Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? will be focusing on researching within a political think tank. We interviewed Andrew Gloag, who worked as a Research Assistant at Demos during his placement year.
Andrew is a final year Politics student at York. He has just returned from a placement year with London based think tank Demos. As a research assistant, Andrew was involved in Conducting qualitative and quantitative research, including gathering, preparing and analysing data, organising and conducting focus groups and interviews and designing research materials.
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You’re listening to the What do you actually do podcast!? Each week, we want to bring you an inspiring interview a useful tip or encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world. Hello, and welcome to this episode of what do you actually do? My name is Kate Morris, and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about doing a placement year within a political Think Tank organization. Today we’re joined by Andrew Gloag, who is a research assistant with London based Think Tank demos. So Andrew, what did you actually do?
So, no two days were the same. It was incredibly varied and there was a massive range of different research tasks. So the placement started quite naturally I suppose in the sense that it was very much getting me up to speed with what a researcher actually does. So I was shadowing one of the other researchers at the time and that was on a project which involved how churches and Christian organizations have kind of filled in the gap for austerity. So a lot of food banks, for example, the biggest provider of food banks is actually a Christian run organization. So it was talking to local churches, seeing how they work in partnership to affect social change. A lot of the first few weeks and months of the placement was spent arranging interviews with these people. So reaching out, we went to Cambridge in the first few weeks which was quite nice to this really kind of interesting project about preventing loneliness within the local community. Taking the lead from the researcher, I was shadowing when it came to actually conducting the interviews, but then as my confidence grew, and as I kind of gained more skills, conducting the interviews by myself. So that was the first project but Demos do a whole range of different social policy projects. So in my time there, I worked on a project, looking at new fraud protections for people with limited mental capacity, which was really rewarding, which involved a lot of desk based research, organizing a round- table with industry leaders, which is really cool. And then of course, writing the reports, which is like 10 times the amount a dissertation is, so it definitely prepared me for coming back this year. But yeah, really kind of interesting range of different research areas and stuff like that.
So did they give you training for conducting the interviews and what they expect in those types of reports and that kind of stuff? How did that work?
It was very much learning on the job. Demos is a really small organization of about maybe 10 to 15 people, which kind of grew as I was there, so by the time I left, I was the sixth most long serving member. Something like that. Yeah.
So what do they do they just take on people for set projects?
No. So when I started, they’ve gone through a kind of move so they’d a new chief executive, and were kind of reimagining the organization. So it was quite cool to be there actually, at a time of massive change. But no with the training, no, it was very much learning by seeing my colleagues do what they did, and then being a little bit thrown into the deep end in some respects. But it was really again, rewarding to have that trust. So they really trusted you when, when I was just a kind of placement student to run projects and excel with doing that. So yeah, seeing what everyone else does, and then learning through that and then being given my own projects to do that.
I bet there was a bit of a learning curve or total freak out maybe?
Yeah. Massively and especially, I remember my first few weeks and months there, they’re kind of coming in and everyone’s at the top of their game, really into what they’re doing. And they all have specialist kind of niche areas of policy research, and I didn’t really know that much about policy research when I first joined. So government procurement, for example, something I knew literally nothing about before I started, kind of becoming an expert in certain areas very quickly. But yeah, massively. I think that the culture there was very different to a university, everyone was kind of on the top of their game. So in the first few weeks, I felt a little bit out of my depth, but everyone there wants you to kind of integrate and it was a very welcoming culture. I remember doing the Times newspaper quiz, which is the hardest quiz ever on the first few days, because that was the kind of lunchtime ritual and the questions were obscenely hard and I was like – am I expected to know all of this? I just realized as the weeks and months went on that nobody really knew – everyone was kind of blagging it a little bit. So one of the researchers that basically told me that the secret to working in a think tank is sounding like you know what you’re talking quite convincingly and then convincing other people that you know what you’re talking about, which I think is a massive skill to have in life as well. Just that confidence, I guess.
And I think, sometimes when you are put in a situation where, as you say, everyone’s at the top of their game, it makes you rise to the challenge, it makes you work harder, and you want to do well, whereas if you’re in new situations and you’re like ‘I couldn’t be bothered to do this today’ or whatever. It can drag you down. Being back at uni must be a walk in the park! So what attracted you to doing a placement in the first place? How did it come about? How did you get secure because it must have been very competitive to get the placement with this particular Think Tank?
Yeah, so this one in particular was actually created by the uni. So the politics department had a pre-existing relationship with them. I think they were looking out for universities to partner with for yearlong program because they’ve never done anything like that before. Obviously York beat them out, which I’m very thankful for. But yeah, that was a kind of internal application process I was up against, I think nine or 10 other people. You had to submit a policy proposal with a cover letter & CV and then an interview so it was quite simple compared to a lot of the other big grad schemes, that what they require is a load of tests and stuff like that. I guess what attracted me to a placement is moving to London. I’ve always wanted to kind of live in London and I applied for some London unis before I came here. So I’ve always wanted to have that student London experience which was perfect. Yeah, getting out and seeing bit of the world I guess – putting theory into practice, and it really, really did help a lot with that.
