Postgrad Lives: 'I'm studying art theft in London - and how to stop it'

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The Independent Online

John Kerr, 33, is doing a PhD in criminology at City University in London, having done a one-year taught Masters, also at City.

Why are you doing this PhD?

After finishing a history degree at Manchester University in 1999, I taught English as a foreign language for seven years, in Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela and Spain. But while I enjoyed the teaching and the travelling, what I really wanted to do was something that involved historical analysis and research, but something that was relevant. That's what attracted me to criminology.

What's your area of research?

The title of my PhD is "The securitisation and theft of art in London". It has two main aspects: first, how the police and private security work together in guarding and preventing art from being stolen, and how they recover it when it has been stolen; and second, what this shows us about modern policing: how the general public assumes that the police do all aspects of security, when it's actually a complex mix of different agencies – public and private – working in partnership.

How do you go about your research?

I talk to a lot of different people: at art galleries; within the police; ex-police officers; private recovery companies; and people who control the art databases. In general everyone is very receptive. Art is an under-researched area, even though it's worth several billions of pounds worldwide. I'm treating the art world as a community, showing how communities are now better at policing themselves. Everywhere you go – shopping centres, offices, outdoor areas – you see people in uniforms exercising control. The police can't do everything.

Why do you like it?

To do something like this in your early thirties, you have to be slightly obsessed, or you wouldn't spend hours and hours doing research and talking to people. I absolutely love it, and I have two good supervisors who read my findings and give me ideas. I have a meeting once a month, but their doors are always open for visits, emails or phone calls.

How are you funding it?

The university put me forward for funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), but it decided my project should not get funding. Even though the university suggested I wait a year and apply again, I chose to go ahead on my own. So I'm doing the PhD part time. The fees are £1,700 a year, which I'm paying from working part-time in Tefl, teaching business English. I'm also about to start doing some undergraduate teaching at the university, which will provide a bit of extra money.

What next?

I'd like to be an academic, because I really enjoy the research side – coming up with theories, creating something yourself and challenging your brain.