Video Transcript: Research Assistantship Opportunities at NIJ

The NIJ Research Assistantship Program (RAP) is designed to provide highly qualified doctoral students with practical and applied research experience in criminal justice issues. NIJ provides funds to participating universities to pay salaries and other costs associated with research assistants who work on NIJ research activities.

This webinar reviews the opportunities that are currently available for the 2017-2018 academic year and will cover the application process, eligibility requirements and application deadlines.

Presenters include:

  • Amy Leffler, Ph.D., Research Assistantship Program (RAP) Manager and Social Science Analyst
  • Maureen McGough, Esq, Senior Policy Advisor

MARY JO GIOVACCHINI: At this time, I would like to introduce Dr. Amy Leffler, Social Science Analyst at the National Institute of Justice, and Maureen McGough, Senior Policy Advisor at NIJ.  

MAUREEN MCGOUGH: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for taking the time to attend this webinar today. This is Maureen McGough and I'm a Senior Policy Advisor at the National Institute of Justice. And for those of you who might not be familiar with NIJ's work, we are the research, development, and evaluation agency for the US Department of Justice. And even though we're a federal agency, the vast majority of our work goes towards supporting state and local criminal justice agencies through research. Our mission is actually very simple. It's just to improve knowledge of crime and justice through science, but our mandate is extremely broad, and that we look at issues across the spectrum, everything from crime prevention to reentry, and everything in between. And we accomplish this largely through competitive funding of research projects that leverage a broad array of scientific discipline.      

And you'll see on the screen there, NIJ is actually divided into distinct science offices, and each office leverages different scientific discipline to advance criminal justice research. The placements that we had for these research assistant opportunities are going to be available in all three of those offices and our Leadership Office.

Our Office of Science and Technology performs research, development, testing, and evaluation of criminal justice technologies, and our portfolios include everything from vehicle safety, to communications, to less-lethal technology. This office also manages the development of equipment standards for items like ballistic-resistant vests, holsters, metal detectors, and the like.

Our Office of Forensic and Investigative Science conducts research and development to support crime labs and law enforcement agencies. Its ultimate goal is increasing their capacity to process high volume cases and improve quality and practice of forensic science. They also do capacity building and technical assistance.

Finally, our Office of Research and Evaluation manages our social and behavioral sciences, and that's across a wide array of crime and justice issues, including violence against women, improving police-community relations, domestic radicalization, and human trafficking.

As I mentioned earlier, this year, there are RA positions in each of these offices. The program is largely focused on social and behavioral sciences, and we're thrilled to offer some opportunities this year. You'll hear a little bit more about that later on.

In terms of the placement in our Leadership Office, that will be going towards supporting agency-wide initiative that would cross all of these offices.

At this point, I'm going to turn things over to Dr. Amy Leffler. Dr. Leffler is one of our social science analysts in our Research and Evaluation Office, and oversees our RAP program this year.

AMY LEFFLER: Great. Thank you, Maureen. I'd like to thank everyone for joining today's webinar. We're really thrilled to be broadening and expanding the Research Assistantship Program as Maureen noted next year at NIJ.

To give everyone a little bit of a background, the Research Assistantship Program has been around for about 15 years. When we started, it was targeted only to universities in the DC Metro area and only in criminology. As the program has grown, there's been much more popularity and success, and in recent years, we've expanded it nationwide to all eligible US-accredited institutions, and also are, this year, focusing on broadening it to all our science offices, including the Office of the Director.

And, really, the purpose of the Research Assistantship Program at NIJ is to build a talent pipeline of new researchers in the -- in the sciences, and specifically connecting it to criminal justice research.

We offer students the opportunity to have practical and applied research experience and really learn firsthand at a federal agency here in Washington DC how science informs policy, which is a really unique opportunity for those in doctoral research.

And so the benefits for you as students is really many. You would work with the only federal agency in the US solely dedicated to criminal justice research, development testing, and evaluation. It's a wonderful way of career development, even for those who want to stay within academia, to have an opportunity to work at a federal agency and see how research informs policy and also drives the research that happens within academia and within agencies is a very unique experience.

