For many students finishing their post-secondary degrees, becoming a public servant – and working for corrections in particular – isn’t the most obvious choice of careers.
That was the case for Kaitlyn Wardrop, a research officer with the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) and graduate student currently pursuing her PhD in Experimental Psychology at Carleton University.
“I was in second year of my undergrad, I was taking any psych course I could get my hands on, and ended up taking a forensic psychology class and I thought it was really interesting,” she says. “We got to the point in the course where the lecture was focused on risk assessment and that really sealed the deal for me in terms of figuring out, ‘this is what I’m actually interested in, this is what I want to pursue’ … we can take a look at what’s going on in an offender’s life and who they are as a person, and we can use that information to predict how they’ll do in the community, and that can inform what interventions we should be providing to them.”
After doing a practicum with CSC’s Research Branch during her Master’s degree, Kaitlyn entered the public service through the Federal Student Work Exchange Program (FSWEP) and was hired in her current position almost two years ago. She works with the interventions and women offender unit, doing research on correctional programs and women offenders.
“[The public service] wasn’t what I was expecting … when you’re that age, you don’t know what government work even is – I had no idea what it was,” Kaitlyn explains. “I certainly got a lot of flack from my family because none of them work in the public service and I think there’s the misconception that government workers don’t do anything, they’re just there for the paycheque, but I certainly haven’t seen that while I’ve been here … it’s so much fun. It’s the best job in the world. It’s so nice to work in an organization that values research as much as CSC does. Each one of [my colleagues] is passionate about research, they’re passionate about the work that CSC does in general, and there are so many people within the Research Branch that are a resource for me.”
Kaitlyn’s academic research focuses on parole decision-making and community supervision. She looks at how parole boards, primarily in the U.S., use evidence-based practices to make parole decisions for offenders and how other boards can be encouraged to do the same. She also studies community supervision and how to equip parole officers with the tools they need to do their jobs.
At CSC, Kaitlyn says she’s already seeing first-hand how research can be used in staff’s day-to-day work. Last year, for example, some of her CSC colleagues were looking for information on the needs of Inuit offenders for an Inuit-specific correctional program they were developing. Kaitlyn was able to put together a profile, based on information collected in the Offender Management System, to support the program being created.
“It was so nice to do this research, look at who these people are and what needs to be addressed, and to have that actually inform something in practice,” she says.
Moving forward, Kaitlyn will help develop a gender-informed risk assessment tool for women. It will be used to look at how risk and need factors may be different for women offenders and create a more accurate picture of how women offenders are doing.
“In the past, we used the same risk assessment tool for every offender,” Kaitlyn explains. “Now there’s a lot more discussion, both within the academic circles and correctional staff circles and even within the public because it’s hitting the news a lot, talking about how there may be certain risk or need factors that are different for one group of people versus another.”
Coming originally from academia, and as one of the Research Branch’s youngest employees, Kaitlyn has seen the challenges that younger candidates can face with trying to enter the public service and the long, sometimes complicated competition process. Even the Clerk of the Privy Council Office, Michael Wernick, noted in his latest annual report that attracting new talent is critical as a generation of public servants begins to retire in large numbers.
“We are very fortunate to have such a competent and enthusiastic employee [in Kaitlyn],” says Lynn Stewart, CSC’s Senior Research Manager for Interventions and Women Offenders Research. “It speaks well for the future of government research that we can attract this kind of talent and that we are able to offer full-time employment and a career path.”
Simplifying the recruitment process for post-secondary students and increasing outreach to post-secondary institutions, including guest lectures by CSC staff and attending university conferences, could be other ways to access young people looking for opportunities and to give some guidance on career options like CSC, Kaitlyn suggests.
“I was incredibly fortunate that I got in through FSWEP,” she says. “There must be a lot of people out there who are highly skilled and would be a good fit for the job but it’s just too much work to get in.”
Though government research may not be the most obvious career path for some, it can be a great option for graduate students who aren’t able to secure a teaching or academic position and who don’t have enough experience to work as an independent consultant, Kaitlyn says.
The other benefit of government research is that it’s “so applied,” she continues. “You can see the impact of what you do, versus doing something in the academic setting, publishing it in a peer-reviewed journal that only other academics can access. Being able to do research, communicate directly to staff members who may be impacted by it, and then have it published publicly so that anyone can access is so refreshing.”
More than anything, Kaitlyn says, it’s the potential to make a difference in the lives of people who are trying to turn their lives around.
“The most meaningful aspect of doing [this] research is that we’re dealing with real people,” she says. “The impact that we can have on real people is huge if we do our jobs well.”
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