How to find a job after doing a PhD in the field of security

by Verena Brähler, 7 June 2015

I am working as a Research Manager for the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Great Britain. This is my first job since graduating from University College London with a PhD in Security and Human Rights. I really like my job but getting here was much harder than I anticipated. In this blog post I am sharing some of the lessons I learned, hoping that it will help others to transition successfully from doing a PhD to a professional job.

My personal job hunting experience

Between November 2013 and September 2014, I applied for 28 different positions. I spent the equivalent of three months’ full time work on networking, writing applications, getting references and filling out online application forms. I was unsuccessful in the first round on 20 occasions, never heard back anything from 3 organisations and made it to the next round on 5 occasions. Of those where I did make it to the next round, it took up to 8 months to hear back from them.

Timing is of the essence

The first time I applied for a full-time job was 10 months before I finished my PhD. In hindsight this was way too early. I was writing things like “I am currently completing a PhD” in my cover letter. Experienced recruiters know that if you haven’t submitted your PhD thesis yet, you are not mentally or “logistically” ready for a new job. The few applications where I was successful were the ones I wrote after I had defended my PhD thesis (read more about this experience here). That is why I would tell others that this is a good moment to start looking for a job, especially because in the UK, PhD students often need to do “minor corrections” after the defense which can take up to three months.

Prepare yourself mentally

You need to recognise that getting a job is a job and can take a long time. For most of the jobs I applied for I was told that between 250 and 650 other candidates applied (below are some examples of the jobs I applied for). You need to prepare yourself mentally for being turned down over and over again because it can be a very frustrating experience. The more realistic you are at the outset, the easier it will be to for you to deal with the fact that you are not getting interviews, or you get interviews, but you don’t get the job. At the same time you may see all your friends around you working on great career paths and it is easy to get disheartened and very down about yourself which is a dangerous spiral. Don’t internalise the job search – talk to your family, friends about the jobs you apply for, the interview you get or don’t get – there is no shame in applying for a job and not getting an interview, or getting an interview and then not getting the job.

Pick up the phone, networking is vital

In hindsight there was one thing that my 5 “more successful” job applications had in common, and that is that I had talked to someone in the organisation before I sent my application. I got in touch with these people mostly through contacts and colleagues I met over the years while doing my research. Linkedin is a great tool for that because it shows you who can put you in touch with someone in the relevant organisation. Don’t be ashamed to ask people you hardly know for some help. In the worst-case scenario your chances are something like 1 : 650 so you need any help you can get.

I asked people if they would be available for a quick phone call because I wanted to learn a little bit more about the organisation and the job in order to be able to write a better application. I never asked anyone to revise my application or give me any kind of insight knowledge that would put me at an unfair advantage compared to other applicants.

Everyone I contacted was happy to talk to me and these 30-minutes conversations proved to be extremely helpful for two reasons. Firstly, by preparing some interesting questions (”What does your daily routine look like?”, “Do you have a business strategy that underpins your work?” etc.) I learned a lot about the organisation, their culture and working style, their priorities and dislikes, and that indeed helped me to write a stronger application. Secondly, having had a friendly conversation with someone on the inside (didn’t matter so much at which level) might have helped (?) to end up on the pile of applications that were considered for the next round.

You will still have to go through the formal interviewing process, and your skills and competencies will be analysed fairly, but a recommendation or just a contact within the organisation can help enormously.

Sit down and write the application

Once you have made your phone call and you know a little bit more about the organisation and the specific role requirements, it is time to sit down and write the application. Nowadays most application processes are competency-based and every effort is made to eliminate assumptions, stereotyping and other forms of bias from the recruitment process. Recruiters are interested to know how you have handled situations in the past which are related to the knowledge, skills and abilities required for the job. Recruiters work on the principle that: „Past behaviour predicts future performance“. If you have successfully demonstrated certain knowledge, skill and abilities in the past, the chances are that you are likely to be able to do so again in the future.

The recruitment process of the British Civil Service, for instance, is entirely based on this principle. Applicants are asked to use the STAR approach (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to talk about their past achievements. This approach might seem very weird and rigid in the beginning but if you get behind the logic of it, it is very useful and I would definitely recommend everyone to have a look at it.

Here are some common mistakes that applicants tend to make:

  • Not providing a specific example of how they have demonstrated a competency in the past;
  • Not explaining clearly what the result/outcome/impact of their work was;
  • Using “we” instead of “I”, making it impossible for the recruiter to know exactly what their specific contribution was (opposed to what the team did);
  • Using passive language;
  • Exceeding the word count.

