This article was edited by SPRITE+ Research Associate Dmitry Dereshev, with responses and edits from Professor of Criminology Judith Aldridge.
The spotlight today is on Judith Aldridge – Professor and Head of Criminology at the University of Manchester, and a SPRITE+ member. Some of Judith's latest publications include:
How would you describe your job to a 12-year-old?
I want to understand how illegal drug markets work. This isn’t easy because people who produce, traffic and sell drugs are generally secretive about their work, and risk being sent to prison if they’re not. One way to find out about illegal drug selling is to earn the trust of the people who do it and ask them questions in an interview.
About 10 years ago, a new way to find out about drug markets appeared because some illegal drug sellers started to sell online in what are popularly known as ‘darknet’ markets. Because of this development, I can now collect information directly from these markets, and this is really valuable. I can only interview so many drug dealers, but darknet markets can tell me about thousands of them from all over the world, and many millions of drug sales.
In my job, I not only produce knowledge about how drug markets work, I also pass it on to students through teaching. I also teach my students about how they can carry out research like mine.
Could you describe what you do during a typical workday?
Teaching, writing, and going to meetings! And in COVID times I do all this in front of my computer at home. I’m looking forward to a time when I can see my colleagues again without using Zoom.
What training/experience did you have at the start of your career?
I began my university studies at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Canada, where I did a Bachelor of Arts (BA) (Hons) in Psychology followed by a Master of Arts (MA) in Sociology.
How did you get into your current role?
I came to the UK on a Commonwealth Scholarship to do a PhD at the University of Manchester, where I’ve remained for the last 30 years. The most important training I got in carrying out research was in actually doing it – one needs to practice these skills to develop them.
What do you wish you'd known when you started your career?
I have learned to take the inevitable rejection that comes with academic work (rejected grant applications, rejected papers) less personally now, but this was not the case for me at the beginning of my career, when rejection could be paralysing, at least for a while. Rejection can and still does sting of course, but I wish I’d better understood just how common rejection is when I was starting out.
This is an important message for PhD students: we should not talk just about their successes and our successes, but about failure too; how to process it, learn from it, and move forward.
What would you recommend to people who want to follow in your footsteps?
To be happy as an academic researcher, I think it’s better if you’re driven by curiosity than by the career itself. Academics spend a lot of time working on their own, and without a real passion for your topic, it can be a hard slog! I’ve seen many people consider doing PhDs over my 30 year career, and the ones who succeed – and importantly are happy doing it – tend to the be ones driven by the pleasure they take in satisfying their curiosity.
I recommend that people choose their careers based on doing things that give them satisfaction and make them happy. If you see a PhD as something to ‘get out of the way’ to get into academia, find a way instead to focus on getting enjoyment from the process. After all, when you do a PhD, you’re already beginning to do the job of an academic.
What troubles did you have progressing through your career?
Progress in my career slowed considerably when I had a child, and more so still as a single parent. As my daughter became more independent, I was able to take advantage of the kind of opportunities that are more difficult for parents – especially mothers – of young children, like travelling for conferences and speaking engagements around the world. But I recognize that whatever success I’ve had derives mostly from unearned privilege as a white woman living in a relatively wealthy country, and from sheer good fortune.
What stereotype would like to dispel about your job or industry?
There are two stereotypes that I’d like to dispel about the job of academics.
First: academics don’t live or work in ‘the real world’. Of course, the activities of scientific research and teaching could not be located anywhere else but the real world. I think this characterization of academics is really intended to suggest that their work is in some way without value because it’s not related to how things really work. When people have said this to me, they generally think differently when I describe my research, which, of course, is precisely about better understanding aspects of the real world that would otherwise be misunderstood.
The second stereotype I’d like to dispel is that academics are on holiday when they are not teaching students, or that we ‘have the summers off’. The job of academic researchers is only partly devoted to teaching students. More than half of what we do is research, and much of this happens when students are away from campus.
I’d also like to dispel a stereotype about the darknet as a place for bad people to do bad things. It would take longer to dispel that myth than I have the space for here!
How would you describe your research interest in relation to SPRITE+?
For decades now I’ve been conducting research on illegal drug use, drug markets and drug policy, but in recent years, I have focused more specifically on digital innovations and drug markets, specifically drug cryptomarkets (aka ‘darknet’ markets).
How do you hope to benefit from working with SPRITE+ network?
I really enjoy collaborative work with others who use different disciplinary approaches, theoretical frameworks, and methods. Collaborations like these can be very exciting because the whole created can often be more than the sum of its (collaborating) parts! I’m therefore open to new collaborations.
Which of the SPRITE+ Challenge Themes can you relate to from the job that you do? How does it impact your role?
All the themes interest me! But the ones most closely aligned with my work include digital technologies and change; accountability and ethics; and power and control.
Applications are open to individuals from academia and professional practice (non-academic) to attend an online sandpit on Digital Vulnerabilities in July 2021. Up to £160k of SPRITE+ funding will be made available to fund interdisciplinary projects.