Psychological Research and Policy: My Internship Experience

Hey everyone! It’s been a while, but I hope you’re all doing well. For this article, I thought I could share my personal experience from my latest internship. Over the summer, I was fortunate enough to intern for the Family Intervention division in the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF). During my time there, I learnt a lot about the ministry’s work, as well as the careful contemplation that policy-makers undertake before proposing any policy changes. And since I know many of you might be interested in learning more about research opportunities, I’ve decided to share some of my reflections.

Differences in Research Focus

First, I would like to distinguish between a research intern and a research intern for policy. Research interns focus on research, with no additional considerations beyond that. If you are on a research team for policy, however, the focus is different. Yes, you are still doing some form of research — but the focus will not be on your own.

Rather, you will be assisting the policy team via tasks such as:

  • finding relevant literature
  • conducting data cleaning and analysis
  • generating charts, graphs, and descriptive statistics

It is different from learning about a specific field, conducting a literature review, constructing materials, carrying out an experiment and then doing data analysis followed by a full report. The job scope and demands are relatively different, so do take note of that.

However, I would argue that you can learn valuable skills in both capacities. If you are on a pure research team, it is clear that any research-related skill will be strengthened. This includes (but is not limited to): data cleaning, statistical analysis, and interpretation of results. If you are doing research for policy, you might not be required to do the most complex data analysis, or the most difficult statistical test. But you do need a different type of critical thinking.

What do I mean?

When presenting data to a policy team, you need to think about what that data really means. For example, when looking at the overall trend for youth crime statistics, does a rise in youth crime truly reflect increased crime rates, or does it reflect a greater ability to detect and catch youths who offend? What type of data do we need to examine this hypothesis? Also, does this data truly have any meaning? There is likely a difference between youth homicide and youth theft. This type of critical thinking is different from pure research — although there is critical thinking when interpreting and explaining results, it is less variable than policy, and there are less considerations needed.

Bridging the Gaps Between Policy and Psychology

Second, I was able to observe how the policy team handles gaps in psychological literature. Although the decisions made by the policy department are based on informed research, there are many times when the answer in the research is simply unknown. And while this is definitely an issue within the field, it presents an even larger problem for policy. Policy teams are often under time pressure, as the field is rather dynamic. Thus, they have to propose the most optimal solution with the information present.

I was personally able to witness this first-hand. As part of my internship, I was asked to summarize and present conclusions from the Oxford Handbook on Crime Prevention. During the presentation, the team would provide additional comments that were unique to policy. For example, deliberations revolving around the mechanism of the prevention, cost-benefit analysis, cultural and geographical differences as well as possible modifications to Singapore were discussed.

Some of these have been discussed within psychological literature — for example, the role of culture in the effectiveness of different parenting styles (i.e. which parenting style results in the greatest psychosocial and academic outcome for children) has often been a prevalent issue.

However, the emphasis on the mechanism and the requirement of a cost-benefit analysis is more unique to a policy perspective. While psychological research does attempt to examine the mechanism (note: a mechanism is essentially just asking yourself why something is effective) of a prevention strategy, it is common for the mechanism to be unknown, or for there to be multiple possibilities. Similarly, a cost-benefit analysis is not often conducted in psychological literature — most simply examine whether or not a prevention strategy is effective. The policy team must then work with these possibilities and unknowns, and propose the most optimal solution despite the gaps — something challenging to do.

Is a Policy-Related Internship Right for You?

Finally, if you get the opportunity to undertake a similar position, should you go for it? I think the answer is that it depends.

If there are no other internship opportunities, I say go for it. But if you are attempting to decide between two or more offers, it depends on what you want to take away from the internship. For a policy-related research internship, you will not be learning research-heavy skills. Rather, you will learn how research can assist policy, how policy-makers examine the data presented to them, and the type of thinking required from a policy perspective. It is an internship allowing you to bridge the gaps between pure psychological research and policy-specific application, and to see the findings of research applied on a macro scale. If this is what you are interested in, then go for it! But if your main interests lie in furthering your statistical abilities, or learning new data collection techniques, this is likely not the internship for you.

As for me, I personally thought it was interesting to see the applications of research. As a NUS undergraduate, I only have research experience and rarely see the practical applications, especially not on such a large scale like policy. Additionally, the type of research I am used to doing is very psychology-specific, and is often in formats such as experiments and surveys. Although this internship did not require me to conduct a full experiment, or to do some fancy statistical analysis, it did show me that even simple statistics (such as things like the mean or general data trends) can have important uses.

Additionally, this internship has allowed me to consider expanding my interests beyond psychology to research in general, and has shown me that the skills required for psychology can be transferred to many other careers. While many might think of psychology as simply clinical psych, psychology is very research-heavy and requires knowledge of statistics and data analysis. These skills are clearly useful in a variety of settings, and I think there are many things one can do with this degree. Overall, it gave me a significantly greater appreciation for my degree, and pushed me to think beyond simply psychology-related careers. Well, that’s all for now! See you guys next time!

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