Ask for feedback

It is common practice these days to ask for feedback from an interview, particularly if you have been unsuccessful. It is very likely that you will just get a standard response or that giving individual feedback is not possible, but if you get it, it can service three important purposes:

  1. It will put your mind to rest – you may wonder why you didn’t get the job – they will tell you – you were a strong candidate but the successful candidate had more experience, or could evidence their skills more effectively.
  2. It can open other doors – you may have been exceptionally close to getting the role – sometimes employers make room for another person – following up shows that you are a professional and are interested in how you can improve your performance. They may be able to recommend another role for you within the organisation
  3. It may give you some important pointers in how to improve for next time.

Jobs in international organisation

Finally, here are some examples of international organisations that continuously recruit people through their young professional programmes. Please be aware that all of these programmes are highly competitive and getting through the process can take many months or even years.

  • Young Professionals Programme (YPP) – the general young professional programme of the United Nations
  • United Nations Volunteering (UNV) – it is called volunteering but you get paid
  • Junior Professional Officers (JPO) – JPOs work in UN organisations, the World Bank and other international organisations and are sponsored by their respective governments so you can only apply for positions advertised by your own government. In Germany, jobs are advertised twice a year on this website.
  • UK Civil Service Fast Stream
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First steps in your research: PhD peer review classes

By Jorrit Kamminga, February 2015

During my PhD trajectory, I spent six months in 2011 as a Visiting PhD. Research Scholar at the Department of Sociology of the London School of Economics (LSE). That allowed me to strongly improve both my theoretical framework and research methodology. One element of my scholarship really proved to be of added value: my enrolment in a PhD peer review class. I attended the peer review course (SO500 ‘Aims and Methods’) given by professors Dr Nigel Dodd and Dr Paddy Rawlinson. Such courses intend to help students formulate clear research objectives and methodologies, limit the scope of research to feasible proportions, and come up with a good planning of the research trajectory.

If not already part of the mandatory programme, I strongly advise students to look for such courses themselves, even outside their own faculty (where you may sit in on these courses as observer). If they are not available, the second-best thing is to try and start your own peer review group with a few fellow PhD students. The latter is still very useful, especially if you could talk a professor into joining the group from time to time on an informal basis. The support and feedback of professors is of course very important – especially as most PhD students start off with a plan encompassing ‘three PhDs’ or with unrealistic expectations or methodologies. Your own supervisor will, of course, normally help you avoid research pitfalls, but the feedback of other experienced professors, both within and outside of your research field, is a bonus.

But what is most interesting of peer review courses, especially early on in the PhD process, is the role of the ‘peers’ themselves: your fellow PhD students. They can provide you with ideas on where to focus your research, what additional sources (or theories) may be available, or on how to limit the scope of the research. In addition, they can be a great source of inspiration and motivation, especially as you realise you are not the only one struggling with difficult challenges early on in the research. The latter effect you may also get from talking to fellow students in the pub, but the formal structure of a course works better as you will be asked to present your research in a formal way.

Presenting the initial research methodology and plan to your peers stimulates you to think critically about what you are trying to achieve and how realistic your methodology is. It also gives you a deadline to present a research plan or progress made so far, which forces you to take your research to the next step. Peer review courses work best if students are asked to present their research at least twice, which means progress and the process of addressing challenges can be tracked.

Lastly, listening to and providing feedback on the research of others may also provide you with new ideas. It may even completely change your mind on the size and scope of your own research. I remember that I was quite ‘shocked’ when I heard a student had limited her research area to just one square in a Latin American city. I also remember the work of another student that did her research on the evolution of the concept of the ‘American dream.’ I never had thought about PhD research in terms of such ‘narrow’ (but complex) approaches, and it definitely helped to further narrow down my own research.

Defending your thesis in… the United Kingdom

Verena Brähler, one of our Researching Security Fellows, is sharing with us her experience of defending her PhD thesis in the United Kingdom.

September 2014

Thesis defence procedure in the United Kingdom

Contrary to most other countries in Europe, the PhD thesis defence in the United Kingdom is not a formality. The thesis defence in the UK is called viva voce (“with the living voice”). It is an oral examination with two examiners and may require a substantial amount of preparation. Usually you will have one internal examiner from your university and one external examiner. Unless you request otherwise, your supervisor(s) will not be present during the examination and neither will be any members of the public. That is quite nice actually because the examiners will focus on discussing the most important aspects of your thesis, rather than asking tough questions “to entertain the audience”. The examination can take between two and four hours and these are the most common outcomes:

  1. Pass: I personally do not know anyone who has passed the viva straight away but, theoretically speaking, it is possible.
  2. Pass with minor corrections: This is the most common outcome. You get 3 months to make minor amendments to your thesis, based on what was discussed during the viva.
  3. Major corrections: This seems to happen to very few people. It means that you get another 18 months to make substantial changes to your thesis.
  4. Fail: Theoretically speaking, there is a possibility that you can fail but I have never heard of anyone who did.

