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Learning Center Experience
By Kristin Winokur Early, PhD, Faculty, Graduate Criminal Justice Program
Most of us have
encountered it, the standard question asked upon meeting someone new: “So, what
do you do?” For me, the question triggers a flurry of split-second mental
analyses of the inquisitor and the setting, weighing whether to discuss my
teaching universe, or venture down the less-traveled path of explaining my life
as a researcher. Why is this the less frequent choice? I suppose due to the
numerous misconceptions that I have encountered over the years when I have
replied, “I am a researcher; I study criminal behavior.”
The reactions have
been varied to be sure, and in some instances, downright humorous. Like the
times I was confused for being a mentalist or a psychic. More often than not
though the response is a short “Oh, okay,” with eyes glazing over, sometimes
accompanied by an apology and heartfelt sympathy for my plight.
The truth is, my
career in research has afforded me the opportunity to explore wide-ranging
facets of human behavior, encompassing numerous disciplines and environments. My
studies have examined human trafficking of children, society’s fear of crime,
police use of force, child-on-child sexual abuse, battered women and mandatory
medical reporting laws, juvenile waiver to adult court, art education in middle
school, and post-traumatic stress disorder, to name a few subjects.
has facilitated collaborations with psychologists, educators, judges,
attorneys, economists, doctors, police officers, social workers, administrators,
policymakers, legislators, and even governors. It has opened up worlds and
viewpoints I might never have experienced otherwise. I have been shot at in
Liberty City in Miami while conducting interviews, had my back against the
facility wall as the alarm sounded during a study in a super-max prison, and experienced
the ear-piercing shouts of drill sergeants encountered at a juvenile boot camp
for girls. I have also been there to listen to the stories of victims and
enable their voices to be heard through my publications, speeches, and
advocacy. Contrary to popular belief, rather than being a blah and boring
occupation, social science research routinely exercises your creativity and
problem-solving skills with unsolved puzzles about human nature and behavior. Yet
several myths prevail about being a researcher.
You do not need a
doctoral degree to engage in research. I took part in my first research study
as part of an undergraduate internship in which I administered surveys over the
phone. The truth is that there are entry-level positions in research that do
not require a bachelor’s degree. Often these positions are intimately involved
in the data collection process of surveying, interviewing, observing
interactions and behaviors, and recording data. A bachelor’s or master’s degree
can open the door to advanced research opportunities involving data analysis
and reporting. A doctorate may be useful in securing research funding and
teaching, but it is not a prerequisite to being a researcher.
encounter fear and apprehension among my students on the first day of a
research course. Frequently they are concerned that they will not do well
because they do not see themselves as particularly good with numbers and have
no experience with statistics (and don’t want any, for that matter). Yet
research is not merely confined to the mathematicians among us. This is
particularly true of research in the social sciences. Human behavior is far
from an exact science that can be neatly quantified. It involves exploring
motivations, emotions, actions, and drives, which are often better understood
through verbal communication.
I encountered this
in a study comparing youth transferred to adult court with similar-risk youth
processed in the juvenile system. On average, the transferred youth received
more lenient sanctions than those in juvenile court. The finding seemed
counterintuitive and while it was based on numbers, it did not explain why the disparate sentences were
occurring. It took qualitative research involving interviews with judges,
attorneys, and youth to reveal that youthful offenders were often deemed less
serious in comparison to their adult counterparts, seen as first-timers in the
adult system, and therefore, often placed on probation. Those in the juvenile
system were considered to be among the more serious offenders in need of
residential confinement. These conclusions simply could not be extracted from
numbers and underscore the importance of qualitative methods of research that require
no formal training in statistical analysis.
say that there is a common misperception that researchers are hired guns who
tailor their results to the wishes of their clients. An example of this is tobacco
"research" by Philip Morris that suggested that smoking was not
harmful. Let’s face it—we all
have personal biases and beliefs. However, the ethical researcher is able to
set aside preconceived notions and remain objective while collecting, analyzing,
and reporting data. Furthermore, researchers are routinely subjected to
critique and external peer-review. There have been many times when I have been
asked for an underlying dataset or scrutinized about the methods that I used in
a study. An unbiased researcher welcomes these opportunities, as they permit
enhanced understanding of the study results and accurate measurement. Data can
only be manipulated if it goes unchecked.
Most of us engage
in applied research all the time without even realizing it. When purchasing
your car, you probably did not just walk up to the first car on the lot and
offer to buy it at face value. Rather, you likely spent some time considering
reviews, comparing options, and weighing the costs and benefits.
number of times you “Googled” a question this week. In a sense, this represents
a form of research and it is only limited by the questions that we can
formulate. The internet has naturally enhanced core research skills involving
problem-solving and inquiry by enabling us to quickly ask questions and find
answers. This is the essence of a researcher’s job. I like to refer to it as
puzzle solving, the techniques of which are not difficult to learn. In fact,
many have argued that while traditional coursework can provide a foundational
understanding of research methods, the best way to learn to conduct research is
to simply do it. Ideally, you would do so under the guidance of an experienced
researcher. Starting off with an internship or serving as a research assistant
is a great way to get your feet wet and to learn as you go.
I will admit that
when I was in graduate school few of my peers considered pursuing research
outside of academia. Most felt there were limited opportunities available for
social science researchers. I knew otherwise, largely because I decided to work
in my field while attending school over the years. I figured the best way to
learn more about research was to get involved with it. I held multiple
part-time research assistant positions working in various organizations
including a state administrative office of the courts, a large metropolitan
state attorney’s office, and a state juvenile justice agency. I was exposed to
computer programs like Microsoft Excel, Access, Word, and PowerPoint.
days, research assistants have access to more sophisticated applications
involving crime mapping and dashboard reporting. Technological advancements
have had a significant impact on the occupation of the researcher, not the
least of which has been the creation of jobs in a wide array of fields. I
conducted a quick Google search today of the terms ‘justice research jobs.’ Below
is an abbreviated listing of what I found:
Notably, many of
the positions require only a bachelor’s degree and limited to no experience. Those
interested in testing the research waters in the field of criminal justice have a number of opportunities available to them. For example, the Criminal
Justice Research Center offers internships (see https://cjrc.osu.edu/criminal-justice-research-center-internships)
in studies involving anti-human trafficking, criminal intelligence, and prison
research. Additionally, the following organizations routinely advertise
entry-level and advanced research opportunities:
The work of a
researcher is very often different from the misconceptions surrounding the
occupation. It is a field that opens up a world of possible inquiries and
avenues, and one that is accessible and rewarding. As a researcher, I have had
flexibility in my schedule and autonomy to design and implement studies. But more
importantly, it has given me an opportunity to help solve real-world problems
and promote social policies that better society. While misconceptions about the
profession may persist, the truth is these notions are simply not supported by
Kristin Winokur Early is a
professor at Kaplan University. The views expressed in this article are solely
those of the author and do not represent the view of Kaplan University.
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