Thinking of doing a Criminology  PhD? Here’s Some Advice

I was recently asked what advice I would give to someone who was considering embarking on a PhD in Criminology and it really got me thinking about what I would have told myself 12 years ago. This was actually a difficult challenge because the first response to pop into my head was “don’t do it!”, but then I realised that’s probably the worst thing  to say to a prospective PhD student. I often find it difficult to advise people on their academic journey, even undergraduates who ask whether they should embark on a Masters, reason being is that everyone is different. If could turn back the clock I would have chosen a different direction after my undergraduate course and to this day I still sometimes kick myself for rejecting a job offer to embark on postgraduate study. In essence I’m probably the worst person to ask about careers in academia unless you want to hear all the negative experiences I’ve had (which will be all too familiar to followers of this blog!). Nevertheless, career and further study advice is something I am expected to do in my role as a lecturer and it is flattering when students choose to come to me for advice. I have also found myself being asked for advice by people not currently undertaking any higher education study, for instance corporate professionals, or part-time working parents, who think that a move to academia would be a good career move. So I thought I would note down some of my suggestions for people considering applying to do a PhD based on my own experiences, which may or may not be helpful! I must stress that this advice is more suited to those early on in their working life or mid career. Motivations for doing a PhD later in working life (i.e. near of after retirement) will be very different.

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The first piece of advice I would give anyone who is considering applying for a PhD is to think really hard about why you want to do it. I was encouraged to apply for a PhD scholarship by a Professor in my department and to be honest I applied without any expectation that I would be successful. I was told I had potential and it was a great opportunity for me and so my reason for applying was purely on the basis that I may not get the opportunity again and so I should at least try. This was the wrong reason to apply for a PhD. A PhD is a huge undertaking, anywhere between 3 and 8 years of your life and you really must want to do it. Questions to ask yourself are what you hope to achieve by having a PhD, how it will help you reach career goals, what will you do after the PhD and how does it weigh up against your other options? If you answer questions such as these and decide the PhD still seems like a good option then the next step is to do a lot of research,which is my second piece of advice. But before I move on to that I should make an important point, which is that a PhD does not lead you directly into an academic post. This is an old myth that many still believe. If an academic career is one you want to strive for then be aware that there is much more involved than just having a PhD.

Researching what is involved in a PhD is very important and I don’t think many people do this (I certainly did not). Speak to people at various stages of their criminology PhD journey to find out their experiences (as I say, everyone will have different tales to tell), the highs and the lows. Undertaking a PhD is hard, it is mean to be hard, and as a result it can often be the most difficult part of an academic career. It is a very lonely process, even when you have a strong network of people around you, and you only need do a quick Google search to see the number of people discussing mental health issues when doing a PhD. A further factor to consider in your research is the cost, will you be able to afford to do a PhD if you don’t obtain a scholarship? Will you have to work in paid employment whilst trying to do your PhD? Again speak to as many people as possible and their different life circumstances. I was fortunate that at the time of my PhD I had no children and I had a fully paid scholarship, but for many this is not the case and this can lead to added pressures. Being fully aware of what a PhD actually involves (the reading, the researching, the writing, the supervision, the deadlines, the financial implications) will be of tremendous help and thus it is worthwhile taking the time to do this research. Speak to lecturers about their journey from PhD to their first academic post and you will be more prepared for the reality of life after a PhD.

Once you have decided you definitely still want to do a criminology PhD, think very carefully where you want to undertake your PhD and who you want to supervise it. This is vitally important because if you are unhappy with the institution or with your supervisors then it will make the PhD journey even more difficult. I don’t have space in this post to write all about bad supervisory relationships (that is one for another day!) but there are plenty of blog posts and news articles written by people who had the most awful supervisory experiences. Again doing your homework first can help minimise some pitfalls. One mistake many applicants make is to apply to a department because there is a well known, very successful, professor and they think that they need to be supervised by the “best of the best”. The truth is that professors continually writing books and articles, attending conferences, sitting on executive boards and editorial boards, undertaking policy consultancy, and travelling the world as visiting fellows are busy people. It is important that you have a supervisor who will have time for you, who will make time to read your work, meet with you and support you. That is not to say that all successful professors will be too busy, but rather some just have little quality time for PhD students. If you have a supervisor in mind then get in touch with people they are currently supervising and find out how the relationship is going. Speak to people about PhD support and resources within the department and wider institution to determine whether it is the right place for you. My advice on identifying a potential supervisor is the same as identifying a potential viva examiner, find out what they are like first, get as many first hand experiences as you can. Just because you had a really nice lecturer or tutor as an undergraduate/Masters student doesn’t mean they will be the best for PhD supervision.

