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Meet the Team: Helen Trinder, Associate Lecturer in Criminology

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My Academic Journey

Two weeks ago, I attended a university reunion. My cohort are now in our late 40s or early 50s but it is remarkable how little we had all changed. Being back in the place where we all studied together put me in reflective mood and that (combined with some timely prompting from Paula) inspired me to share my academic journey.

I was one of those annoying kids who did well at school and knew exactly what they wanted to do. As a small child, I wanted to be a nurse but I later developed an aversion to bodily fluids which made that career choice untenable. I briefly flirted with the idea of being an English teacher, but both of my parents were in education and strenuously tried to dissuade me. So, at the age of about 14, I decided that I wanted to be a prison psychologist. I was in a careers lesson at school, and we had a big green plastic box filled with cards on which were written descriptions of different jobs. I announced that I wanted to be a psychiatrist (I think I was just being provocative) but I couldn’t find “psychiatrist” in the box, so I picked the closest one that I could find: “psychologist”. I read the card and it sounded really interesting, so I decided to find out more about psychology. The more I read, the more interesting I found it, and when I looked into the sorts of settings where I could work as a psychologist, prisons called out to me.

I was very lucky to secure a place to read Experimental Psychology at University College, Oxford in 1990. People have an image of ancient universities as being elitist, but what struck me was the huge diversity of people who were there. They were all clever and had studied hard to achieve their places, but beyond that they came from an enormous range of backgrounds – a far greater variety than I had encountered in my Shropshire comprehensive school. Our tutors worked us extremely hard. We had weekly tutorials, either in pairs or one-to-one, in two modules every term and we had to prepare an essay for each tutorial (two essays a week). In tutorials, we read out, discussed and analysed our essays and the reading on which they were based. There were lectures and practical classes on top of that and we had exams at the beginning of each term to make sure that we hadn’t forgotten anything over the vacations! That’s why I’m sometimes not very sympathetic to students who struggle to read one paper in preparation for a seminar!

At the end of my undergraduate studies, I still wanted to work in prisons but I knew very little about them. My degree had given me an excellent grounding in psychology but I knew little about the study of crime. So I applied to do an M.Phil. at the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge. This gave me an extra year as a full-time student and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I was privileged to be taught by such eminent criminologists as Loraine Gelsthorpe, Alison Liebling and David Farrington. I particularly enjoyed the penology seminars with Nigel West, which I attended just out of interest – I wasn’t taking the assessment in that module! The assessments were all coursework (extended essays and a dissertation) and had to be submitted at the start of each term, so I studied hard in the vacations, and I attended my seminars in term time, but there was also plenty of time for sport and socialising and making the most of my last year as a student!

At that time, HM Prison Service recruited new psychologists once a year through a national assessment centre. I applied in 1994, just after I had submitted my M.Phil. dissertation but I was unsuccessful. I got a job instead at the University of Wales, Swansea, as a research assistant in the Department of Social Policy and Applied Social Studies. I was involved in an evaluation of drug and alcohol treatment centres, funded by the Welsh Office, which employed both quantitative measures and participant observation. When that contract ended, I obtained another contract with Swansea City Council to compile a community profile of a “problem” estate. This required knocking on doors to interview residents, and participant observation in community settings such as the youth club, old people’s bingo sessions and the local pub. It was considered a rather intimidating environment to drop a well-educated 24-year-old English girl into, but I found the residents to be remarkably warm and welcoming and it was a highly rewarding piece of work.

By the time I finished the community profile, I had re-applied to the Prison Service and passed the assessment centre – the interpersonal skills I had developed through my action research had served me well. I had, however, joined the Prison Service at an unfortunate time. There was a recruitment ban in force which meant that although I had passed the psychologist assessment centre, I couldn’t actually secure a job. I was eventually given a temporary contract to collect data at HMP Littlehey for a large-scale research project analysing effective prison regimes.  After 10 months of doing this, the recruitment ban was lifted and I was taken on as a prison psychologist, sharing my time between HMP Littlehey and HMP Wellingborough. The Prison Service used to fund a part-time M.Sc. at Birkbeck University, which all newly recruited psychologists undertook. Obtaining a suitably accredited M.Sc., along with completing a satisfactory period of supervised practice, is an essential requirement of becoming a fully qualified “Chartered” psychologist. In another piece of unfortunate timing, the Birkbeck M.Sc. ceased to run just as I joined the service. At first, there was nothing to take its place. However, other universities soon noticed the gap in the market. I, and others in my prison psychology cohort, were relieved when the University of Leicester set up an M.Sc. in Forensic and Legal Psychology by Distance Learning. The Prison Service agreed to pay my fees and my manager allowed a small amount of study leave when assignments were due. Completing a post-graduate degree while working full-time in a demanding job was hard work and I vowed I would never do it again!