Financially, there's a large incentive as we will not only pay your institution for tuition remission up to 20 credits, and 24, we'll get into a little bit more specifically later on, we'll pay your institution's health benefits. You'll receive a living stipend, and also have opportunities for training and travel funds.

Another great opportunity for research assistance is the professional development. We offer monthly seminars that are really tailored by the RA's needs at the time. So they change yearly. This year, we've had career -- job talks for those that are interested in going back into academia and had professors come and talk about how to get successful job talks, we have networking seminars, and the passers also get in statistical seminars as well, so it's really tailored to what the current RAs need. And it's also a great networking opportunity. For those who may not be familiar with Washington DC or those who are in Washington DC but are looking for an avenue to network with federal, regional, state, tribal, and local partners, this is a wonderful place to be. We help nurture and grow your networking strength and capabilities, and then hopefully make you feel a little bit more comfortable in the process.

So this year, as Maureen mentioned, we have 19 placement opportunities overlapping all of the offices within NIJ. All of these are noted on the website, which will be on the last slide. If you are not familiar with, you can search Research Assistantship; all of these placements are hyperlinked, and they have specific qualifications that you would want to look at when applying and figuring out where you best fit as a research assistantship. And this is really -- we're not going to get into the specifics of all of them, but it's an opportunity to see the real breadth of the research that we conduct here, and really an opportunity for you to find your home.

Right now, you'll all notice there's a polling question, too, and it's "Which best describes your scientific discipline? A, social and behavioral sciences, or B, the STEM areas?" If everyone can just take a second, it will be up for two minutes for you to be able to let us know where -- what best describes your science discipline, as we do try to reach all science fields.

So you're interested in a -- in an NIJ Research Assistantship. What does the application process look like? So first, you're going to want to talk with your university, specifically your graduate program director. They are going to be the ones to submit the application on your behalf. Only applications that are submitted by the university will be reviewed and considered eligible, and that's because the funding goes to the university. The -- we do not hire you directly; we have an agreement with the university. So that's why it's really important that the university submits on your behalf.

Within your packet, your application packet, you'll have a statement of interest -- this is a thousand-word maximum. Be sure to make sure it's under a thousand words, that describes your background, tells us a little bit about yourself, your current educational program objective, why you're interested in this program, your career goals, and basically how you'd be a good fit here. It is also in the statement of interest that you want to tell us which placements you're interested in. And so going back to those 19 placements, giving us a sense of which ones you're interested in and maybe a little bit of why you're interested in them.

Next is a criminal justice challenge essay, and this is a five hundred-word essay to have a -- to show your critical thinking skills. What is -- what do you consider to be the greatest challenge or set of challenges within criminal justice that can be addressed through advances in science? And this includes social behavioral, technology, engineering, mathematics, within the next 20 years and why? And this is an opportunity for you, too, to highlight your own science knowledge and how it impacts and overlaps with criminal justice research. Again, make sure to keep it with -- within the 500 word cap.

Next, you're going to want to include your resume or CV, an unofficial transcript up to your most recent point in graduate school, and a letter of reference, and make sure your letter of reference is someone who can really talk about you as a researcher, a scientist, working with you in a professional setting, just someone who can talk to your character and your ability to work well -- work with others, rather.

And I want to just touch quickly on what we mean by graduate program director because this person may be different at different universities. For some -- for some applicants in the past, it's been the dean of their school, for others, it's been the director of their specific program. Work with your university to find out who's the best person to submit that application and who, in turn, is the best person to work with the National Institute of Justice, if you were offered a position, to get the Memorandum of Understanding and the interagency agreements in play. And so that will look very unique to different people, so there's not [one] sort of graduate program directors, more of a generic term that we use. However, if you have questions on who this person is, you can always feel free to email the RAP team here at NIJ, and that email will be at the end and also it is on the website as well.

So you have your graduate program director submit your application and then what happens? We will be reviewing first all applications to make sure that they have the basic minimum requirement, so basically all of the points that we touched on in the last slide. For those candidates that are selected based on their background, skills, and how close up the -- closely they're a good fit for placement, they will be offered an opportunity for a video interview. These interviews will most likely happen during the February to -- through March timeline, and decisions will be made within the March to April timeline. We will contact all graduate program directors and candidates with final decisions regardless what those decisions may be, and positions begin in September 2017. Your official start date, it coincides with the official start date of your university's timeline, since your schedule follows the university academic year.

