On the 13th March 2013, careers consultants Kate Murray and Gemma Ludgate met with Jo Maybin, Fellow in Health Policy at The King’s Fund. This is what they discovered:
What is The King’s Fund?
The King’s Fund, set up with an endowment from the then Prince of Wales in 1897 to raise money for London’s voluntary hospitals, is now a leading think thank working to improve health and health care across England. There are three strands to its work: Leadership Development; Policy Analysis and Research; and a conference business. The first and last of these generate income for the organisation.
How does the Policy department work?
There are approximately 30 staff, including part-timers and Associates. The typical career structure is: Researcher to Senior Researcher to Fellow to Senior Fellow to Assistant Director to Director. Staff have backgrounds in policy analysis, and qualitative and quantitative social research skills.
Research and analysis projects involve work on specific themes, such as, for example, NHS funding, healthcare regulation, or patient experiences of care. Most projects are completed within a year, but there are also some faster turn-around projects, including on a consultancy basis for clients, and longer-term research projects, which might be funded by government and conducted in conjunction with other organisations. For example, a project on patient choice involved three years’ worth of research funded by Government, and was done in conjunction with the Picker Institute and RAND Europe. It involved researching patient and staff experiences of the policy using interviews, surveys and economic modelling. The output was a King’s Fund report, several peer-reviewed journal articles as well as articles in health policy magazines. The researchers work throughout with the Communications team at The King’s Fund, making sure that the ‘right’ people are aware of The King’s Fund work, and that the different messages from each report reach the relevant interested audiences.
There is also a small ‘sense-making’ team which works on keeping abreast of the latest policy developments; drafting responses to consultations coming from Government; and writing briefings. Their over-arching remit is to figure out what is coming up on the policy horizon and to think about whether and how the organisation will respond.
How does this kind of work actually affect policy?
The King’s Fund talks about ‘informing’ rather than ‘influencing’ policy. Through meetings with relevant ministers and civil servants, media briefings and briefings for parliamentarians, including opposition party spokespeople and researchers, they use their expertise and research evidence to advise on how to improve outcomes and affect change.
What other health-related policy and research organisations are there?
- Nuffield Trust: conducts similar policy research workHealth Foundation: greater focus on NHS service improvement
- NHS Confederation: the representative body for NHS Trusts
- NHS quangos such as NICE, CQC etc
- BMA, royal colleges and other professional bodies
- Academics, including groups based at the LSHTM, the University of Birmingham Health Services Research Centre and the National Primary Care Research and Development Centre at ManchesterRAND Corporation, based in Cambridge
How did Jo get to be where she is now?
She did an MA in Political Theory before moving onto a temporary role for the BBC surveying MPs. This led onto doing briefings for BBC journalists on social policy. Although this included health policy, it also included pensions and lots of other areas. After doing this for 18 months a role was advertised at The King’s Fund that Jo was interested in but that specified more experience than she had. Feeling that she had nothing to lose she applied for it and was successful – a lesson we can all learn from!
She started in the responsive area and moved onto long-term research where she is now. Whilst at The King’s Fund she undertook a part-time PhD with the University of Edinburgh. Within the politics department, her topic was how Department of Health civil servants devise policy. Working and studying was hard work but rewarding, and she was able to take a sabbatical to write up. Only a minority of staff at The King’s Fund have PhDs and whilst Jo feels that it’s been beneficial for her, she is aware that PhD graduates need to ensure that they balance their academic experience with ‘real world’ experience in their job applications. Some of the major advantages that Jo feels her PhD has given her is an ability to think really deeply about an issue, advantaged methodological skills and experience of having to defend your position (your viva is great for this).
In addition to research skills, what skills are important for the think tank world?
In terms of skills that you need to get to be a fellow in a leading think tank, we discussed project management, delivering presentations and writing well; you can’t underestimate the latter in particular. She developed her writing skills when she wrote briefings for the BBC but blogging is also a great way of demonstrating this ability.
How is the research you do in a think tank different to PhD research?
For a start, there tends to be less of a focus on theory, and your whole goal is much more pragmatic. This means that the research is often based on a shorter timetable than in academia, and your focus should be on the impact of what you’re doing, not the research in its own right.
How can students get involved with The King’s Fund?
It used to be that if you wanted an internship at The King’s Fund the only way to get one was via a speculative application but for the last two years they have run a formal research internship programme, and hope to do so again in the future – keep checking the website. They had two interns last year, initially for 3 months but who ended up staying for 6 months. One of these interns was seeking to change career and one was a recent graduate from an MA programme in their early 20s, so they don’t look for any particular ‘type’. These internships were launched in recognition that many ‘Researcher’ posts in think tanks aren’t graduate roles as they require an MA plus a couple of years of relevant experience. Interns are paid the London living wage. They have also recently appointed a digital communications intern.
What final tips would she give hopeful applicants?
Tip #1: If you are speculatively applying for an internship, contact the most junior person in the organisation that you can find. This junior person will then forward on your application, which is more likely to be read coming from an internal colleague than someone external.
Tip#2: Be prepared to be asked to do some tasks at interview. For Fellow interviews they often ask the applicant to develop a research proposal, write a blog post on a topic only revealed on the day and present on a complex issue. For Researcher interviews they often ask applicants to write a blog post summarising a policy proposal and suggest what might constitute a good research proposal on this topic.
With thanks to Jo Maybin