The possibilities of a PhD (or why it’s ok to believe it really might change the world)

I began my PhD in 2012, a mature student, with a life history and experience which included a law degree, time at the Bar as a family and criminal barrister, work as a qualified Family Mediator and Citizen’s Advice Generalist Advisor, not to mention birthing and raising three children and acquiring a dog somewhere along the way.

I didn’t intend to enter academia, but in the process of trying to find a family friendly career I undertook a part time Masters degree in Criminology, Criminal Justice and Social Research at the University of Surrey. And that was when I had my light bulb moment, found a gap in research literature which I felt compelled to try to fill, and found myself applying for a PhD place and funding.

Thus began a journey that looked something like this

Credit: Academia Obscura

The PhD 

Funded by the ESRC and working at the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, I began work to analyse the rights of children in maternal sentencing decisions in England and Wales. Four and a half years later (I had to take a year out due to family priorities along the way), and exactly one year ago today I passed the Viva and became a Dr and another PhD survivor.

Last week I was awarded an Excellence in Impact Award by the O2RB Social Science group – a consortia consisting of the Social Sciences departments of the universities of Oxford, The Open University, Reading and Oxford Brookes – and apparently I’m now an ‘Early Career Impact Champion’.  I received the award because in the 12 months since I finished my PhD I have made films for sentencing professionals, based on my research findings, which are now in use across the criminal justice professions. Judges, magistrates, solicitors, barristers, probation staff are all using them. They are being shown in women’s prisons to help women prepare for their court hearings, and they are available on youtube for women awaiting sentencing hearings. Already they are changing sentencing practices and people’s lives.

Here’s the thing – I’m nothing special. My research is nothing exceptional, so how come it’s out there making a difference?

In the hope that if you are a PhD student or early career researcher it will encourage you to believe that you can see your research translated into real life impact too, I’m sharing 4 reasons why I think my research is making a difference 

1. I came into research thinking about change.

As a practitioner I did things that made a difference. That was the nature of my work. So I began my PhD with the assumption that if my findings were of relevance to practitioners outside academia I’d need to share them. Therefore when I got to the end of the research the obvious next step was to communicate the relevant information to the relevant people. It is only now (call me naïve) that I realise most people don’t think that way about their PhD work. And this is because ….

2. I didn’t think of my PhD as a stepping stone to something, but as ‘something’ in its own right

It’s very common for PhD researchers to be told by more senior academics that they shouldn’t expect their thesis to be their ‘Magnum Opus’. A friend of mine was told to think of hers as ‘a glorified school project’. This is good advice if the thinking behind it is to stop PhD researchers from becoming stressed by the size of the task. However it’s not good advice if it stops you from thinking that your research might be worth sharing beyond the very limited world of academia. A PhD is a massive piece of work. At the very least it will have taken 3 years of blood, sweat and tears and it will have been subjected to rigorous scrutiny and critique. When it is finished it will be a credible and robust piece of scholarship. You may go on to do other wonderful things, but your thesis is also a wonderful thing, and just because in academic terms it is perhaps not going to be the most impressive piece of scholarship you ever produce it does not mean that it cannot bring about change in the world.

3. I got some money 

I knew that if I wanted sentencers to understand what happens to children when their mum goes to prison, and therefore to sentence in a more consistent and informed way, I needed to get information to them, and asking them to read an academic journal was not the way to do it (I’m not even going to go into the difficulties of getting published in academic journals. That can keep). I decided to make short films and I  needed money to do that. An ESRC Impact Acceleration Award fitted my needs, and as it had to be applied for by a permanent member of staff at the University, my DPhil Supervisor made the application and when it was awarded I was appointed as the Research Associate on the project.

4. I found people and organisations to partner with 

Of course there was no point making films if my intended audiences didn’t want them, so the other big thing I needed to do was to build collaborative partnerships with all the professional bodies I wanted to ‘buy in’ to the project. In the end the Judicial College, Magistrates Association, Law Society, Criminal Bar Association, National Probation Service and HMPPS all partnered in the process, either in making the films or distributing them. It took me five of the ten months available to obtain participation agreement from all of them.  These are a few things I learned from that process:

Use networks – either those you’ve built up during your research, or those you already have from professional experience. Assume that every contact is a good contact as you never know who will connect you to the right person, especially when you’re not really sure who ‘the right person’ is! I’ve met playwrights, financiers, Tony Blair (in his house, in his tracksuit bottoms and slippers – a story for another day), judges, lawyers, campaigners, families who’ve experienced imprisonment, children, academics, practitioners, prison Governors, NGO staff. And ultimately all of those contacts meant that these films were made.

Understand the information needs of those you want to provide information to and allow the partners to shape the outcomes.  You may be the authority on the research you’ve done, but they will be the authority on how your research can be used by them. Do they want it as a film, a briefing paper, a webinar, an audio file? Who will they use it with? Do they want you to present it, or will they package it themselves?  You need to ask, listen and adapt accordingly. 

If 20 people say no, try the 21st   You just need one person to understand what it is you’re trying to do and what you’re offering to begin to make progress. It will not be easy or quick but it’s worth persisting.

The Impact

Since launching the films on 24th January 2018 I’ve been involved in dissemination activities ranging from an interview on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour to speaking at the annual conference of a group of criminal justice professionals. My work has been cited in debate in the House of Lords and I’ve been thanked publicly by the Minister with responsibility for women in the criminal justice system. I’ve written, tweeted, blogged, and talked about little else. This is why …

I’ve heard the stories of women who have asked their sentencers to look at the briefing papers I’ve produced, or to watch the films. The sentencers have taken time, in accordance with their obligations set out in the Sentencing Guidelines and case law, to properly understand how dependent children will be affected if their mother, who is their primary carer, is imprisoned. And having taken time to find out about the children, they have sentenced with that in mind, and children have suffered less than they otherwise might have done.

So I don’t have any publications in academic journals this year. But there are some children being tucked into bed by their mums tonight, who might not have been experiencing that if I’d not thought my research could change things.

What do you want your research to achieve? And what are you going to do about it?


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