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Working outside of academia – the benefits of a different perspective

21 February 2024

5 mins

Written by Tanya Gleadow. Tanya is a doctoral researcher at Loughborough University. Tanya’s PhD research combines her decade of teaching experience with her previous career in STEM and computing outreach, looking at how the current computer science curriculum influences ideas about data science education. Edited by Dr Bethany Woollacott.

This post is a reflective account of my recent three-month placement with the Department for Education. The placement was part of a PhD pilot scheme funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership who are also funding my PhD. The scheme enabled me to fully focus on the placement by facilitating a three-month extension to my PhD studies. For more information on UK Research and Innovation funding opportunities, please use the link at the end of this blogpost.


Most of us interact with policy makers at arm’s length, and when a possibility to work within the heart of policy presented itself, it was a unique opportunity to gain a different perspective to that of academia. Usually, we are on the outside looking in, or at the business end of a policy putting it into practice. So, what really goes into making educational policy?

The role

The placement involved working on live projects alongside experienced officials and other experts to facilitate analysis and advice to those across the government. It involved assessing existing research and expert advice from a range of sources and synthesising that evidence into formats suitable for policymaking audiences. I was using my academic research skills in a fast-paced environment – no waiting months for a review process. I might be giving a presentation in a few days, but the reasoning and research still had to be as thorough as for a conference paper. I thought that governmental work would move slowly like academia does, but it moves at a rapid pace, constantly refining through several iterations. As with academia, high standards of rigour are expected.

My takeaways

From the experience, I gained a lot of confidence in my reasoning and persuasion skills. Giving presentations to policymakers and having to defend my work felt like excellent practice for a viva! In addition, the work involved collaborating with a range of experts which gave me valuable experience in writing for different audiences and working with others to achieve common goals. The breadth of expertise you have access to as a civil servant allows you to ask a lot of questions to some very interesting organisations.

Giving presentations to policymakers and having to defend my work felt like excellent practice for a viva!

The experience made me reflect on the accessibility of our research to others, and on how best to include those from outside the ‘academic bubble’, such as publishing Open Access and using less academic language, even if this means publishing somewhere that is outside of traditional academia. In the Civil Service you have access to training and experiences that may not be available to you at a university – for instance I was able to access ONS (Office for National Statistics) training and improve my skills in understanding and communicating data and statistics to the public.

So… what really goes into making educational policy?

Through the internship, I noted that policy work involves a lot of thorough research, coming up with potential solutions, and exploring them with people and organisations who have faced similar challenges. It also gives you a chance to test ideas and defend them against a panel of questions from others in government. This was an excellent opportunity to improve my written and verbal communication and, in turn, take written and verbal feedback. Often in academia we are speaking to similarly oriented minds in our narrow research areas, yet in a policy context I found myself working very broadly to build overviews and context to a particular problem. Standing back from the detail and being able to perceive a project’s situation and direction was a chance for reflection, and I feel that it would be a beneficial exercise within an academic setting too. I would encourage others to look outside their field to see where their work could be applied to wider contexts.

I would encourage others to look outside their field to see where their work could be applied to wider contexts.

I also realised that different thinking was valuable in this context – being able to generate ideas rapidly and problem-solve, as well as being able to explore ideas at pace, were all key to exploring policy development.

In summary

This placement away from my academic work not only improved my ability to research and explain, it also strengthened my existing skills in a different context. Being able to step back from my “day job” and into a different environment gave me a sense of perspective it might have been hard to gain otherwise. I look forward to taking these new and developed skills back into my role in academia and sharing them with my colleagues and peers, and I would whole-heartedly recommend this experience to anyone looking for a fresh perspective.

Placements can be hosted by any organisation for the funding pathway via the DTP, but you can also look at the UK Research and Innovation funding opportunities if you are not part of a Doctoral Training Partnership.

Centre for Mathematical Cognition

We write mostly about mathematics education, numerical cognition and general academic life. Our centre’s research is wide-ranging, so there is something for everyone: teachers, researchers and general interest. This blog is managed by Dr Bethany Woollacott, a research associate at the CMC, who edits and typesets all posts. Please email if you have any feedback or if you would like information about being a guest contributor. We hope you enjoy our blog!

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