Sociology student Lisa Bernhardt’s joined the project ‘Birth as a medium for change’ with Cambridge City Council, taking her research into real-life social issues and giving her a greater sense of understanding and appreciation of the handling of sensitive personal and social problems.

Lisa’s case study report told us of her “very fulfilling experience” :

“As I stated in my application to the fellowship, I consider myself a feminist, both in regard to my academic and non-academic work, and, thus, have a deep investment in women’s issues, especially healthcare and reproductive health. The Birth as a medium for change project seemed to embody this particular political stance and work ethic, giving me the opportunity to work with a variety of people (family workers, doulas, City Councils employees etc) on an issue within the local community that I, as a student at the University of Cambridge, am part of, but rarely interact with. Cambridge is a place of notable social inequality, and as a person who is part of the most privileged demographic in this town, I felt that this project was a way for me to make a positive contribution to the place that has been my home for the past few years.

The ‘Birth as a medium for change’ project is a multi-agency project facilitated by the Cambridgeshire City Council. It brings together various parties with an interest in women’s wellbeing and health, including the Cambridge Women’s Resource Centre, the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre, and several local doulas (non-medical birth companions), that collaboratively work to support pregnant women in the Cambridgeshire area whose situations are particularly difficult due to, amongst other things, mental health issues, a history of domestic and/or sexual violence, and previously complicated interactions with authorities such as the NHS and child protective services. My role as the fellowis to create an impact evaluation report that the project can use in future funding bids to cover the costs for the doulas (as well as admin costs) as well as to present it to other councils who are interested in rolling out similar projects. Furthermore, the report will also serve to project to reflect internally on where improvements could be made to provide even better support to the mothers/mothers-to-be in need of additional guidance.

The main aim of the fellowship is to create an impact evaluation report that the project can use in future funding bids, as an example for other councils with an interest in similar projects, and for internal reflection and improvement. In order to be able to produce said report, I have been regularly attending meetings of the project group as well as organized individual meetings with doulas to write up case studies and with my fellowship mentor to clarify any questions so I could gain an understanding of how the project works and what is necessary to be researched and included in the report to achieve the desired outcomes. Whilst the report was completed in December 2018 and has received positive feedback so far, it has been only a few months since its completion, so at this stage, it is difficult to tell to what extent it has facilitated improvements within the project group as well as its impact on a greater scale, beyond Cambridgeshire.

Whilst I was undeniably struggling during the duration of the fellowship (in regards to my PhD as well as my personal wellbeing and any extracurriculars I was undertaking, such as the fellowship) due to ongoing, disability-related health issues, I nevertheless feel that the fellowship increased my overall confidence in group work settings. Group work has always been something that I’ve felt less comfortable with than working on my own, but throughout the project, I felt like my skills and contributions were genuinely appreciated by everyone in our group, which made me keener to participate to the best of my abilities and approach tasks that were out of my comfort zone (including travelling to unknown destinations for meetings by myself). Furthermore, due to the complex nature of issues surrounding the mothers and expecting mothers the group was working with, the fellowship gave me a greater sense of understanding of and appreciation for the handling of sensitive personal and social problems, how to work with the people affected by them, and how to address them on an institutional level, which will undoubtedly be beneficial for my future career plans

I believe that, even with a PhD in sociology, it is vital for an aspiring social researcher to have worked in a non-academic context and applied their skills in a practical manner that isn’t part of their PhD fieldwork since academic research often has a somewhat artificial, removed’ feel to it. Working with a team of non-academics that bring their own expertise and skills to the project has been a great exercise in teamwork whilst working with a cohort of vulnerable participants is equally rewarding and challenging, which I feel is something to be expected of social research as a profession. Being able to utilize my social research skills in an applied and challenging context as well as strengthening my teamwork skills and gaining a deeper understanding of social research circumstances outside of academia have definitely been very valuable aspects of this fellowship that will hopefully prove to future employers than I can work in a range of scenarios with different people and not just academically.

I think that the experiences I’ve made during the fellowship, especially with regard to working with people outside of an academic setting, would be very beneficial for other students since undertaking a PhD, especially in a place like Cambridge, can be a very sheltered experience and almost remove us intellectually as well as literally from the real life social issues we are addressing in our research. Anyone who wants to pursue a career in social research, whether in academia or not, should ideally undertake an fellowship to reconnect with the lived realities of people so that social issues, no matter what kind, don’t become abstract concepts and numbers over time, but remain at the forefront of the researcher’s motivation to address them practically and productively with their work.

I’d personally advise other social science students undertaking the fellowship to establish a very clear outline of expectations and deliverable results with their fellowship supervisor in order to ensure that they know exactly what they need to do, what part they play in the wider setting of their fellowship , and to ultimately meet their goals successfully without causing too much interruption to their PhD.”

Lisa Bernhardt took her fellowship at Cambridgeshire City Council between September and December 2018.

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