“The atmosphere was perfect for overcoming self-doubt – or, at least, deciding to ignore it for a while.”
Joel Baker reflects on an excellent Researcher Employability Project at the White Rose Brussels office, and offers some valuable tips for everyone planning a REP.
Department of History
University of Sheffield
I’m probably not alone in having been excited about my Researcher Employability Project when I started my PhD, but having very little idea what I wanted to do for it. I knew that I wanted to go abroad if possible, but found it difficult to think beyond that.
Reading about previous REPs, I did think about going to White Rose Brussels, but initially dismissed the idea. I knew that a REP in policy research would be a good fit with my interests and an area in which I had ample room to learn more. But the idea of having meetings with EU policy-makers sounded intimidating and, I told myself, like something I wouldn’t be very good at.
One of the great things about Colloquium 2 was how it encouraged me to question that idea, and push myself beyond my comfort zone. Hearing from students who had done their REP in the previous year was extremely helpful. Many had done something entirely new for them, sometimes in very fluid circumstances. The atmosphere was perfect for overcoming self-doubt – or, at least, deciding to ignore it for a while.
So I found myself in the week following Colloquium 2 emailing Phil Holliday at White Rose Brussels. After this, I was amazed at how quickly things were arranged. This can be one advantage of finding a REP at a partner organisation which has already hosted several and knows the procedures, although I wouldn’t recommend making that your main criterion in finding a REP.
One thing to bear in mind for anyone considering a REP at WRB is how the work is affected by the rhythm of EU policy-making. The summer is a quiet period in Brussels, so it might be harder to plan a REP in July or August.
Things can change rapidly, too. The initial plan was for me to write an eight-page policy note on how Brexit would affect UK universities’ access to the Erasmus+ mobility programme. In late 2018, the next May seemed like a perfect time to do so. The UK was scheduled to leave the EU on 29th March, and the situation would have a bit over a month to settle down before I started my project. When the political situation changed, a rethink was in order.
I ended up writing my policy note about the ‘Missions’ which will form part of the new Horizon Europe research and innovation framework programme, which goes live in 2021. The aim was to keep university policy-makers up to date on what could be expected in the coming months and how they might engage with the relevant public consultations.
The project was also reorganised into two distinct phases, in response to policy developments. One week before I started my REP, the European Commission opened a call for applications from experts to become members of the five Mission boards, fifteen-member advisory bodies for each ‘Mission area’. The deadline for applications was four weeks later. Time was of the essence.
This is where taking the time to do some pre-REP background reading can be useful, perhaps especially for policy-focused projects. Having built up a reasonable background understanding of Horizon Europe, I was able to jump straight into looking at the latest source material available and produce a five-page note within my first week-and-a-half. It informed university policy-makers and potential applicants to the Mission boards call about the opportunities and risks to consider. Being well prepared meant I could complete this in time for it to still be useful.
The second phase was a longer policy note looking ahead to developments up to the first quarter of 2020, and particularly the public consultations on Mission development which can be expected in the second half of 2019. Meetings with representatives of regional university consortia from Italy, Sweden and France were useful in comparing impressions on policy developments – they also showed me how misplaced my self-doubt about holding such meetings had been.
It proved harder to set up a meeting with anyone from the European Commission to discuss the public consultations, although conversations with other policy observers suggested this was a general pattern at the specific moment. Announcements could be expected over the coming weeks, but were not ready to be floated in informal meetings. Relieved that the difficulties were not of my making, I was able to use this and other sources to develop a timeline of upcoming milestones for university policy-makers, and make relevant recommendations.
In the end, I was surprised to find my policy note in a finished state in the afternoon of my second-to-last day. Thankfully, I was able to spend the final day working on a post for WRB’s blog, but I was irritated with myself for not having realized I’d finish sooner than the Friday afternoon –if I had, I might have been able to take on and fit in additional useful and interesting work in the final week. I’d encourage others on their REP to keep looking ahead to see if they might have time available to expand the scope of what they can achieve and experience. The time goes quickly, and it’s worth fitting everything you possibly can into it!
I enjoyed the relatively short-term nature of the project, and the way the application process required me to plan it in some detail. It was good to be reminded how energising short-term goals can be – a lesson I will be taking into the third year of my doctorate. Concrete experience with project-planning skills will prove hugely helpful – while such skills are necessary for a PhD, the lack of formal training in them is a significant gap which the REP fills effectively. I love research but no longer want to go into academia following my PhD, so it was invigorating to see a possible alternative for a research-oriented future career.
Brussels was a fantastic place to live for a month, and it would be remiss if I didn’t close with some touristy hints and tips. On a boringly practical note, supermarkets shut much earlier than in the UK, and do not open on Sundays. Some smaller Carrefour stores stay open until late, but they are even more unreasonably expensive than the larger ones. Aldi was the best bet, I found, although this will vary according to neighbourhood.
Public transport in Brussels is fantastic, and it’s well worth investing in a monthly ‘STIB’ subscription, which costs €49 and will get you on the metro, trams and buses. You’ll need a ‘MOBIB’ card (a Brussels Oyster card, basically) to load the subscription onto. The card costs €5 and can be bought from travel centres at various stations in the city, of which the one at Central Station has the longest opening hours.
Sites to visit around the city include the Grande Place (and the many chocolate shops in the surrounding streets), the cathedral, the Royal Palace, the Manneken Pis (not that impressive, but an almost obligatory part of the tourist circuit), and the Palace of Justice for some great views over the city.
Brussels has some excellent museums, and I would heartily recommend the BELvue and Coudenberg museums at the Royal Palace, the Hallepoort, and the House of European History (do make sure you pick up a tablet guide at the latter, as physical information boards are practically non-existent. Audio guides are recommended everywhere if you can’t read French or Dutch, as a lot of information is not translated into any other language).
Belgian trains are excellent, and tickets for travel within Belgium are half price at the weekend, even if you buy on the day. I had a great time visiting Ghent one Saturday, which supplied some of the photos in this blog (there being no interesting photos more directly connected to my project, largely because I didn’t think about it at the time). There are many, many other places in easy reach: Leuven, Bruges, or even Amsterdam, Luxembourg or Paris if you take a full weekend for it.
Finally – very best of luck wherever you choose to do your REP!