clearly be a career, if not life-changing, experience and they have led to several Fellows achieving positions of significant policy influence. Even for those that ultimately take up jobs in academia, undertaking a policy-focused Fellowship gave them a new appreciation of where their research fits into the science-policy landscape and often provided focus when applying for grants or publishing papers. For Parliament, POST Fellows not only contribute significantly during their time with us, they also contribute to improving the culture in the House and often ultimately end up working within the House of Commons or House of Lords.
There was also some very useful feedback that POST can continue to build upon to make sure that Fellows have the best experience they can. These have been extracted below together with POST’s proposed approaches.
Clustering of applicants from particular universities
It was noted by POST advisers that applicants tended to come from universities that had previously supplied POST with Fellows. This is unsurprising as past Fellows often become ambassadors for POST schemes and will present on their experiences in their own universities. However, it demonstrates that POST can do more, particularly with the Knowledge Exchange Unit (KEU), to engage with a broader range of universities. Data are now being captured on where applicants heard about specific schemes, and the KEU is actively interacting with non-Russell Group universities. Hopefully with time this will expand the number of universities that feed into POST Fellowships.
Matching Fellows to placements
Applicants tend to apply for POST rather than alternative teams. During the recruitment process more information could be provided about committee and Library opportunities in the two Houses to generate more interest in being placed in UK Parliament departments outside of POST.
Under ‘The POST Model’ Dr Parry also notes that visibility of POST Fellows and the opportunity to recruit them via POST is variable across UK Parliament. Requests from Library sections or committees for Fellows have generally been ad hoc and informal – with either Heads of Section or committee specialists approaching POST to ask for assistance. POST has then looked at its current intake and offered students to meet requests. This process could be more formalised ahead of time – with departments and teams asked if they would like a POST Fellow for any particular 3-month period and then opportunities either advertised as such or offered to suitable Fellows after interview.
Of the respondents to Dr Parry’s survey, 65% were women and 11% were from an ethnic minority background (5% identifying as coming from an Asian background and 3% were recorded as ‘other’ [Arab, Romany/Irish Traveller, Latin American, or any other ethnic background]). 8% considered themselves to have a disability or limiting long-term illness and 71% were aged 26 to 35 years. Unfortunately, POST does not have long-term demographics for its fellowship schemes. Monitoring diversity data of applicants to POST schemes and comparing these against Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data will give more indication whether a) a representative group of students is applying and b) if the recruitment process is maintaining this diversity through to offer stage.
Fellowship schemes used to rely upon CVs from applicants. There has been a move towards skill- and competency-based recruitment instead in more recent years. As part of the process, applicants are also asked to produce a 2-page POSTnote on a topic they choose, but that is not related to their PhD research. Another potential source of bias identified by Dr Parry is the varying ability for applicants to access examples of how to structure this 2-page template. Some had been able to access templates from previous POST Fellows, with a risk that this will perpetuate any bias towards groups or universities. POST now provides a template that can be used during the application process.
73% of the Fellows surveyed by Dr Parry received funding from a research council. Informal feedback via social media has also expressed the student community’s dissatisfaction that this is such a major route to undertaking a POST Fellowship. In 2019/20 there were 28,220 first year doctorate students in the UK. UKRI awarded only 5,430 PhD studentships suggesting a majority are funded from elsewhere. Out of 19,385 first year UK-domiciled postgraduate research students, 4.3% were Black, 7.9% were Asian and 78.0% were White. UKRI data show that 62% of their PhD studentship awardees were White, 10% were from an ethnic minority group and 29% did not disclose their ethnicity. Therefore, POST is likely to be accessible to only a minority of PhD students in the UK and there is a risk that any reduced diversity among the UKRI cohort will translate into applications and Fellows in POST.
The Nuffield Foundation Fellowship is the only Fellowship open to all post-first year PhD students in a scientific or quantitative social science field. It is very oversubscribed each year, with several potentially appointable students having to be turned down as numbers are generally limited to one or two. Last year, appointable students were offered places if POST was able to support them to gain impact funding from their university. Such an ‘Open Fellowship’ approach may provide more opportunities to students covered by university or departmental studentships. The addition of Fellowships, funded by POST, targeting currently under-represented students may also improve diversity.
Changing characteristics of the Fellows
Dr Parry found that in recent years there has been a shift towards older Fellows applying for POST Fellowships. In turn this may drive the requirement for more flexible approaches to Fellowships. Traditionally Fellows have relocated to London for 3 months and worked full-time in the office. This was driven by the need for significant face-to-face contact between the Fellow and their adviser, particularly when starting, but also to make them feel part of the parliamentary community. However, after working remotely for the past year, most POST advisers have found that Fellows can be successfully supervised in this way. While acknowledging that the experience will be different for fully remote Fellowships, there is now no reason to not offer fully remote or hybrid Fellowships as an option in the future. This will hopefully allow people with caring responsibilities to better take up POST Fellowships and make them more appealing to students from outside of the local area.
