How working as a probation officer inspired me to complete a PhD

Headshot of Vikkie Barrett PhD Graduate
Vickie Barrett
PhD graduate
School of Law
After working as a probation officer and completing a degree in community and criminal justice, Vickie decided to undertake a postgraduate degree here at the School of Law, with the aim to work towards a PhD.

Study Period: 2017 - 2020

PhD Supervisors: 

Professor S. Farrall (Primary Supervisor)

Dr E. Gray (Second Supervisor)

Title of PhD:

Assessing the relevance of political attitudes towards ‘rulebreakers’ in the criminal justice system, the welfare system and the education system in British society today.

What was the topic of your PhD and why was it important?

My PhD takes a multi-disciplinary approach to examining punitiveness in the criminal justice system, the welfare system and the education system in British society. These three areas are explored with a view to understanding the various punitive attitudes of the general population and the influence of enduring political values on social attitudes in contemporary society. The study uses new survey data applying quantitative and qualitative analyses to examine the relationship between public punitiveness towards ‘rulebreakers’ and political values.

Findings suggest that punitive attitudes towards rulebreakers are related to individual feelings about macro-level change. This nostalgia is related to neo-conservative values and to neo-liberal values. Political values therefore are central to understanding punitive attitudes. My PhD argues that using a tiering model can aid deeper understanding into public punitiveness. Additionally, my PhD suggests that punitiveness is not exclusive to criminal rulebreakers but is prevalent towards rulebreakers across different regulatory systems and that this punitiveness is underpinned by similar values.

What motivated you to pursue a PhD?

Prior to my PhD, I worked as a probation officer for eight years in the National Probation Service. As part of my training for the probation officer qualification I completed a degree in Community and Criminal Justice, which I really enjoyed and at that point decided that I would like to complete a PhD at some point in the future. In 2016, I returned to post graduate study to complete an MA in International Criminology in the School of Law at the University of Sheffield with the aim of completing a PhD following this. It was whilst I was completing the MA that I had an opportunity to apply for a PhD in the School of Law. The idea for my PhD originated from my work as a probation officer: many people who I worked with were repeatedly and frequently sanctioned from various regulatory bodies i.e. the education system (excluded from school) and the welfare system (financial sanctions) – I was therefore interested in researching punitiveness in a multi-disciplinary way.  

What have you valued the most about your experiences of the School of Law as a PhD student?

I have been able to achieve my career aspirations. I am now a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Huddersfield. When I returned to further study in 2016, I hoped that I would be able to combine my previous experiences of working as a teacher in Further Education and Secondary Schools with my probation experience to become a lecturer in Criminology in Higher Education. Returning to further study from working felt like a real luxury to me – I had time to read, reflect and consider my area of research following a very busy period of working in the criminal justice system. I really valued this and the support I was given by my supervisors.

What is next for you, career-wise, after the PhD?

Following completion of my PhD for a sixth month period, I worked part time for the School of Law and the Department of Sociology at the University of Sheffield as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. I also worked as an Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University in the Health Department teaching quantitative research methods, and motivational interviewing and behavioural change. I also worked as Research Assistant for the School of Law for a short period administering a survey and analysing the data. I am now a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Huddersfield.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about completing a PhD in the School of Law?

I think it is important to speak to other PhD students within the department of interest and in other departments – I found this really useful whilst completing the MA. Also, talk to potential supervisors – you are going to be working closely with them for a few years at least – it is important therefore to feel that you will be supported well by them. Ask them how often they meet their PhD students and what sort of support they offer, for example.

Find a PhD

Search for PhD opportunities at Sheffield and be part of our world-leading research.