My experience of Postgraduate study at the University of Hertfordshire

Dr Laura Abbott’s research has been discussed in parliament and appeared in national media; it is starting to help shape policy development to improve the experiences of pregnant women in prison. Here she writes about her experiences of Postgraduate study and how she is using her midwifery training and experience to improve the lives of others.

 Dr Laura Abbott with Naomi Delap, Director of Birth Companions.

My motivation to embark on doctorial research into pregnant women’s experiences in prison was driven by my curiosity and midwifery experiences of accessing a marginalised group of women; and whether my research could help them tell their story. Seen as a societal anomaly and invisible group, pregnant women in prison often have a background of trauma yet they have limited autonomy by nature of the setting in which they are held. Identifying a gap in the evidence, I chose to try and understand the pregnant woman’s experience within the English prison system.

As I conducted my research, I realised what huge scope there was to improve policy, care and outcomes for both mother and child, and this became an additional motivation.


Undertaking a doctorate is not easy and one of my mantras throughout the almost 6 years of juggling study, fulltime work and a young family was:

“We choose to go to the moon…and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. ― John F. Kennedy [Address at Rice University, September 12 1962]


I have been indelibly, personally, affected by the experiences of the women, and subsequently wish to campaign for better conditions. Participants would often tell me that they had ‘no voice’ and many women asked me to represent and share their experiences, so their voices could be heard: writing about and presenting my research has already highlighted some of the issues pregnant women in prison face, raising the voices of the women.


The University of Hertfordshire is a family – we support each other. My research supervisors, midwifery and CRIPPAC colleagues and friends across the school and wider university make undertaking something as challenging as a doctorate feel like it belongs to all of us. Undertaking a professional doctorate has meant that I have had the support of my peers, sharing our learning and collaborating and encouraging one another, especially when the going gets tough. Living the UH values through being collegiate and friendly means that our achievements are shared, and I am proud to belong to the UH community. I am lucky to be part of a midwifery team who support fantastic students – over the years as I have talked about my findings with students, their support and passion for my research has been inspiring.

Personal growth

My doctoral research has had an engrained impact on me on multiple levels. The closed institution of prison was a difficult world to inhabit. At times my personal resolve was tested due to my feeling haunted by the environment and the disturbing accounts from women. On a personal level, I have learnt to be more patient, to question deeper, to be more compassionate, to judge less and understand more. As a professional, I am learning that advocacy needs to be actionable rather than rhetorical, and that speaking out takes inordinate courage, yet is critical where women have no voice.

Working together

At the outset of my research journey I saw how vital services such as those delivered by the third sector were for the women. Developing relationships with campaign groups, charities and academics in other disciplines to my own and in other HEIs has been motivating, and these relationships have definitely strengthened my research. I was able to apply for some small funding awards which were a great motivator, knowing that others saw the importance of my work. The Iolanthe Midwifery Trust  and the Royal College of Midwives provided some generous funding which helped pay for travel and books.

A special relationship has been built up with the charity Birth Companions and I was proud to contribute to their Birth Charter for Pregnant Women in prison in England. Seeing the difference this small, deeply compassionate charity of volunteers makes for disadvantaged women in prison and also in the community spurs me on.


From the outset, I was ambitious that my research would positively influence the way pregnant women in prison are perceived and hoped it would make an impact on society. I have always believed that undertaking this kind of research needs to make a difference to those whom we are researching. Undertaking policy analysis as my Masters project gave me some grounding in how to influence policy and gave me the impetus to engage with networking at the early stages. It is through careful planning that my research is now having a wide reach from media outlets to the government. Of course this is not something I can do alone – my relationships with charitable organisations such as with Birth Companions have been hugely instrumental in this.

The potential impact for women and their babies is what has driven me and continues to do so. This was the primary reason for me to reach the end of my doctorate and ensure that through understanding women’s experiences we can work to ensure care provided is tailored to their needs.


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