In addition, some students have found that the current funding provided by Fellowships does not adequately cover expenses and childcare, for example, is covered to varying degrees by different schemes. POST has recently undertaken a survey of POST Fellows to calculate what their expenses were and now has a clearer figure to provide to funders when establishing new schemes or when discussing current schemes. A hardship fund within POST could also be called upon for students who experience unforeseen expenses.
Impact and evaluating success
Fellows could play more of a part in generating impact from their work. Where an event is used to launch a POSTnote, the initial uptake tends to be higher and there is more engagement from parliamentarians with the content. A more consistent approach to actively promoting POSTnotes by Fellows could be built in – this has improved in recent years via Twitter but more Member-facing activities could be pursued. As noted by Dr Parry, being able to demonstrate uptake and impact of their POSTnotes is highly beneficial for students when it comes to the next stage of their career.
Likewise, while exit interviews and polls have been previously used, there is no systematic way to assess experiences and outcomes from POST Fellowships. Dr Parry’s review is the first to date to look holistically at all Fellowship schemes and more continual systematic approach would provide data to improve them.
Managing challenges and inconsistencies
Many of the issues raised in this section are discussed above. One aspect that has improved in recent years and can continue to improve is the uniformity of supervision and support that Fellows receive. In POST there is an increasingly structured induction programme, supported by a Fellows’ Handbook that is continuously updated with the current ways-of-working within POST. Some of this information is generic for all Fellows coming to UK Parliament but there is less oversight on local inductions for Fellows joining Libraries or committees. Work is actively happening in R&I and the Select Committee Team on induction processes, particularly for new starters joining remotely. POST, in collaboration with the Libraries and committee teams, can adapt some of this material for the Fellows’ induction, as well as identify best local induction practice occurring elsewhere in UK Parliament.
Challenges and learnings
Issues around moving
Relocating for just 3 months is understandably difficult, particularly when trying to get such short-term accommodation. It also acts as a barrier to some people when applying for or taking up a Fellowship. As noted above, the experience of the past year means that remote or hybrid Fellowships are here to stay and this may minimise the need for 3-month relocations. The POST team has also encouraged new funders to provide some of the stipend up front in order to meet the demands of deposits and other costs for accommodation.
Areas for improvement
Additional areas for improvement that are not covered above include the diversity of interview panels, guidance for universities on administering Fellowships, and developing an alumni network. POST can take forward all of these items to help produce a more end-to-end Fellowship experience.
Fellowships as a pathway into parliamentary service
A number of past Fellows described the importance of POST Fellowships in shaping their subsequent careers. Nearly half of those interviewed now worked in policy roles, noting that this is very much skewed by who POST advisers were able to put Dr Parry in contact with. Five former Fellows work in POST, one in a devolved administration, three in government departments and three in parliamentary committees. A further six worked in the broader policy sphere, with five remaining in academia, one in a charity and one working in medicine. Therefore, Fellowships may be acting as an entry point into policy jobs, particularly within Parliament. POST Fellowships should be increasingly seen as part of UK Parliament’s overall recruitment strategy and therefore improving the diversity and inclusion of Fellowships will help the two Houses meet their respective goals in this area.
- The Knowledge Exchange Unit in POST can help identify which universities Fellows come from and aid R&I Communications to best target marketing of POST Fellowships. This will lead to a greater diversity of universities sending students on the scheme.
- A more structured approach for identifying Fellowship opportunities could be put in place, using the Directed Call of the Parliamentary Academic Fellowship Scheme as a model for engaging with other parliamentary departments. This could generate a menu of placements to more proactively place Fellows into.
- Refinements can continue to be made to the recruitment process. These include:
- More marketing to newsletters and associations for previously under-represented groups
- Clearer details on marketing materials around the opportunities for remote/flexible working and reasonable adjustments
- Routine collection of diversity data for Fellowships administered by POST – possibly by using the House of Commons recruitment system or MS Forms to collect data and anonymise applications
- A continued move away from CVs and towards skills and experience criteria
- Implementation of the new POSTnote sample template to minimise unconscious bias when marking applicants’ POSTnotes
- Interviews to be conducted remotely unless applicant preference is face-to-face. Panels should ensure they are suitably diverse.
- POST has extended the number of funding organisations significantly from just being UKRI. Six additional funders now contribute at least one place a year. However, POST could also work more closely with the university sector to offer a more open Fellowship – accessing HEIF and other impact funding to support students.
- POST and Research & Information should develop an internally funded Fellowship targeted at students from ethnic minority groups, at either Masters or PhD level.
- POST Fellowships can be conducted fully remote, hybrid, flexible or in-person
- POST will continue to work with funders to ensure that expenses of Fellows are covered and any upfront costs are met
- POST will consider how best to present the findings of POSTnotes to Members and committees, including through roundtables or conferences
- The experiences of POST Fellows, whether placed within POST or elsewhere in Parliament, should be captured in an ongoing systematic way.
- POST will continue to develop the Fellows’ Handbook and include core induction elements in its programme. Individual elements from staff inductions in R&I and the Select Committee Team could also be included.
- POST will develop an alumni network, building upon the existing Facebook group
- POST Fellowships will be included as a potential entry point into R&I and SCT in the upcoming work on Policy, Research and Analysis Career Pathways.