All suggested applicants will need to be approved by the NIJ director and is also contingent on the fact that you were able to successfully clear security clearance and that the agreements that I've mentioned are able to be executed between NIJ and the sponsoring university. So, there is some work on the university end, so just know that that your university should be aware of that as well when recommending you for a research assistantship placement.

So now I'm going to touch briefly on eligibility requirements. Within each placement, there are desired qualifications. Those vary between each placement. However, there are some basic eligibility requirements that hold true for all placements. First is your university enrollment. All candidates must be enrolled in a research-based doctoral degree program at a public or private university. All US-accredited universities are eligible. You must be of -- enrolled currently, in good standing as a student within a doctoral program during your entire tenure as an NIJ research assistantship -- research assistant. If you graduate early, that will terminate your ability to stay as a research assistant.

It's -- you should also have good reasoning and communication skills. We are working on the -- on the frontlines, on the heels of tight deadlines that you have to have the ability to not only work independently but also be able to express yourself clearly, in a timely fashion, and have great writing skills. We do a lot of reports not only internally, but externally for congress. The turnaround is -- you need to be able to -- as I'm stumbling over my own words in saying you should communicate effectively; this is something that's important as a successful RA and I apologize. Of course, that would happen.


AMY LEFFLER: Also, similar to students that are in research programs, you're going to have to do a human subject protection training, which is -- it's very similar to what you probably undergo at your own university. As I mentioned, have a background check. And only students that are US citizens are eligible to apply. That is the current standard for the Research Assistantship opportunity. I should also mention -- it's not a bullet, but it is a common question -- you are required to be in Washington DC. This is a very unique one-year placement opportunity, and to be able to be not only here on site working with the federal partners, going to interagency meetings, meeting different staff -- we feel it's a real benefit to the research assistant to be on site at NIJ, which is in the -- in the heart of Washington DC.

MAUREEN MCGOUGH: And just to clarify, it's okay if you're applying from outside of Washington DC; we just want to make sure you're willing to come to DC for the time of your research assistantship.

AMY LEFFLER: Great. Thank you. Good one, Maureen.

And so here, I just wanted to put a very short snippet of what are some work product examples of prior research assistance. Your research assistantship is very unique to you and your mentor here at NIJ, and so your work will look very different, but we have students that are conducting or coauthoring peer review journal articles, and not only peer review work, but for the NIJ Journal, book chapters, reports to Congress, conducting qualitative and a quantitative interviews, coding data, drafting technical reports, maintaining a compendium of studies and research grants that occur at NIJ. So, it's really, you know, all across the board, but it also helps buffer or build upon your own doctoral experience. So, when you are on the job market, you have a real plethora of experience to make yourself a desirable candidate for whatever your career goals are.

There are some work that is prohibited for RAs. You are not an employee of the Department of Justice while you are here. As such, you are not able to attend certain meetings such -- and they are considered a "Fed-only" meetings, you'll see that. You will be made aware of such meetings ahead of time, but you can always ask -- you will not have access to certain government classified or proprietary information, and that can -- that can range, but specifically when we're developing solicitations, you will not be made aware of that information prior to the public release of solicitations. And you will not be providing clerical support or overseeing grants or cooperative agreements; that is a federal employee responsibility.

So, what does your work schedule look like? So, as we mentioned, you will be working in Washington, DC and you will be assigned to a specific program -- or a project officer, depending on which placement you're interested in working on. You'll work with that individual to develop your own work schedule and finalize a work placement plan. You are working as a full-time research assistant which will differ -- full-time differ -- is based on your university's guidelines of what full-time means. For some universities, it's 20 hours, for other universities, 24 hours, for others, it's 29 hours. So, that all gets worked out when we develop the agreement with your universities. You will follow your university calendar, so you will not work on, say, your spring break or your fall break. We follow that calendar. However, if you would like to work over breaks and/or the summer, we can also negotiate that with your university prior to starting. And during those times, you're able to work up to 40 hours a week. You will not be required to work on federal holidays or when the federal government is closed. And I just want to remind everyone, starting this year, we've reemphasized this program as a one-year placement opportunity. And I have a little asterisk there because in very rare or special circumstances, someone may be asked to continue for a second year. That is at the determination of the NIJ Director based on work, funding and a host of other reasons. But it's really, you should expect to be here for just one year.

