Alumni spotlight: BA Criminology and Sociology graduate Poppy McGrath

'The passion for social justice in SSPSSR was palpable and made my lecturers some of the best teachers I have ever had. In addition, the support and encouragement I received from academic staff was invaluable. Prior to studying at Kent, I never thought of myself as particularly academic, but the academic staff in SSPSSR saw my potential and taught me to see it too. I will always be immensely grateful for this.'

Poppy McGrath graduated from Kent with a BA in Criminology and Sociology. She is now a Future Pupil Barrister (Crime) having secured an offer of pupillage from 9 King’s Bench Walk, a barristers’ chambers with particular expertise in high level crime such as Homicide and Manslaughter. Whilst waiting to begin her pupillage, Poppy tutored students in English, Religious Studies, Drama, Public Speaking, Sociology and Law. She also mentors A level students who are interested in pursuing law.

Can you tell us why you chose to study Criminology and Sociology for your BA degree?
I arrived at the decision to study social sciences in quite a convoluted way. As a child/teenager I always wanted to go into acting. I was the extroverted (read: loud and opinionated) student at school and I was always encouraged to channel this by way of performance. For a long time, I really enjoyed this outlet for storytelling, so I decided to study Drama and Film. I did one year of this degree at another university and knew that I had made the wrong decision. I missed academic argument intensely and whilst I was enjoying university life, felt apathetic about my course. However, I did enrol in an elective about the sociology of crime and fell in love with the subject. I realised that I was channelling the majority of my effort into this one module, and that ultimately, this is what inspired me. As such, I decided to study Criminology and Sociology instead.

What attracted you to study Criminology and Sociology at Kent?
I did a lot of research about different Criminology courses, and I was attracted to study at Kent due to the flexibility of the course and the variety of modules that were on offer. I also just really liked the atmosphere on campus at Kent. It was immediately welcoming and friendly – it just felt right. I had heard via word-of-mouth about Kent’s positive reputation for social sciences, and overall, it just felt like the best option for me. I left my previous university and enrolled at Kent through Clearing and started two months later. In hindsight, this was the best decision I’ve ever made!

Looking back, did your course live up to your expectations? What were some of the highlights of the course for you?
The Criminology and Sociology course at Kent absolutely lived up to my expectations. I really enjoyed the variety of different modules on offer, and the opportunity to ‘dabble’ in other schools. I think this is particularly important when studying humanities/social sciences because it broadens your horizons in a way that allows you to contextualise the ‘main’ content of the course. If sociology has taught me anything, it is that human behaviour cannot be understood in a vacuum. Therefore, learning from a range of schools was key in developing my opinions about the world and the societies that inhabit it. My favourite modules at undergraduate level were:

What impressed you most about our academic staff?
I cannot praise the academic staff at SSPSSR enough. It was genuinely a joy to be taught by all of them and I was inspired by their work constantly. The passion for social justice in SSPSSR was palpable and made my lecturers some of the best teachers I have ever had. In addition, the support and encouragement I received from academic staff was invaluable. Prior to studying at Kent, I never thought of myself as particularly academic, but the academic staff in SSPSSR saw my potential and taught me to see it too. I will always be immensely grateful for this.

In particular, Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh was my dissertation supervisor in my third year and was simply, awesome. I was inspired by her work and she encouraged me to do my best and challenge everything. Despite her appalling handwriting which made for some interesting feedback sessions, I cannot thank her enough for her support.

Did you know you wanted to pursue a career in law before beginning your studies at Kent? In what ways do you think your course had an impact on your skills, knowledge and career ambitions?
No, not at all! My desire to become a criminal barrister was largely due to what I learned during my undergraduate degree. Learning about the vast imbalance of power between individuals and the state motivated me to provide a voice to those who would otherwise be rendered voiceless. In combination with personal experiences in my own life, this fuelled my drive to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves.

I was particularly struck by sociological factors that impact incarceration rates such as race and socio-economic background. The disproportion of BAME individuals and those from working-class backgrounds in prison cannot be ignored, and I realised that I wanted to address this in a practical way. It was this step in my education that inspired my interest in criminal defence work in particular.

People often ask how I could possibly defend somebody who I thought could be guilty of a crime. Without delving too deeply into the intricacies of the Rule of Law and the cab rank rule, the simple answer is “everybody has a right to a fair trial.” Studying criminology and sociology emphasised just how important this is.

During your time at Kent, you undertook a work placement with a firm of solicitors, secured a mini-pupillage with 3PB and worked as a Crown Court Marshall – can you tell us how you organised these experiences
Gaining legal work experience can be difficult – particularly when you are not yet at law school. My only advice on overcoming this would be that perseverance is key. Once I knew I had an interest in pursuing law, I contacted as many solicitors’ firms as I could seeking work experience. You have nothing to lose by just emailing and asking! Statistically, one will bite, and you will be able to gain some real-life experience.

With regards to the judicial marshalling, I emailed the clerk at Guildford Crown Court with my CV and a covering letter, and he kindly offered me a judicial marshalling position. This experience confirmed my desire to become a criminal barrister and educated me on the nuances of criminal advocacy. I shadowed an incredible Crown Court Judge who still inspires me to this day. His Honour was kind and fair with defendants and witnesses alike and was particularly skilled at dealing with vulnerable people. I was also extremely fortunate that His Honour saw promise in me and helped me apply for a mini-pupillage with 3 Paper Buildings. This experience was equally imperative in confirming my motivation to become an advocate.

