Working for an Offender Learning and Skills Service Project - An interview with Katie, who has a BA (Hons) in Sociology and Criminology and is currently studying for an MA in Criminology
Top tip from Katie: 'Module choices can aid your career direction, and it is important to ensure that you take the time to consider these options, as a clear focus will stand you in good stead once you begin researching jobs and attending interviews.'
Deborah: What degree did you read for at university? And what subjects did you particularly enjoy studying?
Katie: I studied sociology and criminology, which offered a variety of interesting and stimulating modules choices covering a number of topics. I enjoyed most of my studies, if not all, but I particularly found learning about society and social functions, such as the criminal justice system, most enjoyable. I have a strong interest in socially excluded groups, and how the law deals with them, as well as the more general legal capabilities of the criminal justice system, within both national and international contexts. My chosen modules throughout my three years with Northampton University allowed me to address these interests, and therefore expand my existing knowledge base from my A Level foundations.
D: Did you volunteer while you were at university? What did you do? And do you feel it helped - with your academic studies and with securing work after graduation?
K: I volunteered with Aim Higher and the Sociology Department at the University as a Student Mentor working with A Level students. My volunteering involved providing support and guidance for students who would have been the first in their families to embark on a degree. I found this very fulfilling and it was something of interest to prospective employers during interview. Not only did these activities serve as a discussion point during interview, but my experiences also assisted some of my studies surrounding the educational system, family organisation and social development. I also volunteered my time as a Student Representative for the Sociology second and third year cohort, which involved attending meetings and giving small presentations surrounding the articulation of student views and opinions in conjunction with staff and tutor feedback. The formality of this role enabled me to develop skills relevant to my current position, which requires me to attend both formal and informal meetings and communicate with a range of individuals from different backgrounds and professionalisms. I also volunteered in arranging and delivering a sponsored Golf Day in conjunction with Barclays Bank and the Alzheimer's Society; this role again enable me to develop some key employment skills, but most importantly proved to be of interest to potential employers and therefore gave me somewhat of an edge at the application and interview stages of recruitment.
D: When you were coming to the end of your degree programme, how did you decide what you wanted to do as a career?
K: My career direction towards the end of my degree was not much clearer from when I began! Studying both sociology and criminology encourages you to reflect quite extensively on a variety of interesting topics, which for me somewhat confused a clear career focus. I was considering a variety of options from social care to the Civil Service, becoming a police officer, prison officer or probation officer, and working within the educational system. I think because I had not been able to narrow my options, and perhaps had not given it enough thought (what with essay deadlines and dissertation research), I took on a job which was almost completely irrelevant to my degree and interests. I was a recruitment consultant for an international finance consultancy and worked for them for 6 months. I then took two months out to really research the types of jobs available, which would match both my interests and academic background. This time was absolutely vital to where I am now, and I would recommend that all graduates take the time to really consider their employment options and further training possibilities.
Although I do not regret my time in recruitment, and in fact my recruitment experiences actually aided my successful application with SOVA (as I now recruit and train volunteers), I knew that I had rushed into the position and was not actively using the three years I had spent studying for my degree. I decided to contact one of my former sociology tutors in the hope that he might be able to point me in the right direction with regard to my interests, he was only too happy to help. We went through my options and discussed various possible routes which helped me to clarify some objectives. I then visited the careers advice department at the University, who again were very happy to help. I found my appointment with them very useful and was given a range of materials and research tools, which again enabled me to clarify some objectives and obtain a clearer direction in my career path.
During my time out I applied for many positions and attended three interviews which represented my major interests. These included an interview for a position working with women in Northamptonshire who are deaf and blind and the role predominantly surrounded setting up support networks and workshops for the women. I also attended another interview, which was for a position surrounding the promotion and engagement of fostering and adoption of ethnic minority children. The third interview was for the role of Support Officer working for SOVA and working with OLASS and Thames Valley Probation, and this is how my career began with SOVA. I decided to accept the position with SOVA as this is where my passion lies: working within the criminal justice system, and the position was also part-time which enabled me to embark upon a Masters in Criminology.
