Catherine Shaw is Head of Research at HM Inspectorate of Prisons

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I didn’t have any overriding or fixed ambition as a child, though I did go through a phase of wanting to test products for Which? magazine, suggesting an early leaning towards research.  This then lay dormant for about 15 years.

When did you first turn towards a social research career?
Relatively late. I drifted from a social science degree into a series of jobs in education and training, finally having my ‘light-bulb’ moment when I was working as a teacher in a unit for teenagers at risk of exclusion from school. While the work was interesting, enjoyable and challenging on a personal level, I wasn’t finding it intellectually satisfying. Browsing through an Open University prospectus, I came upon the syllabus for an MSc in social research methods and realised that I had - finally! - found my vocation. Looking back, I now feel very fortunate in having being able to change career so easily and cheaply - the whole degree only cost me a few hundred pounds. Times have certainly changed.

What was your first professional job?  And first project there?
My first social research job was at the Policy Studies Institute where I was initially recruited to work on a longitudinal study of school leavers in inner-city areas. My teaching experience certainly proved useful when negotiating the various levels of gatekeepers involved in recruiting 34 schools to participate in the study and agree to mail out three waves of questionnaires on our behalf.

Where did your career go next?  What motivated that/those moves?
I then spent a couple of years at a small research organisation with a focus on children, young people and families where I worked on various evaluation studies. Several of these were in the youth justice field, including that of the first Secure Training Centre for 12-15 year olds at Medway.

My next move took me out of a purely research environment into the National Children’s Bureau, an organisation where researchers worked alongside policy and practice experts. This post provided a wide range of challenges and opportunities in addition to delivering more traditional funded research projects. Some of the highlights included leading a project which supported groups of practitioners to design and implement their own small-scale evaluations, and working with NCB’s young research advisors to plan and co-facilitate a conference on the participation of children in all aspects of research.

My current post at, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, is different again. I manage a team of 12 social researchers whose primary task is to conduct surveys of detainees, providing evidence to inform inspections. As inspectorate staff, we are privileged in having unfettered access to prisons and other places of detention, and in being able to publish without political interference. It is important to remind myself how unusual this is in the world of social research today. As are our 80% plus response rates!

What has been your best professional moment?
My most satisfying professional moments have not been related to specific publications, presentations or workplace promotions. Rather they have been more private triumphs, in particular when I’ve successfully communicated the benefits (or, indeed, limitations) of specific research methods to non-researchers. Beneath the social researcher façade, the educator still lurks within.

...and worst?
At the end of a 90 minute qualitative interview realising that the tape recorder had been set up incorrectly and I had no data at all. I spent the evening trying to reconstruct the interview from notes and memory before returning to the office to confess.

Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Probably Cathie Marsh who taught a statistics for social sciences course which formed part of my first degree. She was a passionate, enthusiastic and inspiring teacher; she died too young.

What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
It’s a fantastic career for a curious person! In the early stages you will certainly meet some fascinating people and probably get to visit some interesting, if not always salubrious, places! You will definitely learn a lot about the world, and if all goes well, contribute to making it a better place. Who wouldn’t want all that?

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