Preparation

Given these different outcomes, it is smart to prepare for the viva. In my case, I submitted my thesis in March 2014 and had six weeks to prepare for the viva in the beginning of May. At the time, I was already working in Vienna and doing an internship with UNODC. I used the two weekends prior to my viva to read the whole thesis again (you wouldn’t believe how many typos I still found) and think about how I would answer the following questions:

  • What is original about your thesis? What sets your work apart from others?
  • What are the strongest/weakest parts of your work?
  • What were the crucial research decisions that you made? How did you resolve any issues which arose in the course of your research?
  • How did you tackle the ethical implications of your work?
  • Who is your audience?
  • What is the agreed methodology in your discipline?
  • Do you anticipate publishing the material? And, if so, what aspects?
  • What researchers would be interested in your work?
  • What are the theoretical underpinnings to your work?
  • Who would be most likely to agree/disagree with your findings?
  • How long do you expect your work to remain innovative? Do your contributions have a limited timescale?
  • Do you think that your recommendations are feasible?

One the day

My examination was in London. On the day, I felt pretty calm and well prepared. I always thought that I am a bit better in speaking than in writing, so I felt confident but not exactly über-enthusiastic. When I walked into the room, my two examiners welcomed me and started the viva by asking two ice-breaker questions:

  • How did you come to research this topic?
  • Do you have any plans to publish some of the materials?

Then in the following 40 minutes, the examiners went straight into criticising my main argument (“oligopoly of security providers in Rio de Janeiro”) and it was quite challenging to defend my research choices. The rest of the viva continued in a similar format. One of the professors would give a “mini-lecture” on a certain aspect of my thesis and I then had the opportunity to defend myself and explain my arguments. The whole process was quite exhausting but I also enjoyed it because it showed that these two very distinguished and well-known professors had read and analysed my whole thesis (a good 290 pages) in a lot of depth.

After the examination, I had to leave the room quickly so that the professors could decide on the outcome of the viva. When I was asked back into the room, they told me that I had passed with minor corrections and explained the changes I needed to make over the next three months. I was very happy with this result and felt relieved. We called my supervisor and together we had a glass of champagne and then went for dinner.

After defending the thesis

On the next morning, I had to go immediately back to Vienna to continue with my work at UNODC. The next day at work I felt that I must be one of the smartest and dumbest interns my department ever had. Smart because I had just passed my PhD viva and dumb because here I was, 28 years old and doing an unpaid internship. Two weeks later, I received the official report by the examiners. It was quite a lot of pages so I panicked a bit and then not looked at it again for the next two months while finishing the internship.

Upon my return to London, I immediately started working on the corrections and it took me a good three weeks. I must say it was quite difficult because after a few months of working outside academia, it felt like a huge step backwards to work on the thesis again. I also felt under a lot of pressure to find a job and sometimes I felt that the thesis corrections were getting in the way of my job applications (or the other way around?). All in all, I must admit though that the thesis has been hugely improved by doing the minor corrections and I am grateful that I was forced to go through this rite of passage.

Useful information

For those preparing for the viva, I would recommend to watch these videos by Imperial College London which explain the examination process quite nicely. And if I can just give you one piece of advice: write your thesis as best as possible before you submit it! Little inconsistencies in your arguments, a weak theoretical framework or unfeasible policy recommendations may backfire at you during the viva. From my own experience, I can say that making changes to the thesis after the examination is a lot harder than before, simply because your mind will already be in another world.

To read more on this topics, read “Defending your PhD thesis in… Spain” by Jorrit Kamminga.

From the Desk to the Pram: PhD and Parenthood

By Susan Hoppert-Flaemig, September 2014

One of the things I love about being a PhD researcher in Peace Studies in Bradford is learning about other researchers’ lives since they come from all over the world. When I was pregnant I talked to my colleague from Ethiopia about social and family policy. He was surprised to hear about the social benefits for families in Germany – “You get money for having a baby?!” It reminded me how blessed I am; I live in one of the countries with almost ideal conditions for raising children (even if many Germans don’t think so): it is a peaceful and safe environment with access to health care and education and with financial support from the state. Indeed, my baby is healthy and happy, and as a mum I am happy too.