I moved to HMP Woodhill in 1998, completed my M.Sc. in 1999 and became a Chartered Psychologist in 2001. At some point after that, I remember receiving a phone call at work from someone called “@manosdaskalou” at, what was then, University College Northampton! I don’t know where he got my number from, but he wanted someone to talk to his third year Forensic Psychology students about the work that psychologists do in prisons. My parents had not completely succeeded in knocking a desire to teach out of me (in fact I probably inherited my urge to educate from them), and my Dad had taught at Northampton when it was Nene College, so I was keen to fulfil the request. The talk became a regular fixture and, after a few years (by which time I was Head of Psychology at HMP Woodhill), we extended it from a single guest lecture to a series of four, to allow me to cover topics such as risk assessment and offending behaviour interventions in more detail.

My son was born in 2008 and I took 12 months maternity leave from the Prison Service. At the end of that time, I didn’t feel ready to go back, so I negotiated a further 12 months career break. I wasn’t ready to return to the full intensity of managing a team in a high security prison, but I did want to keep my brain active. I asked Manos if there were any opportunities to expand my teaching commitments. The University was in the process of setting up a foundation degree in Offender Management, which was aimed primarily at custodial officers at HMP Rye Hill but was also delivered to a small cohort of full-time students. They were short of lecturers to deliver the modules and my offer to help out was eagerly accepted. The terms of my career break meant that I couldn’t earn money from another employer, but a couple of hours a week teaching suited me very well, so I gave my services for free and taught a module on Professional Practice alongside a lecturer with a background in probation, from another university, called Keith Davies.

After a year of this arrangement, HMP Woodhill were unwilling to have me back part-time, so I resigned from the Prison Service and joined the Parole Board as a part-time psychologist member. This allowed me to work much more flexibly and, with a toddler in the family, it suited me well. It also meant that I could have a proper contract with the University of Northampton and I became an associate lecturer in September 2010. Keith had moved to a different job but I continued to teach Professional Practice on the Offender Management degree. There was also a module in Offender Management on “The Psychology of Crime and Criminal Behaviour”. The person who taught this left after a couple of years and I took it over. Returning to basic psychology and teaching it every week was daunting at first, but I really enjoyed going back to what I had learned as an undergraduate and re-discovering how relevant it was to real-life criminal justice.

The arrangement with HMP Rye Hill had never really taken off and the Offender Management degree only ever attracted small numbers of full-time students, so in 2014 the course closed. Manos was keen, however, to incorporate more psychology into the B.A. Criminology course, so we adapted “The Psychology of Crime and Criminal Behaviour” into a first-year criminology module and I’ve been teaching it ever since! I’ve also taught a module on violence and I’ve covered maternity leave and sickness absence in other modules too. My students will have heard me banging on about forensic psychologists being “scientist-practitioners” and I feel that teaching at the University of Northampton has allowed me to fulfil this role. As a practitioner, I have lots of interesting real-life examples to use to illustrate points to my students, but teaching also keeps me up-to-date with research and theory which I can use to inform my practice.

My academic journey continues to take me to new places. My position on the Parole Board was a public appointment with a fixed tenure that came to an end in September 2020. I decided at that point to start a part-time Ph.D. with the University of Birmingham. I had not wanted to go into research straight from my M.Phil. because I felt that, in order to understand people who committed offences, I really needed some direct experience of working with them, but after 24 years as a practitioner, the time seemed right. I am now 18 months into a 6-year part-time degree. I am exploring the role of empathy deficits in violent and sexual offending. Trying to undertake research (which ideally requires access to prisoners) has not been easy during a pandemic and I have faced a number of obstacles but nothing insurmountable yet.

I am still keen to maintain a scientist-practitioner balance, and I need to pay my university fees and make a contribution to the family income, so in February of last year I started working as a Forensic Psychologist at St Andrew’s hospital. I am primarily based on a medium-secure ward for men with learning disabilities. Forensic mental health is a new area of practice for me and, although I have plenty of transferable skills from my previous roles, I have had to adapt to a different approach to the people we work with and a completely new set of jargon.

Reflecting on my academic journey, it is the people that stand out. I think that the most profound learning has taken place when I have been able to engage with experts who have shared their enthusiasm. In this respect, my undergraduate tutorials and M.Phil. seminars contrast with my distance learning M.Sc., which was a means of obtaining a qualification rather than an immersive learning experience. I hope that, as a practitioner who also teaches, I have been able to share some of my enthusiasm for forensic psychology with my own students. In order to benefit from this, however, students need to take up the opportunity to engage fully with teaching and not just see their university experience as a means to a qualification. Of course, COVID has not helped this, and the university’s penchant for remote learning placed it in a good position to maintain teaching when the pandemic struck. But it is very difficult to engage students when they are just names on a screen. I hope that, as we return to more face-to-face teaching, I can once again inspire my students, not just to pass their exams but to develop a life-long fascination for understanding criminal behaviour and the people that perpetrate it.

Helen Trinder, M.A., M.Phil., M.Sc., C.Psychol.

Forensic Psychologist and Associate Lecturer


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