And so, who supervises you while you're here? Well, technically, you're not an employee of NIJ and you're still working with the university; you have full oversight or you have mentorship while at NIJ. And they mentioned you'll be working with your program officer who is a scientist within one of the divisions that Maureen mentioned. And then also, I -- as the current RAP Manager, we'll be your sort of second level of mentorship. I'll be organizing the professional development, the liaison between the university and yourself and your program officer. And also just there as a support to help troubleshoot and figure things out while you're here to make it the most productive and enjoyable year while you're at NIJ.

As I mentioned, you will schedule your work based on approved work plans. And we also provide mid-year and annual reviews, and this is a real way to help, again, continue on your professional development track and figure out, you know, what are your strengths, what do we want to build on, what -- what's not working, and how can we build on that. And I think it's just a great opportunity for people to reflect on how they work in a professional environment and build on what is working.

And so, we'll touch again -- I'll remind people about the funding. And so, you'll work anywhere from 20 to 29 hours a week during the academic year. For some students, this is nine and a half months, your academic year, and for some, it's twelve months. And again, this is based off the agreement with your university. We provide tuition remission up to 20 credits for the academic year and up to 24 credits for students who work through the calendar year, so those students that work 12 months. We will pay your health insurance through your university and provide travel and training.

Additionally, for those students that may be coming from out of state who are not at a DC Metro location, we will provide travel to go back to your university at least once a semester in order to keep in touch and stay in contact with your university there, so typically, once a semester. Again, that could be worked out when we are finalizing work plans.

And so, now, I'm going to start with the questions we received prior to the start of the webinar, and then we'll open it up to those people that have developed questions throughout my extremely concise webinar. And please enter those questions in the Q&A feature that Mary Jo mentioned in the beginning of the -- of the webinar.

So, I received quite a few questions on eligibility.

One of them being, is there a research assistantship program for students and undergraduate forensics program? But I think -- I'm just going to change that a little bit to research assistantship program for undergraduate students. We do not currently have a program for undergraduate students; that is currently something that is being considered. But at this time in NIJ, we do not have research assistantship program for undergrads.

The second question, is this a program -- is this program open to post-doctoral fellows? And the answer to that is no. You have to be of good standing currently enrolled doctoral student in order to be eligible for the Research Assistantship Program. However, if you are an early career faculty member, you just received your doctorate, and you are new at a university, you may want to consider applying for the New Investigator Early Career funding opportunity that NIJ offers or the W.E.B. DuBois research opportunity that really focuses on helping to provide funding and research opportunities for those in -- early in their career. Those solicitations are typically posted in January, but I would recommend that everyone sign up for the NIJ listserv and you can get updates on when those go public.

I got a question of a student who is currently working in China, who is wondering if they are eligible for this research assistantship. The answer to that sadly is no. You have to be at a US accredited university, and also more importantly, you have to be a US citizen. So, those are two important qualifications in order to be eligible for the research opportunity, so at a US institution and also has citizenship.

We also have a question on master's students. Is there a research assistantship program offer for master's students? And again, we are looking into this opportunity, but currently do not have a research assistantship for master's level students.

A question on application process, who applies, the student or the institution? So, I just want to reiterate, the institution applies on behalf of the student. The institution can refer multiple students, however, the -- your application cannot come from yourself as a student.

Who supervises the student while they are here? And so, there's two layers; there's your original program officer, also myself, the RAP Manager, and I -- I'd also like to suggest, it's a -- it's a wonderful year for networking, and all the staff here are very excited for the new RAs and are always happy to meet and chat with RAs. And so, if there's also someone that you find you have a great connection with and like their research, there's opportunity to work collaboratively along with your program officers within other divisions and offices, but that happens more organically.