As a PhD researcher, however, a baby is a challenge. While my colleagues finish their PhDs, publish articles, and apply for grants, my researcher career slowed down several months ago. I can’t really say what it is like writing a thesis and having a baby because I have not been able to work on the thesis since my son was born. But I do remember what it was like to write a thesis and I observed some similarities between doing a PhD and having a baby: PhDs/ babies demand a lot of my attention and time. I am constantly thinking about the PhD/ the baby and I tend to neglect and forget other things: Social life is scarce, the dirty laundry is piling up, and I just can’t remember the pin number of my credit card. It also takes hours before I get dressed in the morning – I might lose a good idea on how to continue with my chapter if I don’t sit down immediately after breakfast; and my son doesn’t care whether I’m in my pyjamas or not when I carry him around.

I also observed some difference between doing a PhD and having a baby: for someone who spent years sitting at the desk, it is physically exhausting having a child. Not only am I sleep deprived, I am also constantly carrying my son while shopping/ washing the dishes/ making dinner; instead of sitting at my desk I walk around; and the pram needs to be lifted up and down the stairs daily. Finally, although I like my research topic, life with a baby is more fulfilling; it feels more complete and goes deeper. Every now and then I have doubts about my PhD but raising a child is always meaningful.

Next week, my husband’s paternity leave begins (another benefit of living in Germany…) which means I will start working on the thesis again. I have mixed feelings about it: I look forward to returning to academic work (and to sitting down at my desk) but it also means less time with my son, and the pressure to complete the thesis will be more present. I will have to learn to live with that feeling that probably many PhD researchers who are also parents know: The constant feeling of being torn between being a good parent and pursuing an academic career.

Susan Hoppert-Flaemig with her babyTo read more about PhD and parenthood, read Kari Mariska Pries‘ article on “Fieldwork in Violence and Security: The Impact of Researcher Pregnancy.

Defending your PhD thesis in… Spain

Jorrit Kamminga, one of our Researching Security Fellows, is sharing with us his experience of defending his PhD thesis in Spain. 

Thesis defence procedure in Spain

Photo Jorrit KammingaI defended my PhD thesis at the Department of Constitutional Law and Political Science of the University of Valencia, Spain in April 2014. Being a part-time student, I had combined work and study since I started the PhD programme in 2008. I followed the trajectory of getting the title doctor europeo (now doctor internacional under Spanish law). One of the requirements is having an international tribunal in addition to conducting part of the research at a different university outside of Spain and writing part of the thesis in a language other than Spanish. The international tribunal for my thesis defence was made up of a Spanish, Colombian and Dutch professor. The language was English.

Similar to my home country (the Netherlands), the thesis defence in Spain is a formality. In other words, when the tribunal is planned, you already know that you will pass and that your thesis is good enough to get the title – unless perhaps you have a complete blackout and fail to answer any question. However, different from the Netherlands, there were no additional ceremonial parts to the defence, such as special togas or silly hats.

Preparation

I prepared myself reading bits and pieces from the thesis, especially those related to methodology and the theoretical model of the thesis. It was not necessary to carefully read the whole thesis again (about 500 pages) but I prepared a bullet point overview of how I was going to present it. Separately, I prepared a long document with (possible) questions and my answers to them. I think the latter helped although I do not recall answering questions exactly as I had prepared them.

On the day

After the introduction by the chair of the tribunal, I had 40 minutes to elaborate on the thesis. This is quite generous (e.g. compared to the Netherlands) and gave me enough time to explain the purpose of the research, revisit the objectives, explain the methodology, give my impressions of the field work, and provide a detailed overview of the (unexpected) results. It helped me to calm down and get into a flow.

After this exposé, the three members of the tribunal (before it was five in Spain) all took about ten to fifteen minutes to comment on my thesis and ask a large number of questions. This happened uninterruptedly and only after all three members had finished I was allowed to respond to their concerns and questions. By that time, I had about six pages of notes written down – some clearer than others.

The chair gave me ten minutes to answer to perhaps about 20 questions of the three professors combined. This was both a challenge and a relief. On the one hand, it is challenging to quickly make a decision as to which questions you will answer (quickly glancing through your notes), and see how you can group certain questions. On the other hand, it obviously gives you the chance to ignore some difficult questions and go for the easier ones. Nevertheless, it proved to be a challenge and given the time constraint, I forgot to answer a number of questions that I had a good answer for.

