Working as a Parliamentary Researcher September 3, 2010Posted by Jeff Riley in : Government, internships, skills , trackback
Grainne Magee completed a Masters in the War Studies Department at King’s College London in 2008. She now works as a Parliamentary Researcher for Philip Davies the Conservative MP for Shipley. We talked to her about her career.
What is your academic and work background? As well as the War Studies Masters I have a 2.1 degree in History from Queen Mary College. During my A levels and degree I worked part-time as a retail assistant for Marks and Spencers. Towards the end of my degree I worked on a ‘Camp America’ type programme in the USA and in the following year and during my Masters I worked for them in the UK as an ‘area rep’ helping to market the programme and recruit students for the USA scheme. After my Masters I got a six month post as a research assistant with the King’s Centre for Military Health Research. Some of my modules related to war and the mental health of soldiers so this was a natural fit. After this I took a few months out for a round-the-world trip. When I came back I managed to get an interview for the Henry Jackson Society but in the feedback after I wasn’t appointed I was advised to get some more experience. In fact they offered to forward my CV to Philip Davies who had been an MP since 2005. I did a 3 month internship with him and then a 3 month internship with the Royal British Legion. After all that the paid position with Philip Davies came up and I’ve now been in that position for 6 months.
Tell me about your initial interview with Philip Davies. It was with him and the person who was his researcher at the time. It was quite an informal interview. They were interested in my personality traits, my policy interests and whether I had the skills they needed in communication and dealing with the public. I was really surprised when Philip said that the thing that most impressed him was my retail experience with Marks and Spencers. In retrospect I can see that he knew the researcher would have to be dealing a lot with his network and not least his constituents – the people who vote for him.
In terms of my policy interests I came in with more of an international relations focus but in terms of Philip’s interests in criminal justice there was some common ground because many ex-soldiers end up in the British Prison system.
What was the internship like? I was offered a choice of working on two different projects. The ‘Better Off Out’ campaign which argues for a UK withdrawal from the EU project and a critique of Harriet Harman’s equalities bill. I opted to work on the latter though this meant I spent a long time going through a 500 page Bill seeing where Philip had opportunities to make interventions in the form of amendments or questions.
This raises a question for me of how aligned a researcher has to be with his employer’s politics? Well you don’t have to be a party member (although you do if you want to attend the Party conference).Nor do you have to agree with every position they take but I would say you do need to be broadly aligned. I think at the very least it would make you a better researcher. Also Westminster is a bubble and once you are identified with one political camp it can make it hard to cross over. It works differently in think tanks where they may appreciate people with conflicting opinions. Philip has a small team and it works better if we have that broad consensus politically.
What does the job of Parliamentary Researcher involve? Well it can be different depending on who the MP is and how they are designing the team. It is one of the thing prospective researchers and interns might find out because MPs may expect people to do a combination of constituency work and diary secretarial work. My job has a number of different elements.
Firstly, research, of course is a big element. Right now I’m working on one of Philip’s significant national interests – criminal justice. The theme is ‘Prison does work, but there are ways of improving the system’. As a result, I have been to visit 6 prisons – Belmarsh, Feltham, Latchmere House, Wormwood Scrubs (all London), Wakefield and Leeds (West Yorks). This is a really interesting part of the job. Other issues I have had to look at relate to Philip’s work on the Culture, Media and Sports Committee. For example providing a background briefing for the discussion on the Channel 4 annual report. These briefings aren’t necessarily political but are designed to ensure the committee and Philip can ask the right questions to ensure things are scrutinised properly. The briefings aren’t academic papers – typically they would be two pages of A4 with bullet points flagging up relevant topics and containing pertinent facts.
Media monitoring. One of things I do even on the way to work on the train but also when I get to Parliament is to read the newspapers and flag up stories that may involve the range of issues Philip is concerned with. Things such as criminal justice, the EU, the Lisbon Treaty. As well as newspapers I look at a whole range of sources, political blogs, media monitoring services, resources such as Dods. This might result in an intervention such as the tabling of a question in the House. Philip can make his own decisions about what and how he intervenes but he does like to have an informed second opinion and that’s also part of my role.
Social media. Philip is very busy and had to be persuaded to engage with things like Facebook and Twitter. So I look after this for him and make sure he keeps his profile there. Preferably in a way that gets the debate around the issues going.
Adminstration. As with any job there’s always an element of admin to do. This could involve things like booking tickets, making travel arrangements. It also involves giving the occasional tour of Parliament – which is a fab thing to be able to do.
Are you enjoying the job? It’s been great. I’ve been taken out of my comfort zone focus on international affairs and had to learn about other contemporary issues. I’ve been introduced to the Prime Minister and Vince Cable – David Cameron made a very early speech in Philip’s constituency. Also Philip’s role on the Culture, Media and Sports Committee means I get invited along with him to lots of interesting events.
I get a sense of you to some extent helping to manage Philip’s career but how do you manage your own? I am aware that most researchers do the job maybe for two years or so before moving on. Although some would stay longer if the MPs career develops and they find their role developing at the same time. In the medium term I am considering a career in public affairs and Parliament is a great launchpad for that. There are some great networks here and I make it my business to get involved. Besides who could resist and after-work rounders game or a get together for researchers in the local pub?
What tips do you have for current students?
- Intern early. I left it until after my Masters and this slowed things down
- Be proactive – when you are interning make sure you maximise the opportunity. As an unpaid intern you may not be obliged to attend certain things like staff meetings but I would recommend that you do.
- Work hard and smart. You can build a reputation by being ‘on it’.
- Get involved – take advantage of any extra curricular opportunities when you are interning. There are networking opportunities that might pay off in the medium if not the short term
- Be patient – you may not get a job straight away after your internship but if you have done a good job people will remember you.
Would you recommend using the Careers Service? Oh, yes, OK. In fact I did and came along for help with my application for an internship and for a practice interview