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ASU criminology, criminal justice PhD program marks 15 years

Grads of highly ranked program, ‘a recognized worldwide leader,’ hold prestigious faculty, agency positions

Woman wearing graduation regalia, standing behind a lectern.

ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice Director Beth Huebner speaks at the Watts College of Public Service spring 2023 convocation in May. The school's PhD program is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Photo by Mark J. Scarp/ASU

October 05, 2023

Raven Simonds had earned two degrees at Arizona State University — so when the time came for her to choose where to study for her doctorate, she chose not to turn in her Sun Card.

Last year, Simonds earned her PhD in criminology and criminal justice from the highly respected and honored doctoral program at ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, which in 2023 is celebrating 15 years of excellence, inclusion and service preparing future educators, researchers and leaders in the public and private sectors.

“I did both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees (in criminology and criminal justice) at ASU, so I had some pre-existing experience with the program overall. But I would say both the depth and breadth of faculty expertise at ASU made the doctoral program attractive,” said Simonds, who today is a senior research analyst at New York City’s Criminal Justice Agency.

“The faculty at ASU lead the field in their respective research interests, and it was so exciting to be a part of that as a doctoral student,” Simonds said. “This also led to a type of thought diversity between students, as many of us in the same cohort, for example, had different interests.”

The school marks this 15th anniversary from ASU’s No. 2 position in U.S. News & World Report’s 2022 ranking of criminology graduate schools, ahead of the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Florida and Michigan State University. School leaders, past and present, are proud of the program’s growth and its commitment to inclusion.

Melinda Tasca is a first-generation college graduate who said the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice faculty’s caliber and the high-impact work they were engaged in attracted her to the program.

“Training and mentorship went beyond the basics and exposed students to unique opportunities,” said Tasca, a 2014 graduate of the program who today is an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“For example, I was able to work on externally funded projects led by my mentor and in collaboration with criminal justice agencies that allowed me to develop a broad range of skills early on,” Tasca said. Her training included posing and framing broad research questions, engaging in grant writing, executing projects and developing surveys. She also conducted research in challenging environments and worked with agency partners.

D’Andre Walker, a first-generation college student, received his PhD from ASU in 2018. He earned his master’s degree in criminology and criminal justice at ASU after receiving the Reach for the Stars Fellowship in 2012. Walker now is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at the University of Mississippi.

“Despite being accepted into other PhD programs across the country, I decided to stay at ASU, because of the great mentorship and solid network that I worked hard to build, ... the diverse courses offered, willingness of faculty to work with students — even if they were not officially assigned to them as a graduate or research assistant — and the presence of faculty around the office,” Walker said.

Today, the program continues to help students develop many cutting-edge skills, said Stacia Stolzenberg, a School of Criminology and Criminal Justice associate professor who directs the doctoral and in-person master’s degree programs in the school.

Criminal justice is an exciting place to be, she said. While the field is community-based in nature, “one thing our faculty is great at is being embedded in the communities they care about.”

In addition, ASU’s program excels at developing and maintaining strong relationships with community partners, Stolzenberg said.

School of Criminology and Criminal Justice Director Beth Huebner, Watts Endowed Professor of Public Safety, said ASU’s PhD program is respected throughout the country for numerous reasons and she continues to be excited about welcoming new scholars.

“The PhD is the highest degree that a student can earn in the field. All of our PhD students have dedicated more than four years to conducting original research that impacts policy and practice in criminology and criminal justice,” Huebner said. “The PhD program in criminology and criminal justice at ASU has quickly emerged as one of the leading institutions in our field, and it is one of the largest and most diverse groups. Our graduates have gone on to lead other top programs and to work for research firms and local governments that are transforming the system.”

Scott Decker, Foundation Professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice, served as the school's director from 2006 to 2014 and was instrumental in creating the PhD program, which debuted in 2008 and has graduated 64 doctoral students since its inception.

“These students hold faculty jobs at some of the most prestigious universities in the field; others work directly with criminal justice agencies to promote public safety. Other graduates conduct research that improves the quality of justice and community safety,” Decker said.

Decker credits Regents Professor Cassia Spohn, a faculty member who followed him as school director, for getting the program off the ground. Spohn was director of graduate programs as the PhD program formed.

The school, a recognized global leader, has a highly awarded and respected faculty that “has developed a culture of excellence in its teaching, research and service” within a dynamic environment, Decker said.

“The school works to improve the quality of justice in Arizona, the nation and on an international basis,” he said.

Simonds, Tasca and Walker talked about what the program has meant to their careers.

Editor's note: Answers may have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What did you learn during your time at ASU that changed your perspective?

Walker: As a first-generation African American college student, I did not know what to expect of my graduate career at ASU. Prior to coming to ASU, I did not see the true value in research. However, as a graduate student, I was around some of the best professors and students in the country. ... Being in the classroom with these individuals and listening to their stories has influenced my perspective on research. More specifically, I realized the importance of not only researching topics that I am interested in, but also the impact that my research findings have on society through policy and practice.

Q: How has your career benefited from having earned your PhD at ASU?

Tasca: My doctoral training at ASU provided both breadth and depth in terms of substantive and methodological training, which established a solid foundation to launch my career. In addition, my time at ASU prepared me for the competing demands of a tenure-track career and introduced me to the ins and outs of the research enterprise. I am also grateful for having been exposed to a variety of professional networking opportunities and for the well-rounded mentorship I received. As a first-generation college student, this level of investment in my professional development benefited me greatly.

Q: Describe an important aspect of your current research and questions you seek to answer.

Simonds: One exciting part of my current research is exploring the role of court date notifications on court appearances. Failing to appear in court can result in a variety of negative outcomes, one of which includes having a warrant issued for arrest. To this end, it is important to better understand what types of court date notifications work best. The New York City Criminal Justice Agency is such an exciting place to work because our outreach team notifies people of their upcoming court date, and we have the capacity to explore different types of notifications, as well as the content of such notifications, in real time.

Q: How has the criminology and criminal justice field changed most significantly since your time as a doctoral student? What might this year’s PhD graduates deal with that is different from what you encountered in your first few years?

Simonds: I think the use of artificial intelligence has significantly increased over the last few years. AI wasn’t even a part of my vocabulary, really, while I was in graduate school. ... I think we’ve already seen it begin to impact education and how we teach topics related to criminal justice, and we are learning to navigate that, as well as for the field more broadly.

Tasca: One change I have noticed in recent years is a greater openness to and interest in research careers outside of academia among criminologists. This seems to have coincided with an expansion of “industry” opportunities, such as working in a research division in a criminal justice agency or within a research organization. This shift offers PhD graduates a wide range of career options to consider.

Walker: Criminology and criminal justice is a very attractive discipline. I believe that the trajectory of the field is being influenced by current events (e.g., Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tyre Nichols, among others) as these stories have highlighted the need for and importance of research to identify and address challenges within criminal justice organizations. That said, I believe students will have more opportunities to work alongside practitioners to craft policies to address injustices across the criminal justice systems.  

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