Should You Earn a PhD in Criminology/Criminal Justice or an Allied Field?

Somewhere deep inside of you, or at the back of your mind, a voice calls out, urging you to pursue a Ph.D. in Criminology/ Criminal Justice (CJ).

Perhaps you like to binge on late-night TV shows featuring handsome, charismatic police officers and drop-dead gorgeous and brilliant detectives solving complex crimes.

Or maybe your passion for higher learning was ignited during your undergraduate years when entertaining, engaging, or supportive criminology professors inspired you to explore the intricacies of crime and the criminal justice system more deeply.

But now, you’re faced with a dilemma: should you commit to a Ph.D. in Criminology/Criminal Justice, or should you explore an allied field like Sociology, History, Political Science, or Public Policy?

This predicament is not uncommon. Prospective graduate students, as well as those already enrolled in doctoral programs, often find themselves grappling with this question.

To help you navigate this decision, here are several questions to consider, ordered from least to most important:

1. Are you clear about the costs and the benefits of earning a Ph.D. versus other career choices?

A Ph.D. is not for everyone and unlike many of the trades (e.g., plumber, electrician, etc.) and professions (e.g., doctor, lawyer, etc.) that people train for, there is no guarantee that you are going to get a job upon completion, or that your investment is going to pay off with a good paying career and salary.

2. Will earning a PhD in Criminology/Criminal Justice make you more marketable than securing a PhD in another field?

Research the current job market for recently graduated Ph.D.’s in Criminology/Criminal Justice and try to get a handle on the supply and demand for people with this qualification compared to individuals who have earned doctorates in other fields.

3. Can you secure funding for a doctorate in Criminology/Criminal Justice or is it easier to secure funding in another field?

Assuming that you are not rich or someone (like your parents, spouse, etc.) is going to pay for your studies (plus living expenses), explore scholarship opportunities, assistantships, and grants available in both Criminology/Criminal Justice versus cognate fields.

4. Should you do your PhD. in a department where both the curriculum and the professors emphasize Criminology or Criminal Justice or both subjects are treated equally?

Although Criminology and Criminal Justice are related, they are not the same. And not all PhD programs are equivalent. They are comprised of a variety of different people with different expertise’s, strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to check this out before you enroll least you may be surprised or disappointed a few years in to the program.

5. Is there a respected Ph.D. program in Criminology/Criminal justice close to where you live?

Consider your geographical options and the quality of programs in your vicinity. Will you have to uproot your family and disrupt your social connections or is there a compromise location that you can pursue?

6. Why not earn a Master’s degree before taking the plunge with a Ph.D.?

Although your ego might be stoked by earning a Ph.D., if you don’t have a master’s degree in Criminology/Criminal Justice already then maybe you want to start with this degree first before you consider moving to the Ph.D.

7. Is there a well-respected Criminologist (who can also act as your mentor) that you want to work with in a Ph.D. program in Criminology/Criminal Justice?

In many respects, more important than the subject matter of the discipline that you want to earn a Ph.D. in is the potential advisors who align with your research interests and career aspirations.

8. Which allied field/s also aligns with your interests?

Is it possible to earn a Ph.D. in Sociology, Political Science, or Public Policy and be able to conduct scholarship on the topics that interest you most? Is the doctorate in Criminology/Criminal Justice appropriate or can you achieve the same goal in an allied field.

9. Do you want to do your Ph.D. full-time or part-time? Are there one or more respected Ph.D. programs in Criminology/Criminal Justice that will allow you to do this part-time?

Although the thought of pursuing your PhD. part-time may be appealing it is also important to realize that few programs will allow this. And many of the part-time programs lack the due diligence of others.

10. Have you considered speaking to a qualified career counsellor, and not the admissions director at the prospective PhD. program you want to enter?

Consult career advisors who can provide insights into the job market and hiring trends for both earning a Ph.D. and in the particular field/subject matter you want to pursue. Sometimes the school that you earned your bachelor’s degree, have free career counseling services that will enable you to do this.

11. Can you achieve your career goals without a Ph.D. in Criminology/Criminal justice?

This is probably a good time to re-examine the specific career path you aspire to, and whether a Ph.D. is a necessity for your goals.

12. Evaluate your personal passions

Finally, reflect on what truly drives you and where your passion lies; this should be a significant factor in your decision.

