Case Study: PhD internship delivers first UK-wide study of demand for old-age care

The UK’s population is ageing. In 20 years, it is projected one in four people in the country will be aged 65 or over. With the overall population set to rise to 73 million during the same period, there will be more than 18 million older people in the country by 2041. As more of us live longer, the demand for social care will increase.

Target Fund Managers wanted to understand what the ageing population will mean for the residential care sector. However, Healthcare Data Manager Gillian Fairbairn says accurately predicting future requirements is challenging: “The way residential care for older people is funded and organised, either privately or with support from local authorities, varies by area which means it can be difficult to build a picture for the whole country.”

"Mory was an excellent addition to our team, and confirmed the value of bringing in an early career researcher. His ability to work autonomously with the right level of guidance allowed me to focus on other important aspects of my role. There is no way we could have achieved what we did without him."

Gillian Fairbairn, Target Fund Managers Tweet

Having completed a similar internship, Gillian believed a doctoral student could bring valuable knowledge and data analytics skills to help overcome these difficulties. Gillian says she also needed someone with the necessary soft skills to navigate local government: “Local authorities held the data, but each had a different way of measuring and recording it. It was essential the PhD student understood how to interpret this data to get the insights we needed. They also had to be a self-starter who could quickly get up to speed with the social and ethical conversations around care.”

Gillian asked the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) to advertise the project to PhD students across Scotland, as part of its Innovation Internships Scheme. The programme gives doctoral students 50 per cent match-funding to undertake a three-month internship with a business or industry partner.

University of Edinburgh Economics PhD student, Mory Clark, seized the opportunity to complement his research interests: “I study the impact of migration on the countries people leave, but I am also keen to learn how the movement of people into a country affects its demographics. Target Fund Manager’s innovative research proposal offered a great opportunity to apply my practical research skills, knowledge and insights to conduct an in-depth analysis of future demand for elderly care across the UK.”

Mory’s first task was to write a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to more than 200 local authorities and health trusts that administer funding for residential care in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, Mory says the challenges didn’t end there: “We went through several revisions to settle on a set of questions which would make sense in each context and give us comparable data. But the real hard work started when I began contacting the local authorities and health trusts. While some were responsive, some said they didn’t hold the relevant information and referred us to other bodies. The experience taught me a lot about engagement and communication. It also demonstrated persistence is key when gathering this kind of information.”

Gillian says the insights they gained were worth Mory’s perseverance: “The final sample covers more than four-fifths of the UK’s over 65 population, which for the first time gives us representative data for the country as a whole.”

Mory is positive about the professional skills he gained through the internship: “If my PhD supervisor suggests I change an aspect of my work, it’s my prerogative whether I act on their recommendation. However, when your boss says you have to do something, it’s different entirely. Being responsive to management is as much of a skill as managing is. The internship also stressed the need to communicate my research in different ways, depending on the audience. I learned switching the emphasis takes nothing away from the rigour of the work but can increase its impact.”

Gillian is also pleased with the results: “Mory was an excellent addition to our team, and confirmed the value of bringing in an early career researcher. His ability to work autonomously with the right level of guidance allowed me to focus on other important aspects of my role. There is no way we could have achieved what we did without him.”

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