D: Tell me about the recruitment process you undertook to get your first job in your field.
K: The recruitment process began first with the completion of an application form, a somewhat difficult and lengthy process, and one which requires you to attempt to stand out from all the other applicants. I was contacted for interview and the interview lasted about an hour and I was required to give a ten minute presentation on how I would encourage an offender to understand the importance of basic skills, and therefore embark on training and educational qualifications as part of their probation order. I was exceptionally nervous but my presentation went well. I was asked a variety of questions about my academic background, qualifications, previous work experience and volunteering. I came away from the interview feeling very positive and after having my questions answered I was 100% sure that this was the position I had been looking for and fortunately I was offered the job.
D: Once you'd got your job, what was the induction and training like?
K: SOVA are a small charity and a registered company, however, they provided an exceptional standard of support and guidance through my induction process and this has been maintained right up to the present day. My initial induction surrounded courses which introduced new staff to SOVA and also visiting other SOVA projects. My project induction involved meeting project staff and touring the probation offices and colleges, which I was to be working with. SOVA offer an impressive range of training courses for both staff and volunteers, some of these are compulsory for new staff, and some I am able to book myself on at any time which is particularly useful and comforting. I have received extensive training during my time with SOVA some of which includes the following: training surrounding working within the criminal justice system and working with probation, also understanding the project cycle and lifeline, as well as training surrounding budgeting and project management. Overall I would highly rate my induction and training from SOVA and Milton Keynes College who manage the OLASS Contract for Thames Valley.
D: Tell me about your current job. What does a Project Manager for an Offender Learning and Skills Service Project do in a typical day?
K: The best thing about my job is that there is never a 'typical day'. My position allows me to organise my time and workload priorities so that I am able to ensure a variety of interesting activities throughout the day. I complete a variety of administrative requirements such as answering volunteer applicants, sending volunteer information packs and various recruitment activities; I also meet with a variety of people from probation, OLASS, FE Colleges and volunteers across Thames Valley. I attend various meetings one of these being the OLASS Steering Group and I prepare and deliver SOVA Core Training for both volunteers and project staff.
D: What have been the key challenges you've faced so far in your job? How have you dealt with them?
K: Initially a most obvious challenge was managing a project and being accountable for the SOVA contract in Thames Valley. Although my time at university allowed me to develop organisational and time-management skills, it was a challenge to adapt these skills to the needs of the project, which can vary considerably. It was also a challenge taking on new responsibilities such as managing the project budget and stationary requirements, as well as training expenses and preparations. I am also in contact with a variety of individuals and organisations as part of my role and it has proved important to maintain the reputation of SOVA and therefore adapt readily to the needs and requirements of project and its associates.
Having studied the criminal justice system in theory, I found it was quite different within an employment context, and particularly when working with our client base. There is not a textbook or essay you can write which will fully prepare one to work within probation and with probationers. There is always a new challenge to meet with our client base as their backgrounds and experiences vary so widely. However this has proved to be a continuous string of challenges which I enjoy very much. There was also the need for me to learn more about the Basic Skills and Skills for Life arena, which one might call a challenge; however training and subsequent experience has resolved any previous concerns.
Overall, I feel I have enjoyed the above challenges; I have gained extensive experience and feel more confident in meeting our project requirements every day.
D: Tell me about the most rewarding aspects of your job so far?
K: I have developed a range of new skills and perspectives which I have found particularly rewarding. It has also been rewarding working with a wide range of people and working so closely with probation and academic staff. During my time with SOVA and the project I feel I have developed both within my career path and academic qualities as well as personally from all that I have learnt and experienced, and this is very rewarding.
However, the most rewarding aspect of my job is the achievements made by probationers through staff support and volunteer assistance. We have achieved a great number of basic skills qualifications, which has enabled our probation learners to progress in other further forms of training, education and/or employment. SOVA's philosophy is to promote and support the rehabilitation and resettlement of offenders in order to reduce the likelihood of re-offending through volunteer and mentor involvement. In theory this can sound quite idealistic, but to see it actually happen, and for SOVA's philosophy to come to life within our project, these achievements continue to be the most rewarding aspects of my job.