So on that then, you’ve mentioned you really felt your confidence grew doing a placement. What other skills or strengths would you say you’ve come away with now as a result of doing it?
So definitely formal research skills that would have been included in the degree. So I’ve already mentioned interviews, but conducting focus groups, a bit of quantitative analysis of data and stuff as well. But it was mainly more focused on qualitative. So interviewing face to face, long form stuff, time management as well. There were instances where I had to work on maybe two or three projects at the same time. So really kind of balancing that, using spreadsheets and calendars and stuff to organize my time. And that’s definitely something I’ve taken back to university as well, I guess, and then just working in high pressure environments. So there were kind of crunch moments like at university where you have a kind of overnight essay crisis where you had to get a piece of work out really quickly. Keeping a cool head and realizing that it’s done in the real world as well. Even though it might not be ideal, but getting that and realizing that everyone’s just as human as everyone else.
You mentioned you are involved in loads of projects? What was the biggest challenge of doing either the placement year or the content of the placement itself?
I think because it was such a small organization, I was given quite a lot of responsibilities in the project I mentioned on fraud. I was basically left to my own devices to kind of run that which was a massive, massive thing. And all the work Demos does is funded by a particular kind of client, so in this case, it was an anti-fraud organization called CIFAS. I guess the pressure to not only produce a good piece of research on time, but also to impress the client as well. It involved organizing interviews with people with limited mental capacity. So people with dementia, people with an acquired brain injury, people who might have experienced a mental health crisis, so actually getting in contact with these harder to reach groups of people was a pretty big challenge. So a lot of problem solving skills had to go into that, reaching out to the charities that support these groups of people and getting interviews through that. And also conducting the interviews about quite complex financial fraud protections. And conveying that in a in a simple and easy to read format was definitely a challenge as well. But like I say, the people there were super supportive and they understood that you are a placement student and they were invested in, nurturing you and making you the best you can be. So it was really a mutually beneficial thing for both me and them.
And I would say, for a lot of people who need those fraud prevention things as well. So what was the highlight there? What was the sort of the thing that you take away and think ‘yeah, I was proud to do that.’
So I think that the launch of the project, so I launched three projects in my time there where I co-wrote or wrote the entire thing. The minister, Ben Wallace, the security minister at the time, actually launched the report at an event which was pretty cool. Another project that I did got featured on the front page of the Telegraph, which was again, really quite cool. And yeah, just having the satisfaction of a printed report or PDF and just the finished product. Knowing that it will have made some difference or someone with the kind of power to change things will have read it and likes what you’ve written is really, really rewarding.
So, has this impacted on your future plans? Now? Are you sort of thinking of going into this type of work? Or is it clarified what it is you want to do?
Yeah, I think the thing with this kind of job is it very easily transfers into other types of similarly related things as well. So there’s the raw kind of research element, but there’s also someone who worked at Demos for a long time who is now quite a well-known journalist and he’s got a really big podcast out on the BBC about cryptocurrency. So he’s made a career as a journalist. You can also go into government, you can be a researcher for an MP, you can go into the civil service. And then there’s the comms and media events side as well. So communications, public affairs, so yeah, it really gave me a good overview of what is out there.
So have you got a plan or are you still considering these different options at the moment?
Yeah, so I’ve applied for a few graduate schemes that are related to this. But again, there are loads of jobs that are going to come up at the time that I’m going to graduate, so I’m definitely looking to apply to those. But yeah, just in the early stages of that at the moment.
And would you have any advice for other students who are thinking about doing a placement year? Is it worth it? Any tips for making it happen?
Yeah, I’d say it’s definitely worth it.
I just learned so much in the one year that I was there. I’d say there’s a lot of choices with what kind of placement you want to do. So really taking the time to look at them and picture yourself in the placement role. With the long applications, they’re quite time consuming, and you don’t want to waste loads of time, kind of putting half the effort into job applications that you’re not necessarily going to want in the end, so really, I think taking the time to figure out what you do want and put all of your time and attention into getting that position.
Did you get a sense from demos of what sold you to them? What was the thing that you did that was different to other candidates?
I think they always said I was quite outgoing and confident. So, the Chief Executive always said that I saw the value in networking with people and building those relationships, which he said was really important especially in the political world. A lot of what Demos did was based on personal relationships with funders, with MPs and politicians. Building those connections is a really important soft skill. That’s not necessarily part of the job description, but I think you have to have it in order to be successful in this world? So I think they saw that.
And I think that’s a really important point actually, to try and infer what kind of person do you need to be to be successful in that role, not just what’s the list of tasks you need to do, but as you say, visualize yourself doing it. And then from that point working out well, okay, what else might you need to be good at? Okay, well I’m going to add some relevant links to the episode description and the link to the full transcript of today’s show for people who want to find out more about those career areas. But thank you so much for joining us today Andrew, it’s been really interesting and it sounds like an absolutely fascinating experience. Thank you for sharing that with us and good luck with all your applications.
Great. Thank you.
Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do!? This episode was hosted by myself Kate Morris, and edited and produced by the Careers and Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers & Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode’s description.
This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers