For over a century, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) has been committed to excellence and expansion of its disciplinary study, and since 2011 has been recognized by the Carnegie Foundation as a research and doctoral institution.
Among its wide range of study opportunities, UNO currently offers seven doctoral programs: Biomedical Informatics, Criminology & Criminal Justice, Information Technology, Psychology, Public Administration, Exercise Science and Educational Leadership.
This is a series focused on these doctoral degree programs and what they offer both students and the Omaha community through their academic contributions. This feature focuses on the doctoral program within the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, which is housed within the College of Public Affairs and Community Service.
As one of the top 20 programs in the nation, UNO’s Criminology and Criminal justice doctoral degree is one of the most competitive programs on campus – applications pour in not just from all over the nation, but from all over the world. Its facilities are state-of-the-art and its faculty members are recognized nationally and internationally, top names in their field.
Twenty-one years have passed since UNO began offering its doctoral-level coursework in criminology and criminal justice. Today, UNO is a national leader in preparing students for the 21st century demands in this field.
“We are nationally ranked because when our students leave our program they are successful in academia,” explains Dr. Candice Batton, director of the UNO School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “We really think it’s important to have a program that is structured to provide students with the opportunity not only to learn about research, but to do it and coauthor with faculty.”
The school is very intentional about promoting opportunities for doctoral students to engage in research as well as teach. Understandably, such experiences are both necessary and vital to any comprehensive Ph.D. degree. But while expectations of student progress are defined by the school, students have the opportunity to explore their own individual research interests.
Ultimately, a Ph.D. is a research degree, and obtaining one requires commitment and hard work. Graduate students acknowledge that the task is demanding and within the school’s office suite, graduate students and faculty can be found working at all hours.
However, alleviating some of the burdensome demands of teaching, research, and course workloads, almost all doctoral students accepted into the program are provided with full funding and are assigned to faculty as graduate assistants. This way their entire focus can be directed to their research, and their pursuit of a degree.
Setting UNO apart from many other criminal justice institutions is a firmly-rooted collaborative network with state policymakers as well as local, state and federal criminal justice agencies.
“We have a very good reputation at UNO and in the community. We’re working with the legislature and other state agencies. Not every University has that and certainly not every criminal justice program,” Batton said. “We’ve worked hard to have good working relationships with agencies and with the legislature in the state, in part because we want to be a good community members. We want Nebraska to be a good place to live and to work!”
Funding for research in the Criminology and Criminal Justice program comes from a variety of different sources: the state of Nebraska, the Department of Homeland Security, Boys Town National Research Institute, the National Institute of Justice, and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (just to name a few). Oftentimes, research funding can be difficult to procure –especially when vying for it are criminal justice institutions and university faculty from coast to coast.
“We have several externally funded ongoing research projects, and many of those projects are federally funded and were extremely difficult to obtain through a competitive grant process,” says Dr. Pauline Brennan, the school’s doctoral program chair.
The reasons graduate students come to UNO to study are as varied as their sources of funding. For example, first-year student Steven Windisch was exposed to UNO Professor Dr. Pete Simi’s research while earning his Master’s Degree at Missouri State University.
“My situation is a little unique, I came here with the intention of working with [Dr. Simi] … and when I made my list of doctoral programs I wanted to apply to, UNO was the top one,” Windischsays.
Starr Solomon, a second-year student and President of the Graduate Student Organization for Criminology and Criminal Justice, decided to apply after visiting campus, seeing the facilities, meeting one-on-one with faculty members and gaining a more in-depth perspective on the inner-workings of the program. She also believes the school’s interpersonal environment is very conducive to the success of its students.
“We all really respect each other. I think we all get along really well. It’s the kind of the culture we breed here at UNO. We’re competing with each other to be really great, but we’re also willing to help each other and I think that’s rare in Ph.D. programs,” Solomon says.
Third year student Jared Ellison recently published some co-authored research about the rise of arrests for marijuana offenses in Nebraska as a result of Colorado’s medicinal legislation a little over a decade ago. Through his work with Dr. Ryan Spohn, Director of the Nebraska Center for Justice Research, Ellison has had the opportunity to meet with state policymakers and do in-depth research on issues relevant to the state of Nebraska. Though criminological research is not conducted with the aim of influencing policies, it is, however, intended to be informative and useful to policymakers. UNO has a strong reputation with the state legislature and our faculty and students are known for their integrity and ability to conduct high quality research.
“It’s not our job to direct as much as it is to inform ... It’s not our job to say someone should build a new prison. It’s not our job to say someone should let people out of prison. It’s just our job to say these prisons are overcrowded and here are the numbers,” Ellison says.