Bridging the seminar room and the world of public policy: Six practical tips for organising work placements

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In this post, Dr Daniel Kenealy, a Lecturer in Public Policy in the School of Social and Political Science, presents his six top tips for organising student work placements

One of my most challenging but rewarding tasks has been the development of around eighty ‘Capstone’ placements for postgraduate students enrolled on a Master of Public Policy programme. Based on those experiences, I worked to pilot a series of ‘Work Shadows’ for a group of fourth year undergraduate students. I have six, mostly practical, reflections on these experiences:

1. Have a clear rationale

Before you start firing out emails or making telephone calls to potential host organisations, you have to do some conceptual work that answers the fundamental question: what is the purpose of the placements?

It’s important to think about what purpose they serve for both the student and the host organisation. The best placements are embedded clearly in the learning outcomes of a given programme or curriculum, or they come at a crucial career development moment for students. Setting this out on paper, alongside answers to more practical but important questions – such as, ‘How long do placements typically last?’, ‘What written outputs are typically required?, ‘What supervision arrangements are offered?’, ‘How will student progress be monitored?’ – is a vital first step.

2. Build a network

Mostly relevant for those charged with organising multiple placements it is crucial to build up a network of contacts in the relevant ‘world’ in to which you are seeking to place students. Whilst engaging my own network, it was helpful to work with colleagues within and beyond my School. This was a rewarding experience as it brought me into contact with colleagues in Human Geography, Medicine, Business, Law and Informatics. But this is also a tremendously time consuming task and it only works if that clear rationale and offer – discussed above – exists. Organisations will want to hear that rationale, usually within the first conversation or exchange of emails

3. Patiently build relationships.

Once you have made contact with an organisation, the hard work of cultivating a relationship begins: seldom does a placement crystallise through a first conversation. You need time, patience and some system to handle the communication, balancing checking in regularly and nudging a busy organisation along, without pestering. It is important that, for each placement, a written outline is agreed between the University and the organisation. The process of co-producing that outline is an opportunity to reflect on the placement. All of this, of course, requires time. Anyone taking on responsibilities for organising such placements must be realistic about the workload involved, and ensure that Heads of School/Department recognise that in workload plans.

4. Communicate clearly with students.

Placing students in appropriate and rewarding placements is only possible through clear communication. It is important to have a focused and clear conversation with students seeking a placement. I find it useful to discuss the written outline of the placement and how it aligns with the students’ interests and future plans. It is important for the student to have a grasp of what will be expected from them on the placement, and how the activities of the placement will align with and complement any attached academic work, such as a dissertation. It’s important to give students time to make an informed decision about whether to take a placement, and I found it useful to accompany students to an early meeting with potential placement hosts.

5. Manage relationships during the placement 

A typical placement might involve four people: the student, an academic supervisor at the University, a supervisor at the host organisation, and somebody at the University who handles any non-academic issues that arise on the placement. It is important to have clear lines of communication and any issues that arise need to be sensitively and carefully managed by either the Programme Director or a Student Development Officer, leaving the academic supervisor free to focus on supporting the student intellectually.

It is important to arrive at an understanding with the academic supervisor about the differences between a conventional dissertation and a placement-based project. In the latter, there is an added layer of complexity, as students have to find a way to bring placement-based work together with an academic project. Building that bridge from practice to theory often requires attention and support from appropriately-selected academic supervisors.

6. Reflect during and after the placement

Reflecting on placements, both during and after them, is important and rewarding for both the student and for Programme Directors. It is useful to have students write fortnightly reflective diaries during their placements. They are useful as a tool of reflection during the placement but many students return to them when writing their dissertations, to remind themselves how their research design evolved. Following placements, I found it useful to have a group meeting with students to reflect on what worked well and what could be improved.

Ultimately, each specific placement is different, and anybody coordinating a number of them will need to be nimble and able to react to events. But, beyond the specificities of each placement, the above are some of the practical lessons I have learned over the years.

Daniel Kenealy

Dr Daniel Kenealy is a Lecturer in Public Policy, in the School of Social and Political Science. He was director of the Master of Public Policy programme between 2013 and 2016, and has helped to develop work shadowing and work-based placements in the School of Social and Political Science, where he was School Quality Assurance Director between 2017 and 2019.

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