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July 6, 2021

A Criminologist Talks About the Job

Lab worker inspects evidence

In this Article

Paul Leighton, PhD
Job Title: Associate Professor of Criminology
Eastern Michigan University
Over 10 years in the field

If you’ve ever wondered what a criminologist does, read this interview and find out; learn if a career in criminology might be for you.

Why criminology?

I took the LSAT and applied to law school, but I had a nagging feeling that it wasn’t really what I wanted.

I thought it had to do with justice. It was a rude awakening to find that it really didn’t, and law school wasn’t as interesting as I thought.

Then I discovered that there was a Department of Justice, Law, and Society at the American University in Washington, DC. When I got there I found that was what I wanted to do, and the master’s degree turned into a PhD.

What did you study at school?

It wasn’t just a narrow focus on criminal justice. I worked as a research assistant on a study of execution teams and execution processes, and that’s given me a continuing interest in capital punishment. I also collaborated on work that’s given me a larger interest in criminal justice policy, how the government fights crime, and an interest in white-collar crime. White-collar criminals commit spectacular robberies, but they don’t get the punishment that street criminals do.

What was your first job out of college?

I went to the University of San Francisco for a one-year contract position. I was back on the market the next year, but it was a great life experience. Most people with a PhD go into the academic world as teachers and researchers, and some go into policy organizations or think tanks. My dad was a professor, and I was drawn by the academic lifestyle, especially the attraction to having a lot of control over your schedule. There’s a lot of work, but not that many places you have to be during the week.

What do you most enjoy about criminology?

My career has taken a slightly unusual turn because I got interested in websites. I taught a seminar on violence and got my students involved in researching violence prevention websites, doing critical analysis of hate crimes and domestic violence. I created Stopviolence.com, and I teach a domestic violence class, so the site has grown and expanded with contributions from my students.

What is most challenging about criminology?

Managing all of the various commitments. As a professor, you’re expected to teach, and that requires preparation and grading. There’s a lot of committee work, and I’ve gotten myself involved in the union as well. I’m writing articles, collaborating with people, and we try to get together and investigate new ideas. I’m lucky that the people I work with like to keep fresh and not rehash things over and over again.

What is the most common misconception about criminologists?

There’s a frequent misunderstanding that all we do is train people to be FBI officers and police officers. An academic criminologist is not just training people to be part of the criminal justice system but researching fundamental issues about why people commit crimes. Criminologists look at the workings of the criminal justice system, including getting more insight into why people are violent and asking questions about the justice part of criminal justice.

What skills are important to the criminology field?

A criminology professorship is similar to a professorship in other fields. You need a lot of self-discipline to manage your time and the competing things that people want you to do. Professorship requires persistence and the ability to work without the external structure that most people have. You need to be able to get up and work even if you don’t physically go to the office and punch in.

What kind of training is necessary?

Most colleges offer an internship program, which is a good place to start. Internship programs usually have a fair range of positions. You can do things in the policing ends, court, corrections, probation, or parole. You can observe all sorts of people and hear them talk about their jobs. Obviously, the experience is great if you get hired there, or if you prefer the academic side then you can be grounded in the reality of how the system works.