Can Research Apprenticeships open the door to a policy career?

The Wales Centre for Public Policy introduced the Research Apprenticeship scheme in 2017. The aim was to build the capacity of researchers to engage with policymakers and public services to address key challenges in Wales.

Each year, we provide an opportunity for an outstanding graduate to gain first-hand experience of providing evidence for policymaking. The scheme attracts more than 100 applications annually from excellent candidates which makes the shortlisting and selection process extremely difficult.

Now in its fourth year, we reflect on the role and suggest that this innovation could be appropriate for other organisations and research centres.


What’s the idea?

Funded by Cardiff University, the scheme gives someone at the start of their research career experience of working across the range of activities we carry out in the Centre. Apprentices conduct evidence reviews for Welsh Government Ministers and officials, support our work with public services, and conduct academic research on evidence use and policymaking.

The driving force and rationale behind the scheme are the limited opportunities for graduates to get a grounding in policy work and a ‘foot on the ladder’. The standard routes into the profession include carrying out further academic study (such as specialist Masters programmes), applying for the civil service or a graduate training scheme, undertaking internships or volunteering.

But these all come with drawbacks. A Masters in Public Policy usually involves a further student loan, adding to  average student loan debt (on average £36,000 in 2018), which might dissuade some graduates. Competition for the prestigious Civil Service Fast Stream programme is fierce with 32,450 applications for 973 appointments a few years ago, and many of these jobs are concentrated in London. Faced with these options, some graduates feel as if the only option is carrying out informal, unpaid or poorly paid internships to gain work experience – something that will be beyond the reach of many. The Centre’s Research Apprenticeship scheme offers an alternative model, paying a competitive salary and acting as a springboard into a career in public policy or academia.


How has it worked?

The scheme has given the apprentices opportunities to get involved in a wide range of projects. Some have a relatively quick turnaround in response to Welsh Government Ministers’ evidence needs, while others are longer-term assignments. Managing different types of projects with competing deadlines and changing priorities has been a key skill that all apprentices have developed.

The make-up of activities that take place throughout the year are designed to be flexible and tailored to the individual needs of the apprentice. This means we are offering a bespoke programme, which allows for organic development. This has been crucial to the scheme’s success although it does require additional resources and time.

Apprentices have written blogs and co-authored reports on topics including:

In addition, they have given presentations at academic conferences and published papers in high-quality peer reviewed journals, with others under review.

We emphasise professional development at the Centre and our apprentices are able to attend courses as part of the Cardiff University’s Researcher Development programme – from refreshers on research skills and learning new methods, to more generic courses on time management and writing skills – alongside the full suite of university training. There is also access to careers advice and support through the University.

There are significant opportunities for learning ‘on the job’ as they work alongside more experienced researchers in the Centre. The apprentices have also undertaken short work placements at other policy research organisations including the National Assembly for Wales Research Service, the Welsh Government’s Knowledge and Analytical Services, and the Institute for Government.


Has the scheme been a success?

We have found that the scheme has helped apprentices understand the Welsh policy landscape and apply the skills they learn (including accessing evidence and using appropriate research methods) to a ‘live’ environment, working in small, focused teams. These are key attributes that will help them in their future career.

Two of the apprentices are now studying PhDs at Cardiff University on topics closely related to work conducted in the Centre, indicating the benefit they have received from the scheme. The Centre has likewise benefited significantly from having apprentices. They have provided new insights to existing projects, been enthusiastic members of the team and supported the functioning of the Centre in many ways. Our apprentices have become an integral part of the Centre’s staff, taking on additional responsibilities including chairing team meetings and leading the design and delivery of events.

Research apprenticeships have invigorated the Centre, giving fresh perspectives and conducting valuable collaborative work, as well as providing significant opportunities for recent graduates. Other organisations looking to expand the pool of high-quality policy professionals could look to our example and consider a research apprentice scheme of their own.