Next Steps

All in all it’s important to do your due diligence by conducting as much research as you can. This involves not simply consulting the websites of prospective Ph.D. programs, but talking to instructors, and graduate students who are currently enrolled in Ph.D. programs in Criminology/Criminal Justice (and allied fields) and with those who have graduated. This process should enable you to learn about and hopefully understand their experiences and career paths. This process might also might extend to attending one or more Criminology/Criminal Justice conferences.

In conclusion, deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. in Criminology/Criminal Justice or a cognate field is a significant decision. You want to take a calculated risk, have a plan B if the graduate program does not work out for you, and consider the possibility of pivoting into something that interests you, adequately pays the bills, and does not force you in to perpetual debt paying off student loans.

Put another way, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, and your decision should ultimately reflect your individual aspirations and existing circumstances.

Photo Credit

Title: Sisyphus
Artist: Titian
Painted: 1548-1549

Lights, Camera, Corrections

Many films have been made about convicts, prisons, or set in American correctional facilities.

On the one hand you have documentaries that provide a history of a particular correctional facility, a longstanding challenge, an incident or series of incidents (like a riot), the death penalty, and some of the solutions that have been attempted.

On the other hand, there are numerous commercially driven Hollywood movies that have been made that are either set in a jail, prison, or other correctional institution, or use this setting as the backdrop to tell a story.

A good prison film not only tells a compelling, entertaining, or interesting story, but also presents a realistic portrayal of life behind bars. This means that typical tropes like prison rapes, contraband smuggling, and heavily tattooed inmates working out in the prison yard are minimized.

But most of the movies set in correctional facilities seem to be driven by stereotypes of prison life rather than reality. This is understandable because jails and prisons are highly bureaucratic paramilitary organizations, doing time is mostly boring, and opportunities for the rehabilitation of inmates are typically slim to none. That’s why incarceration, at least in the United States, is most similar to a warehouse.

That being said, time and teaching modality permitting, I typically assign, and in order, four movies in my introductory undergraduate class in Corrections: Shawshank Redemption (1994), American Me (1992), Dead Man Walking (1995), and Brubaker (1980).

Why? Although some of my students work (or have worked), or aspire to work in correctional facilities, or they have been incarcerated, are correctional system contacted or affected, commercial/Hollywood films can be a good way to facilitate not just discussion among students about the role of corrections and the prison experience, but important issues connected to this important branch of the criminal justice system in the United States and elsewhere.

Although these films are dated, they either touch on, or provide important insights about persistent themes that impact the contemporary field and practice of corrections.

These issues include, but are not limited to: redemption, the role of prison reform, rehabilitation, how prisons are typically training grounds for criminals, prisonization, power relations, corruption, and hope.

While redemption is half of the title of Shawshank Redemption, it’s not clear if either Andy or Red, the co protagonists are redeemed in the sense of the term. In Dead Man Walking, however, there appears to be emphasis on the part of Sister Prejean to have Matthew Poncelet tell the truth and this will somehow unburden him and perhaps the families of the victims.

The concept of prison reform is hinted on in Shawshank Redemption, (e.g., the possibility that the prison will undergo some massive change with a new administration), the notion of prison reform is best articulated in Brubaker, when a smart person comes down to the prison to reform it. He is faced with challenges at every step of the way.

Although there are inklings of the concept of rehabilitation in American Me and Brubaker, rehabilitation is more significantly addressed in Shawshank Redemption. In this movie we witness, Red, Andy Dufresne’s best buddy, frequently visit to the parole board who ask him have you been rehabilitated, and the canned speech he gives them, until he tells them the truth.

Likewise, the notion that prisons are training grounds for inmates to learn to be better criminals is best exemplified in American Me (1992). The film traces the journey of Montoya Santana, as he gets deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld, from petty thief who is incarcerated as a juvenile, to murderer, and then the head of the Californian Mexican Mafia.

Although the concept of prisonization, where inmates slowly adapt to the prison environment, is touched on in Brubaker (i.e., the necessity of inmates at Wakefield State Prison adapting to their circumstances), it is more thoroughly depicted in both Shawshank Redemption and American Me. In the former we see Andy, adapt to the norms of Shawshank, and Montoya adapt and utilize the norms in the successive correctional facilities he is incarcerated in. In Shawshank Andy slowly and successfully adapts to and bond with his fellow inmates, the uncaring nature of the correctional officers, and learns how to bond with, and find his place in the power relationship amongst the contenders for power. Most importantly he realizes that he has some knowledge and skills that may be of use to all constituencies.