D: I know you're currently studying for an MSc in Criminology at the University of Northampton. Why did you decide to study for a postgraduate qualification? Is it expected of people working in your field?
K: No, my MSc is not a requirement of my current position, however, both SOVA and OLASS fully support my academic career and I do feel that the prospect of me undertaking an MSc gave me an edge at the interview stage and continues to do so through my extended knowledge and understanding surrounding the theory which unpins the practicalities of my job. The main reason I decided to study for an MSc is because I love learning and it has proved to be beneficial in all areas of my life. I also hope that having this qualification it might assist with my future career development and professional goals, as well as giving me the knowledge of having achieved some personal ambitions.
D: Are there opportunities to progress from your current job in the organisation that you work for? How might your career develop?
K: Yes there are always new opportunities with SOVA throughout England and Wales. SOVA as an organisation functions through securing project contracts with a variety of organisations and working with an extensive client base.
When I first started with SOVA I was a Support Officer for the project and I was responsible for Buckinghamshire. After being with SOVA for 6 months I was promoted to Project Manager and I now look after the three counties within Thames Valley with regard to volunteer recruitment and training as well as overseeing our project requirements.
I am always able to visit other projects in order to gain more experience and understanding of our project and there exists different levels of project manager roles depending upon the contractual requirements for a certain geographical location.
Should SOVA secure a new contract within Thames Valley, or a geographical location desirable to me, I would be able to apply for promotion and progress through the project manager grades. SOVA as an organisation fully support staff development, and I have received fantastic guidance and encouragement from both my line manger and Southern Director. For me SOVA is an excellent company to work for.
D: What advice would you give undergraduate students who are interested in working in your field? What do you think they might do to ready themselves for work in your field (for instance, in terms of skills development at university and in voluntary work/work experience)?
K: I would strongly recommend that undergraduates seriously consider their module options during their degree, as the theory which underpins the practicalities of employment is a good indicator to your strengths and weaknesses, surrounding your capabilities and interests. Module choices can aid your career direction, and it is important to ensure that you take the time to consider these options, as a clear focus will stand you in good stead once you begin researching jobs and attending interviews.
If you would like to work within the criminal justice system is it vital that you consider which section is best suited to your academic qualities and interests. For example, this will often link to your views on crime and criminals; I considered working with the police and magistrate/crown courts, however, I found this was not right for me as I am more concerned with working to enhance the rehabilitation of offenders and reducing re-offending, rather than catching and prosecuting criminals. Due to this I began to seek employment within probation and prisons, which surrounded community and social development in association with the criminal justice system and project work.
If possible I would recommend that you seek opportunities for work experience within your areas of interest. This is achievable via a number of routes, either as part of your course via a placement, speaking with your personal tutor for advice, registering with the volunteer department at your university and within your local town centre, and/or contacting your chosen organisation directly. Gaining experiences will help you to clarify your employment objectives and it will also give you an edge when applying for prospective positions.
Furthermore, ensure that you make use of the facilities at your University. For me, the support, guidance and teaching from both the criminology and sociology departments was of an exceptional standard, and it has subsequently aided my academic career, personal developments and achievements. I felt part of a community whilst studying with Northampton University and with great modules choices, and all of the teaching staff being so approachable, this made my time spent as an undergraduate very enjoyable and it is the main reason why I have returned to complete my MSc in Criminology with the University.
Finally, try not to panic once you graduate, I can say from experience that there is a lot of pressure to gain employment once completing your degree, however, I didn't secure my position with SOVA until a year after I graduated and I am still developing my skills and expertise two years on. Life after 'studenthood' can be very difficult to adapt to, but once you find the position right for you, you will find that everything clicks in to place and the three years you spent studying were totally worthwhile. However, it is important to stand out from the crowd and add to your studies with additional experiences, constant commitment and real passion for what you want to do with the rest of your life. As they say 'the world is your oyster'! Good luck!