How I got here.

I’ve always loved learning things and whilst I may not be academically brilliant, I keep at it. Because it’s something I find interesting. This is the main reason I wanted to do a PhD. I’m interested in the world and wanted to find out more. I’m curious as to why things in our world happen the way they do. Throughout school there were certain things that ignited my imagination and interest more than others, but unfortunately for me they always seemed to be the things I found the most difficult. Physics and maths specifically. I’d sit in lessons and be confused but eager, learning about theories and laws in an abstract manner. Then I’d go home and ask my dad what it actually meant. He’d explain to me that centrifugal force made a yo-yo work, or relate the electromagnetic spectrum to everyday things, like the microwave. This side of physics was much more interesting to me, the real world side where theories didn’t exist in isolation but had relevance to my life. Learning about particles on their own was dry, dull. Imagining all that happening inside the table I was sat at made it all more exciting. More real.

Sadly for me, examiners do not write tests based on real world applications of physics and maths. So upon opening my A level maths exam paper, I didn’t know how to answer a single question and ended up having a panic attack. Fortunately I’d also taken psychology A level and fallen in love with the subject. Here was a science that was entirely based around application of its principals. If a psychological theory was entirely theoretical, it wasn’t useful. This was where I wanted to be. Not just learning about how the world worked, but how people work. Why we do the things we know are stupid, but can’t help ourselves, why good people do terrible things, why some people aren’t seen as good people at all, even though the things they do might not be that bad.

During my psychology degree, there became an increasing fascination within the media with young people. When I went back home in the holidays, the front page of the local paper was complaining about “hoodies”. I wondered why so many people were upset by warm, comfy, jumpers. Curiosity hightened, I made my final year project about attitudes towards young people and fear of youth crime. Due to a spectacularly poorly written questionnaire my main finding was this:

If you are obviously looking for prejudice against a certain group, most people will say they are “unsure” about everything in your questionnaire.

Although I managed to interpret this as the media creating an entirely false moral panic about young people and youth crime, as the sample I spoke to seemed to have no strong opinions about young people, hoodies or not. Despite not creating the conclusive and world changing results I had hoped for, doing research was very exciting. Going and talking to people about their views on the world was the most fun I’d had throughout the degree (nerd alert!). I didn’t want to do anything else. Also the more I read about youth crime and young people, the more it didn’t make sense. My curiosity was piqued. So many young offenders in Britain have welfare, health or social problems that seemed to be unaddressed. Why would putting them into custody help?

So whilst I was applying for PhD places and trying to keep up with newer research I worked with young people for a bit in schools doing cover work or learning support. I’ll be honest, these were not the jobs for me. I didn’t like it at all, it made me angry because the systems currently in place to look after young people with additional needs or behavioural problems seemed pretty wrong to me. This anger made me want to research these areas even more, to find out why and offer a solution. I was eventually offered a PhD place and am just about to start my second year. I’ve not got any answers yet, let alone practical solutions, but I’m hoping to get there. Not sure if it’ll satisfy my curiosity though.

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About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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