The issue of institutional corruption is embodied by the warden Norton in Shawshank Redemption, and the former warden and the complicit trustees in Brubaker. We learn that corruption is longstanding and functional in the operation of both prisons. And although the problem of corruption is known beyond these prisons (including all the way up to the state government), until there is some highly publicized attention, or political crisis it is not significantly addressed.

Hope is a dominant theme in both Shawshank Redemption and Dead Man Walking. Shawshank Redemption traces the story of Andy Fontaine, who is wrongfully convicted of a crime, but survives several years in Shawshank prison hoping that one day that the truth of his criminal case will come to public attention and once there is his opportunity, the warden crushes his chances. Red says that hope will kill a young man. Throughout these movies issues of hope is also prevalent in Brubaker from the prison warden side, it is how he is trying to do his best, but is up against all odds. It also introduces students to the power of politics, particularly at the state level, where there is corruption and a perception of not wanting to appear soft on crime to ones loyal constituents lest they fail to re-elect you next year.

One of the most important themes among all the films, however, is power and power relations; how it manifests, and how it bounds relationships among the inmates, between the correctional officers and the prisoners, and from the warden down to the correctional staff, in all four movies. We see power relations unfold in Brubaker, not simply between him and the trustees, but between Brubaker and the governor of the state of Arkansas. The source of power comes in many forms from physical power, to economic power, to the power in numbers and the threat of physical power and death. And we see a complex power dynamic unfold between sister Preajan and x on death row.

In the world of asynchronous instruction and remote Zoom classes, pedagogical tools like movies can enhance class discussion and increase engagement with the subject matter. However, it’s important to remember that these tools are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Ultimately, the success of the classroom experience depends on both motivated and proactive instructors who can inspire their students, as well as students who are willing to actively participate and contribute.

Photo credit:

Title: The iconic Hollywood Sign in Hollywood Hills
Photographer: Thomas Wolf

Taking stock of the scholarly study of graffiti and street art

The streets, utility poles, and back alleys of large urban centers in most big cities are epicenters for all manner of graffiti and street art.

Predictably this activity engenders lots of responses. Notwithstanding the longstanding desire by property owners, ghost buffers, and moral entrepreneurs to deter this activity and remove this work from the surfaces upon which it has been placed, one of the more prominent reactions has been attempts to understand it.

But how does one go about comprehending graffiti and street art that goes beyond “common sense” explanations, and ones that are simply anecdotal, impressionistic, and unsystematic?

The answer is probably conducting and producing academic research in a way that not simply makes sense of graffiti and street art, but has analytic teeth.

Thankfully, over the past half century a growing number of experts from practitioners to scholars, from different academic disciplines, have tried to understand and explain graffiti and street art.

That’s why a fledgling social scientific approach to graffiti and street art (sometimes labelled Graffiti and Street Art Research Studies -GSRS) has developed.

Although this method od understanding and explaining this important type of urban art has produced numerous peer-reviewed articles that have been published in scholarly journals and chapters in academic books, books (from sole-authored to encyclopedias) published by scholarly presses, and the creation of two academic journals specifically devoted to graffiti and street art, in many respect the field is still in its infancy.


Occasionally meetings that include presentations of academic papers on graffiti and street art, like The Tag Conference, and the Urban Creativity occur, but this does not happen frequent enough.

Although a monthly extremely helpful graffiti and street art scholarly network meets on-line, this appears to be a very labor intense and greatly depends on the energy and commitment of one person.

Moreover, very few classes on graffiti and street art are taught or offered at art schools, liberal arts colleges, and universities.

Likewise, there are no university level programs in graffiti studies and street art at institutions of higher learning.

Relatedly, very few regularly published stockkeepings of the subject matter are conducted; ones that would evaluate where the research has been and where it needs to go to advance the scholarly study of graffiti and street art.

Most importantly, to date a systematic content analysis of the scholarship on graffiti and street art has not been conducted. This is a labor intense and mostly tedious activity, but it could produce a necessary framing and benchmark for future scholarship in this nascent field.

Wrapping Up

Understandably it’s difficult to tell scholars, regardless of their expertise and specialization, what to study, what to conduct research on and what to publish. And this process is often dependent on grant funding, but a systematic stocktaking that happens on a regular basis may help to guide scholars of GSAR towards more promising research.

Until these larger issues are addressed the scholarly study of graffiti and street will seem to move along slowly and in some respects at a haphazard pace.

Photo Credit:

Photographer: Eric Lewis
Title Clothes pile