What type of extra-curricular activities did you got involved with?
During my time at Kent, I volunteered with Canterbury Homeless Outreach. I also dabbled in playing squash, but truthfully, I have the hand-eye coordination of a toddler and gave up after a couple of months. I wish I had become more involved with societies at university. I scorn my past self for not taking the advice of those older and wiser than me at the time – get involved with societies! It looks good on your CV and you learn a great deal along the way.

Canterbury Homeless Outreach does brilliant work, and I really enjoyed being able to make a tangible difference. It opened my eyes to the stark realities of the homelessness crisis and made me appreciate that it can happen to anyone.  If you are thinking about joining any society – make it this one. Canterbury has a larger homeless population than the whole of Cornwall, so your time and effort is greatly needed.

You accepted an offer for pupillage at 9KBW. Can you share some insights into the journey you’ve taken since graduating from Kent to reach this point?
After my undergraduate degree, I did the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) at the University of Law in Guildford. This was a huge shock to the system. I naively and arrogantly thought that I was quite clever, and would find the GDL a challenging but do-able course. Reader, it was hard. Really hard. The critical analysis skills I had acquired during my undergraduate degree became pretty redundant (except for my GDL dissertation) and I really struggled with the volume and intensity of the work. The GDL is essentially a law degree squeezed into one year, and I was not prepared for just how challenging it would be. However, the extra-curricular opportunities were great. I took part in mooting and mock trials, and volunteered as a caseworker with the National Centre for Domestic Violence.

Following this, I obtained the Diplock Scholarship by Middle Temple. This covered all my course fees for Bar school. Without this award I would never have been able to study for the Bar, I did the Bar course with an integrated Master’s, focusing on the cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses. I chose this route because I thoroughly enjoy research, and you can get some student finance for the course because it qualifies as a Master’s.

Although the studying is intense, it is important to keep up with mooting, mini-pupillages and as much pro-bono work as you can. These are the experiences that teach you the most.

Is there anything you learnt in particular during your studies that you think will help you in your career as a barrister?
Empathy is intuitive but I believe that it can also be learned. Studying social sciences makes you acutely aware that humans are largely a product of their upbringings and life experiences. It therefore becomes more difficult to judge others for their actions, and easier to see that our own successes can largely be explained by opportunity and luck. I hope I can implement this in my practice as a criminal barrister. Additionally, I hope that having understanding of crime and criminality at its grassroots will mean that I can build rapport with clients in a meaningful way.

What are your future plans/aspirations? How do you see your career progressing?
I am particularly interested in vulnerable witness/defendant handling, so I would like to get as much experience in this as possible. Specifically, I am interested in youth crime and supporting those with mental health problems through the litigation process, and the criminal justice system more broadly. It’s probably too early to say how I see my career progressing long-term, but I hope to have a long career at the criminal Bar ahead of me! I am very aware at how challenging pupillage will be, and I endeavour to work hard to prove myself.

What advice would you give to students considering a degree in Criminology and Sociology?

  1. Read as much as you can. The best part about social sciences is picking apart what you have been taught about the world, and re-learning based on evidence and research. In addition, you cannot argue anything successfully until you understand the other side’s position
  2. Engage with the work that has been set for you. There’s nothing worse than a silent seminar and I’m sure your teachers feel the same. Do the reading, form an opinion, and try to speak up in class. I know this can be difficult if you are naturally quite shy, but I promise you, nobody will laugh or judge you (they’re all too busy worrying about themselves)
  3. Have fun! Learning about yourself and your friends is probably as important as learning the material for your course
  4. Seek guidance from your lecturers and teachers. They want you to do well. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t understand something. Stay curious and ask questions
  5. Look after your mental health. I cannot emphasise this enough. You cannot succeed if you are unhappy.

And finally, what’s your favourite memory of Kent?
It is so difficult to choose just one favourite memory from my time at Kent as there are so many. What unites these memories are the people in them. During my time at Kent, I met some of the kindest, funniest and most interesting people I’ve ever met. Unfortunately, it is inevitable that people grow apart, but mostly I am still very close with my friends from university.

If I’m being completely honest, some of my favourite moments weren’t big events. They were the small moments like getting the raging giggles in the library at 10pm after doing a long study session. Or, sitting on the green in the summer basking in post-exam relaxation. Given Kent’s location my friends and I had the luxury of being able to go to Whitstable in the summer which was always a lot of fun.

Tuesday nights at ‘Glitterbomb’ were my personal favourite. My friends and I loved going to drag shows and dancing to 80s music until our feet hurt. I wish I could go back and do it all again!

Study Criminology and Sociology at Kent: Why do people commit crime? What causes crime rates to rise or fall? How do societies work, develop and transform? Our joint honours programme Criminology and Sociology provides a comprehensive and academically rigorous approach to these pressing questions. Learn more about studying a BA Criminology and Sociology degree at Kent

Explore the full range of social sciences courses you can study at Kent

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