The rest of the thesis defence process is purely administrative. I had to wait outside for at least half an hour until the tribunal members had come to a joint decision and (more time consuming) had signed all necessary documents. I was then invited back into the room and they congratulated me on having become a doctor. In Spain, PhD students only get a PASS or FAIL (no mark), but after the thesis defence, the university can grant you cum laude if the tribunal members unanimously decide that you have deserved that title.

After defending the thesis

In retrospect, the thesis defence was quite a challenge and a huge adrenaline rush, despite the fact that it is basically a formality. It took me a while to relax afterwards. Drinking some nice Agua de Valencia with the professors on a terrace in the old town certainly helped to realise that after a research trajectory of more than five years, things had come to an end. The fact that there were a lot of family members in the room, in addition to the Dutch and Colombian consuls to Valencia, turned this into a very nice and special event for me.

Fieldwork in Violence and Security: The Impact of Researcher Pregnancy

By Kari Mariska Pries, July 2014

Building relationships with interview subjects during fieldwork is a process fraught with complications. Study subjects tend to exhibit at least a moderate amount of interest in the personal life of the researcher during the research process, especially as relationships deepen in the process of “gaining access” in our target area. How to answer these questions and deciding what to share is a challenge that has been hotly debated in the social sciences. All interactions are altered by what information we choose to share, affecting participant parties in uncontrollable and sometimes unexpected ways. As we researchers move between the field and the university setting at home, our perceptions also change; both of ourselves and with regards to the ongoing relationships we have on either end. For instance, Scheyvens and Nowak (2003) discuss the stress a researcher’s partner undergoes during fieldwork which can impact on the emotions and ability of the researcher to complete tasks. In many cultures, women researching on their own whilst (any potential) partner remains at home can also raise questions. Relationships and families can significantly alter the way an individual is perceived by their research subjects as well. Field researchers have sometimes commented that to bring their families into the field, whilst dangerous, can also humanise them to their research subjects (Cassell 1987). Scheyvens and Nowak explain that “For a woman, in particular, going into a fieldwork situation and leaving her family at home is something incomprehensible to people from many cultures” (2003, 112). Yet, here at the Researching Security Network, there have been several women who have ventured into the field to conduct research, not only leaving partners and loved ones behind, but doing so whilst expecting a child. As part of a special series, we would like to explore our experiences conducting research on violence and security across Latin America whilst undergoing this awe-inspiring and complicated familial change.

Contemplating Pregnancy whilst Researching Violence

I completed my first period of fieldwork in April 2012 and, after several months of writing and revising that initial data, planned to return in September 2012 for another 6 months. It was over this break that I discovered that I was pregnant. As soon as this was confirmed with a doctor and a potential due date plotted, I informed my supervisor. Unlike the typical joke warning of “don’t get pregnant during [PhD, fieldwork, school, etc.]”, she was very supportive and together we worked to make my remaining research requirements more fitting to a pregnancy timeframe. At this early stage we decided to modify my research project to alter the breadth of the scope. Whereas the project began as a multi-country comparative analysis, it became instead an in-depth single country approach; examining multi-level rather than multi-lateral policy development frameworks. This altered the nature of my study and shifted some of the relevant literature. Influencing this decision were several purely practical considerations. First, I was most familiar with one country in Central America and had an established support network there. The security of office space, a room in the house of a former colleague and regular transportation was important to assuring both partner and the University that risk controls were in place and mitigated the greatest variables of any typical research project. Second, given the restricted timeframe of the project by a birth and maternity leave, it seemed best to limit travel times between destinations and to focus on an area where interview subjects would be more concentrated. Finally, given a history of working in the country and building on a first period of fieldwork already completed, it seemed prudent to build on existing research relationships and use them to snowball interview subjects rather than spend more time re-establishing basic networks in a new country. I was lucky that my supervisor, and through her the School, did not have too many concerns about continuing fieldwork under reproduction conditions. It appeared unlikely that the pregnancy would alter my security or vulnerability to violence whilst in situ. Therefore, the only significant limits on my time and movements in the field were those imposed by my own abilities, the healthy progression of my pregnancy and by airlines who limit flights for advanced pregnancy.