Following on from this, you also need to consider a department or institution’s motivation for you undertaking the PhD with them. It didn’t take me long to realise that my department didn’t actually give a damn about me or my research, I was just there to make up the numbers, bring in the scholarship money and when I was finished I was quickly forgotten about. I have found that academics who are nearing retirement are the best supervisors because they have nothing to prove and are truly interested in the new talent coming through. For the mid career academics, they often welcome PhD students because it helps build up their supervisory portfolio in order to achieve their next promotional status (reader, professor) or to boost their own Criminological ego. I will apologise if that offends any of my mid career colleagues. but truth be told many would much rather focus on their own work than supervise other people’s. So try to find a department who are truly interested in what you are studying and those who genuinely appear to be invested in you.

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Now the next piece of advice may seem relatively straightforward, that is, what do you want to do your PhD on? You may be reading this thinking, well obviously I know what I want to do otherwise I wouldn’t be applying for a PhD, right? Well actually you would be surprised the number of people who change the focus of their PhD within the first year and decide that their initial idea was either flawed, boring or unachievable. I fit into this category when I did a complete U-turn on my PhD after 6 months. Having an interest in a topic at UG or PG level is very different from studying a topic in great depth at PhD level and people quickly realise that they need a new direction. Whilst this is quite normal I view it as very dangerous and, under the time constraints for completing a PhD, it can lead to a lot of stress and anxiety. I wish I had waited until I knew for certain what topic I was truly passionate about before applying for a PhD, a topic I could see myself studying for years to come. In the end I did change my topic but I still ended up doing something I didn’t really find interesting or enjoyable, instead the PhD just became a process of producing a 100,000 word thesis in the time I had left. If you are unsure about the topic you have in mind or are inclined to be indecisive my advice is hold off until the time is right. I remember being a 3rd year UG and a (very wise) lecturer telling me “Go out and work in the world then come back to academia, do don’t what I did, which was UG to PG to PhD to Postdoc to Lecturer, you will regret it”. How I wish I had listened to her because this was probably the best advice I never took. If you are at a mid point in your (non-academic) career then it is likely you may already have found your passion so this decision might be easier, however no matter who you are or what you currently do, ensuring you are passionate about your chosen topic is vital for any PhD journey.

The last piece of advice I would give is to think about what your life would be like if you didn’t do a PhD. Even if you are set on applying for a PhD in Criminology (or any other discipline), it doesn’t mean you will necessarily be successful and you should always have a back up plan. Sometimes this is enough to make you realise you don’t actually need a PhD or can help you find your passion. So for instance, people interested in helping victims of crime realise that it is more rewarding to work with victims than it is to write about them. Those who want to improve policing often realise that a PhD won’t make much difference but working in (with) the police could have great impact. Unfortunately it pains me to say that only a minority of (academic) criminologists make real world differences. For the most part our work is shared among fellow academics and, particularly in today’s political climate, academic work is rarely valued in the places it aims to impact. For instance, for the last 20 years (and more) criminologists have solid evidence to show prison does not work, it is not effective at reducing offending or rehabilitating, yet here we are in 2017 and Liz Truss (former Secretary of State for Justice) announced the building of yet more prisons. This is just one example of many of criminal justice moves that go against years worth of academic evidence. This brings me back to the first point I made; consider why you are doing a PhD in the first place because it may just be that you can achieve your goals without having to endure years of stress and pressure that all PhD students face.

So there you have it, my insight into things to consider if you are wanting to do a PhD in Criminology. For many reading this you may find that you have all the information you need to embark on your PhD journey and to you I wish you the best of luck. For others it may help you think more carefully about whether a PhD is right for you and what further information you need before applying. I did not intend this post to ‘put people off’ (although it may have come across that way) but rather offer some practical first hand advice that could help you on your way.

Here’s a short summary of do’s and don’ts:

Do:

  • Have a clear motivation for undertaking a PhD
  • Be fully informed about what it involves and the impact it may have on other areas of your life
  • Research carefully potential departments and institutions
  • Consider whether a PhD is a necessity to achieve your ambitions
  • Be realistic about what life after a PhD would look like and whether it will be worth it
  • Choose a topic you are passionate about

Don’t:

  • Just do it because someone suggested you do it
  • Assume you will automatically get a job because you have a PhD
  • Think that having a PhD will help you change the world
  • Do a PhD because you think it is easier than working full time (it’s not!)
  • Be swayed by people who are trying to boost the research profile of the department/university
  • Be put off by this post if you know deep down it’s the right path for you

As always thanks for reading!

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