Tuesday, 15 March 2011

What on earth do you do with a Sociology degree?

by Michelle Buckberry, Keele graduate in Sociology

(On the left, Michelle now; on the right, Michelle when she was at Keele)

I graduated from Keele University in 2001 with a BA Joint Honours in Visual Art and Sociology. About two months before I was due to sit my finals, I went into panic mode. What on earth was I going to do with this degree once I got it? How on earth was I going to integrate my two main interests, art and society, into some kind of paid employment come July? It was a scary thought, and one I began to wish I had considered sooner. The spectre of the real world was looming and I didn’t have a clue how I was going to survive in it.

So, what did I do? Well, I read a self help book. Something that many of you (including my friends – you know who you are) will scoff at. However, this wasn’t any self help book. This was the guide to careers for artists and unconventional people. When I saw it in a bookshop in Nottingham, I thought I had been saved. Any maybe I was. Several quizzes, personality tests and soul searching sessions later I figured out what I wanted to be. An art therapist. It was perfect. I get to work with interesting people and paint at the same time. My dream job.

There were two obstacles to this dream. One was a rather costly MA. The other was the need to have experience working with vulnerable adults. Luckily a mature student in the year below me was less naïve about the wonders of work and pointed me in the direction of Society Guardian. Eagerly I scampered to the nearest newsagents and, after a few false starts, found a couple of jobs I could apply for that did not require any previous experience. One of them was working for Mencap as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities down in London. So, off I went on the train from Stoke on Trent and attended my first interview. The rest, as they say, is history.

I worked for Mencap for four and a half years, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, it was challenging at times, but I look back on that first job with fond memories. But it became apparent quite early on in my career that I like change. I did a bit of voluntary work to widen my experience, first at a clinic for sex workers, and later at a hostel for rough sleepers where I ran an art group. In 2005, however, I knew it was time to move on. I had been promoted at Mencap and was now a deputy manager, and it was time to either move onwards or upwards. Literally, in fact, as I hopped across the river from good old Lambeth to Camden.

My first job at Camden Council was as a support worker for homeless families, but I soon moved on to work with ex-offenders and drug users who needed support moving into and living in privately rented accommodation. It was certainly an eye opener and my first proper glimpse into the Criminal Justice System. But, after about two and a half years, I was ready to try something new.

For the last two and a half years I have worked with Prolific and other Priority Offenders (or PPOs) and their families. My remit is to work with some of the most prolific offenders in Camden who are not currently under any statutory supervision from the probation services, in a multi agency team alongside London Probation, the Metropolitan Police and the Drug Intervention Programme (DIP). It has certainly been a challenge to say the least. My experience is that you can lead a horse to water…, which is certainly true of offenders, especially those who seem to have had their anti-social behaviour ingrained within them by the age of eighteen. However, every now and again we work with an offender who turns their life around, and some of them even end up working in the field themselves.

As for the Art Therapy? Well, I did apply to do a course a couple of years ago and was delighted when I was offered a place at Goldsmiths University. Unfortunately I ended up turning it down due to the sheer amount of time and money I would have to commit. However, I have yet to give up on the idea. Who knows what the future may bring? One thing is for certain: If you had told me when I graduated that in ten years time I would be knocking on the doors of burglars with the police and popping along to HMP Wormwood Scrubs on a regular basis, I don’t think I would have believed you.

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