Is there coverage for insurance and travel? Yes. Part of the stipend is for conference travel, professional development travel, and we will cover health insurance.

And for those students who may be traveling and moving to Washington DC, is there a possibility to be linked up with other new RAs for -- as a possible roommate? nd I think that is an excellent suggestion and something that we are happy to help facilitate, and for those students who are moving -- who would be new to Washington DC, we are happy to help you find or put you in the right direction to find a housing here in the DC area.

And with that, I'll open it up to other question and answers.

MARY JO GIOVACCHINI: So, what -- we have four questions so far. The first question is, what is the amount or range of the living stipend?

AMY LEFFLER: The living stipend will depend on the stipend that you receive at the -- your university, so I can't give you a specific, but I would -- and to answer that question, find out what a full-time research assistant is paid at your university and that is what you'll be paid.

MARY JO GIOVACCHINI: I'm a sociologist and not familiar with the criminal justice procedure, how firm are the requirements to have a working knowledge requirements listed under some program?

AMY LEFFLER: Sure. Great question. If you are interested in learning about the intersection between your discipline, in this case, sociology and criminal justice, I think you can really make the case in your application of how your skillset will benefit the program placement of interest. So, you can acknowledge the fact that, you know, maybe you haven't done research in criminal justice, but you have these other skills that will lend themselves well, and you are interested in learning more about that. You know, this -- the placement opportunity here is also a learning develop -- a learning opportunity for you as a student, so you bring your own skillsets, but also you should be here to learn as well, so thank you for that.

MARY JO GIOVACCHINI: How many applications do you typically receive?

AMY LEFFLER: That has ranged over the years. I don't have a specific number.

MAUREEN MCGOUGH: Yeah. And this year is a little bit different too because it's the first year that we've had so many opportunities in the STEM field, so we can't say for certain exactly how many we'll get there. And the program has also grown substantially over the years, so more applications than we've had in years past, but we can't give you a specific number.

MARY JO GIOVACCINI: Is it okay to get in touch with program officers before we apply?

AMY LEFFLER: No, that is not appropriate to get in touch with program officers before you apply.

MARY JO GIOVACCHINI: Do PhD students who are applying need to be a PhD candidate?

AMY LEFFLER: No. You do not have to be a PhD candidate, but you should take into account if you -- what your course load is, and that you are able to meet the full-time research assistantship timeline.

MARY JO GIOVACCHINI: At this time, we do not have any other questions. We will give you a few seconds here to see if anybody else wants to submit anything.

AMY LEFFLER: Sure. And for those people that do have further follow-up questions, please -- on the website, there is an email. Let me click to that. There you go. You can go to this link and also the contact information. And for any other questions that you may have, this is also where your university will submit your application packet. They are going to want to email that packet to And the application deadline is in a little less than two months, January 27th. So, I would -- with the holidays coming up and winter break at universities, it's probably in everyone's best interest to start working with your universities now to get your applications in on time.

MARY JO GIOVACCHINI: Another question. I'm a PhD student in kinesiology exercise science, and I am interested in researching the physical demands of law enforcement officers in physical fitness testing procedures. Do you have opportunities for individuals with this interest?

AMY LEFFLER: So, great question. And I think I'm going to answer a little bit more broadly. So, the research assistantship isn't -- is not for you to develop your own research questions. You will be working with a program officer specifically on a placement that is noted. And this is a very common question, so thank you for asking it. While you can bring your own skillset and research interest, the -- your year here at NIJ will not be to firm up your own research. It will be working on research that NIJ is conducting. There are other research opportunities for people that only want to be funded to conduct their own research, and that is the Graduate Research Fellowship, GRF. I would -- if you are specifically want to just do that research, I would look at applying for a GRF and go to for when those are posted, but thank you.

MARY JO GIOVACCHINI: At this time, that is the last question that we have.

AMY LEFFLER: Great. Thank you for taking the time. We look forward to seeing everyone's application and having an exciting RAP 2017-2018 academic year.

MAUREEN MCGOUGH: Thanks so much you all. Bye-bye.

      Date Created: December 14, 2016