Beginning Again: A burgeoning presence

I was unfortunate in that my pregnancy was visible almost from the outset so that, once I returned to the field, anyone who had met me previously was quickly aware of my changing situation. New interview subjects might have initially assumed that I had a naturally bulbous figure but there was little question of generally proceeding without acknowledgement of the change. Jones (1990, 786) calls on theorists to recognize women’s “embodied lives” and how our bodies as gendered entities influences life experiences. Our work and our activities are affected even without a second human taking up residence inside the first. Additionally, at one point or another, women researching violence and security are required to define themselves within these violent spaces and in relation to victims, perpetrators (victim/perpetrators) and geography. We are forever attempting to control for the influence of who we are or what we might represent on the data we collect through interviews and other forms of field activities including participant observations. In the previous period of fieldwork, I had been careful to dress up professionally, considering my primary interview subjects at that time were institutional and government officials.[1] How much more difficult then, to maintain such an appearance when heat exhaustion, nausea and swollen body parts make you wish for a tent dress and a comfortable chair in an air conditioned office. Nonetheless, ensuring I was well presented became increasingly important both to maintain my sanity and self-respect (pregnant bodies are unwieldy at the best of times).

Researching security at the policy level is not always an easy topic for a woman to break into, especially with male-dominated police forces, military personnel and top level government officials. I was particularly worried that a gringa story phenomenon would be exacerbated by what I perceived as my burgeoning femininity and vulnerability due to increasingly limited mobility. The young innocent image turned out to be somewhat less of a problem during the second round although there were other embodied social reactions which took its place. In many of my interviews there was at least some reference made to the pregnancy, usually at the interview subject’s instigation. This occurred more frequent with women than with men; the latter were slightly more likely to ignore it all together. The main question I received from both men and women was how my husband felt about me being in a foreign country by myself. The explanation that he was supportive of the goals of the research and of me seemed to be confusing but usually ended that line of discussion. My sense in the sessions was that the pregnancy stopped some of the previous castaway remarks about my being young or too young to be conducting research on this subject and that discussions were straighter to the point. I was still there doing the job so perhaps it caused my efforts to be taken more seriously. Or perhaps pregnancy did, in some way, cause me to take myself more seriously, as well. However, it was definitely the case that I was sometimes less inclined to prolonged pleasantries and long descriptive discussions in favour of a dialogue which addressed the central questions, challenged the obvious pat narratives and moved quickly to the essentials. Chairs were hard and the heat not always pleasant.

Field visits were another set of challenges for the pregnant body. Given the level of my motion sickness, buses were out of the question even if security had not dictated the choice unwise. Transport to other regional departments in El Salvador had to be arranged well in advance so that a car and driver from the office in which I was based could be freed up to take me. In one or two instances my research could have benefitted from an additional site visit but I was unable to stomach the journey. Moving about during site visits also invited a different level of interaction of individuals with my pregnant body. During one particularly memorable occasion, a (female) PNC official accompanying a group of visitors through a local holding cell (bartolina) complex made a motion to touch my belly and stated that she knew for certain due to the shape of its roundness that I was to have a strong boy. The incongruity of the jail cell construction site with high level officials on one side and at least 30 youth locked up in a single cage on the other whilst this woman pronounced the future of my child through her finger tips was surreal. Equally memorable was the afternoon I spent in a municipality known for its violence. Because of a mix-up with transport, ready money and a dead mobile, I spent most of the afternoon on the front stoop of the small gang rehabilitation NGO resting in a truly pregnant recline. Despite the area’s reputation, the shining sun against the backdrop of the local church and the surprisingly clean streets provided the perfect foil for the comings and goings of youth as well as several tattooed older gentlemen who worked there. There was even cake. Gilligan (1982 in Ortbals and Rincker 2009, 316) discusses how a pregnant woman is more likely to feel the interconnected nature of humanity, a societal as well as a physical motherhood. I suppose these feelings may have been stronger during those tranquil moments but it was not until the next week, when one of those tattooed older persons, a former gang leader, was killed on that same stoop in a rain of bullets that researching violence and security in El Salvador felt a bit too interconnected to bear.

Health

High riding emotions are a key stressor when conducting pregnant field research and can bring on complications. My flexible fieldworker’s diet of fruit, vegetables and street food had been pared down to sugar-rich fruit and grains in pregnancy because of food poisoning and bacteria worries and it impacted the way I was able to function. Stress was also a likely factor in increasing health vulnerabilities. What could have easily been controlled at home became one more guilt-inducing complication to manage in the field. Precise interview timings are also a relative rarity in this context and waiting became more than the usual trial as blood sugar levels bounced wildly, only partially mitigated by snacks secreted about my person. Further pregnancy restrictions on the use of sunscreen and mosquito repellant, outdoor movement was limited during sunlight hours and sleep proved elusive whilst debating between mosquito’s whine and sweltering covers as well as remembering which side of the body was allowed for safe sleep. If a more pressing health concern had emerged, however, I had places to turn. On several occasions during interviews with women who were also mothers, the discussion turned to the practicalities of being pregnant in El Salvador. In particular, I received recommendations for several doctors, places to undergo pre-natal scans and home phone numbers should I ever require help. There were good birthing stories and less comforting ones to be recounted. And there was a reminder that, if I did end up in hospital, to keep a tight grip on my suitcase. I was informed of one couple who had recently delivered a child and the case carrying the cash they required to pay the hospital had been robbed at gun-point in the parking lot.

Concluding Remarks

Researching violence and security is a context already fraught with emotion and high passion even when approaching it from a policy perspective as I do. To add a pregnant body into the equation challenges some traditional fieldwork tenets in the sense of whom we expect a researcher to be but does not have to limit their ability to complete the terms of their fieldwork. There were some notable advantages to having that unborn child in the interview room as a silent but present witness. First, on a practical level, pregnancy did not reduce my ability to do my job but rather impacted on both energy and patience; it most certainly affected the manner in which I conducted some interviews. Second, it appeared to influence interview subject perceptions on the seriousness with which I was conducting this research. Pregnancy also appeared to influence the manner in which I connected with both subjects and geography. It also made me incredibly grateful for the colleagues and network that I had in El Salvador. Without a bed to sleep in, transportation when taxis or walking were insufficient, and friendly communications every date, the project would have been much more difficult. Finally, biology has a mean way of catching up with a woman but also provides that extra level of determination and drive to get what you need in order to go home and unbutton your belt. As Ortbals and Rincker (2009, 319) conclude “these so-called advantages ultimately stem from the embodied lives women cannot escape”.

Bibliography

Cassell, Joan (ed.). 1987. Children in the Field. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Jones, Kathleen. 1990. “Citizenship in a Woman-Friendly Polity.” Signs 15. pp. 780-812.

Ortbals, Candice and Meg Rincker. 2009. “Embodied Researchers: Gendered Bodies, Research Activity, and Pregnancy in the Field.” PS: Political Science and Politics 42. pp. 315-319.

Scheyvens, Henry and Barbara Nowak. 2003. “Personal Issues.” Regina Scheyvens and Donovan Storey (eds.). Development Fieldwork: A Practical Guide. London: Sage Publications Ltd. pp. 119-138.

Notes

[1] On several occasions, I received remarks as to how this was appreciated as a “sign of professional expectation” and deprecating comments sometimes followed about the dress of some researchers and activists in similar positions. A powerful topic for another time both in terms of how people feel able to comment freely on a woman’s personal presentation and clothing may influence the types of answers you receive in an interview or even the access you are able to obtain to specific interview subjects.

More information on Kari Mariska Pries’ academic and professional interests can  be found here. A recent conferene presentation on “Transnational Security Challenges in National Context: El Salvador” (June 2014) can be accessed here.

Research student Kari Mariska Pries in El Salvador

New visions for violence reduction strategies in Mexico

by Natalia Cervantes (24 June 2014)

Rising levels of violence and crime can erase the benefits of economic growth and dramatically decrease well-being. But if we see high levels of violence as a specifically urban problem, with therefore specifically urban solutions, new ways of approaching the problem can be established. Our Researching Security Fellow Natalia Cervantes explains how her research in Mexico is developing this idea.

Violence has been analysed and written about incessantly. Let’s start by saying that almost any person living in a city of the Global South has had one form of victimization experience or an other – whether directly or indirectly. It may have even been in a ‘simple’ or everyday manifestation of violence: robberies, muggings or property damages. Violence crimes, and the fear of it, have indeed become the reality for millions living in developing countries, thus constraining their personal and family development. Violence is virtually everywhere. Violence has arguably become one of the most pressing issues affecting development. Violence and crime represent incalculable costs, both in economic and social terms. Specifically, violence discourages investment, diverts resources toward law enforcement, and away from health and social services. It also affects social cohesion and social capital; limits social mobility, and erodes good governance by wearing down citizens’ trust in the ability of the state to deal with its causes and consequences.  What is more, since the majority of the world’s population is now living in a highly urbanized world, violence has become more noticeable in urban areas. Urban violence is increasingly recognized not simply as a security issue but also as a phenomenon that has deep social and economic roots.

Latin America has witnessed a persistence rise in violence since the 1980s. This has had devastating consequences for both citizens and governments. It has been suggested by some analysts that there is a relationship between violence and the challenges that growth and urbanization of Latin America have posed over democratic governance; yet, this relationship is certainly neither direct nor automatic. It has been acknowledged that many cities – especially those that grow at a rapid pace – experience the convergence of risk factors – namely poverty, unequal distribution of resources, social exclusion, social and political conflict– that increase the probabilities of violence and crime to appear. The fact is that there is a pressing need to further understand the factors that shape urban violence and its repercussions for cities and overall development.

But how about coming up with an urban solution to an urban issue? There are a number of compelling reasons to focus on the ways in which the processes and relations of development planning underpin urban violence. For example, urban policies often follow an inertia that maintains and strengthens social exclusion and inequality. These policies, then, reinforce – rather than reverse – existing conditions of inequalities, poverty and social exclusion, which consequently may contribute to increasing levels of urban violence. Hence, it can be ventured that some urban development planning processes lead violence to persist given the politics and social implications they represent.

Generally, policy responses to urban violence aim at addressing the so called “multi-causality‟ that drives violence and crime. In doing so, going beyond repression and punishment becomes vital. Since urban violence has social, economic, spatial and institutional roots, a successful approach to reduce urban violence should include those four dimensions.  In a spatial approach to violence, the role of urban planning at local and community levels can become crucial in diminishing opportunities for crime and violence, given that, depending on the typology of violence, most crimes have environmental design and management components. The approach known as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) emphasises the spatial setting of crime and links crime prevention and reduction to municipal level interventions to improve community’s physical infrastructure. It focuses on a number of issues such as street layouts, building and site design, zoning and land-use, transportation system planning and infrastructure improvements, as well as lightning of streets and public spaces. Of course, this is aimed at reducing the opportunity of crime, and, hopefully, to improve cities’ built environment.

This may seem as well-intended, yet awfully innocent and small scale initiative, given the situations of extreme violence some countries experience (read Mexico), but what else can be done when everything that has been tried before seems to be failing? Now, we analyse the context of Mexico.

Why Mexico and why now?

Mexico is a good example of what an extreme case of urban violence implies. Violence has been a central trait of the social and political consolidation of the country. Yet, the levels of violence experienced from 2006 until today have posed new overwhelming challenges to both governments and citizens. The appearance of increasing levels of violence in the country corresponds to a conjunction of historical and current events. Historically, violence is a consequence of deeply rooted social, economic and political problems that have been present in the country for decades. Based on current events, violence is also a cause of new social, economic and political strategies. Apart from drug and organized crime-related violence, several forms and sources of violence have been present in Mexico.

Violence has come to largely redefine Mexico, including the country’s government, society and institutions. The situation appeared to have reached a peak in 2006, and a frontal fight against drug trafficking and organized crime was subsequently launched by the Mexican government. Yet, despite this effort, the government’s strategy did little to decrease the marketing of illegal drugs (Guerrero-Gutierrez, 2012). Violence has caused leakage of investment, loss of jobs, and the gestation of a phenomenon that poses a growing threat to national security.

Violence has also redefined the Mexican economy in many ways. It has been estimated for instance, that about 37.4 per cent of the companies in the country were victims of crime and violence in 2012. The rise of violence has been accompanied by the closure of many small businesses and increased unemployment. Violence has redefined how citizens relate to each other. Citizens change their activities and limit their interaction with the rest of society. Violence has also transformed the relation between citizens and institutions of the state; it has eroded citizens’ trust toward the government and its institutions. Violence has also increased corruption and institutional weakness and has hampered the rule of law.

Mexico is coming toward a turning point. The mounting significance of violence and insecurity has provoked the surge of a pressing need to scrutinize the causes, consequences, costs and over all, new strategies to reverse this situation. The traditional approach to urban violence has proven to be insufficient.  The frontal war against organised crime has only provoked violence to spread. Criminal justice and law enforcement have only worsened the problem and triggered a blood-spattered reaction from drug organisations. There has to be an incentive to stop joining drug traffickers, a feasible alternative for citizens to achieve decent living standards: something to look up to instead of violent ways. What if instead of continuing fighting violence with violence, we try to focus on developing better cities and eventually, better citizens?

References

Note that all other references can be accessed by clicking on the hyperlinks.

Guerrero-Gutierrez, E., 2012. Políticas de seguridad en México: analisis de cuatro sexenios, in: Atlas de La Seguridad Y Defensa de Mexico. Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia A.C. (CASEDE), Mexico.