A Critical Criminology and Criminal Justice Graduate Student Survival Guide

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Graduate school is an arduous experience for most. Between the long hours, feelings of inadequacy, graduate culture drama, occasional hallucinations, and eye strain the graduate experience is one in which some have a difficult time discerning between progress and trauma. The difficulty in moving through a graduate program is often increased if you are in the chronically under-appreciated camp of critical criminology and criminal justice. The added strain associated with isolation and academic frustration that often accompanies taking orthodox criminology classes and being surrounded by people you often ardently disagree with is enough to drive many to a variety of unhealthy behaviors. To help others who may be going through similar experiences or preparing for them, I have written some advice to help you stay mentally and socially healthy (and it certainly would not hurt your physical health—stress kills, people!).

1.       Learn to Let Go

The first important lesson in surviving an orthodox graduate program as a critically-minded student is to learn to let go. For me, this is easier said than done. I tend to get wrapped up in trying to prove others wrong and convert them away from the holy doctrine of orthodox criminology and criminal justice. In this instance, fighting tooth and nail to prove that your perspective is worthy will only hurt your cause. People tend to dig in their heels when challenged. The more hostile that challenge, the more they dig in their heels. Rather, your time would be better spent learning to count to ten and dropping the subject. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, no matter how much you disagree with a person, you don’t want to create more rifts than necessary between you and the rest of the graduate student culture. There are more than enough problems you will have to face without creating more for yourself. The second is that, while you may never fully convert someone, being agreeable and having laid back discussions on various topics is a much better way to get someone to appreciate your point of view. You don’t need them to agree. The trick to surviving is merely getting someone to appreciate and be friendly to you and your interests.

2.       Find the Good in People

I tend to be a very cynical person. I find it very easy to judge others. I know this is a personal fault and I have been actively working to overcome this issue. My first year in a doctoral program, I (immaturely) assumed that people who were staunchly in line with orthodoxy were worse persons than myself. I mean, how could they not see the ethical problems and scholarly oversights I so obviously saw in their work? In a lot of ways, this is a terrible kind of hubris. As a critical student, you probably had the good fortune to receive training—or at least some exposure—to other bodies of theory and knowledge. Many do not have this privilege. For this reason, it is a mistake to assume they are somehow bad people for not agreeing with you. Remember that, while they are reasoning people with agency, they are also products of their training. In addition, people are people: they have diverse backgrounds and interests. What makes sense to you may not make sense to them and vice versa.

During my first year of graduate school—where I was judging people left and right as well as refusing to let things go—I wound up developing a bit of a reputation as a cantankerous curmudgeon. It took me a while to recover my reputation after this point, particularly because others reacted to my attitude and judged me in turn. In my defense, its difficult going from a radical/leftist program to one of the most staunchly orthodox programs available in criminology and criminal justice; no book or class can prepare you for this transition. I felt alone, out of place, and under assault (some of these feelings were justified, some were not). Even having a friend with a similar background did not help—in fact, it may have made some things worse as it was easy for us to seclude ourselves from everyone else.

Rather than becoming prickly, a better approach would have been to meet people halfway and, regardless of their academic beliefs, be friendly or—at the very least—civil. That is currently the approach I try to take and, while I am still out on an island academically, I have a number of people I can lean on emotionally for support. Certainly we can see the value in being around others who know our areas and can help us grow in the domains we appreciate. That said, never underestimate how important friendships and emotional bonds can be among graduate students. Graduate school is hard enough without being isolated. Though the differences exist academically, learning to let go of said differences and make friends will serve you better in the long run. After all, we are all going through roughly the same graduate process. We might as well do so together (At SHSU, my best friend and office mate is a biosocial criminology student. If I can get over any prejudices I had, so can you).

3.       Mind Your Manners and Your Mouth

I am prone to foot-in-mouth disease. No, it is not the same as hand, foot, and mouth disease (although that is a terrible disease as well). Rather, I mean that I tend to say things with little thought behind them and wind up insulting others. I have had to learn that it is perfectly acceptable to hesitate before speaking, particularly around professors or anyone else who could influence your trajectory through graduate school. You would be surprised how quickly you can turn a professor against you. While most professors are professional and would not tank a graduate student over a single comment (unless it were particularly bad), it’s a risk you are better off not taking. In addition, faculty members talk to each other. You don’t want to develop a negative reputation among them for being rude. For some, your ideas will be enough to condemn you as a pariah. Don’t give them any more reason to dismiss you.

Of course, this does not mean that you should never speak. While your words can be turned into a noose, nothing can make a faculty member like you more than a politely worded but insightful comment about a topic (and, in the right company, even a challenging one could be appreciated). Even if you have to hide your academic views and politics, you should not withhold your intellect. Just… think about what you say beforehand. Also, don’t equate “louder” with “better.” No one likes that person.

4.       Work Hard

This piece of advice should go without saying. While being a graduate student often sucks for a number of reasons (which I will not list here), remember that there is a great deal of privilege wrapped up in graduate school. As my friend Eddy Green is fond of saying, graduate school is one of the last bastions of upward mobility in this country. In addition, even though the pay may not be a lot, you are essentially getting paid to read, write, and learn. That is a pretty sweet gig. You should work hard (while keeping your head down).

For a student of critical criminology and criminal justice, however, there is another reason to work hard. For some, knowing (and appreciating!) the works of people like Marx, Kropotkin, Lenin, etc. is already a pretty big black eye. To recover from this stigma, you have to outwork your peers, particularly if you are interested in qualitative methods as well. It’s easy for people to dismiss critical academics as lazy because we supposedly sit in our armchairs and pontificate on things and call it research. It is your job to prove them wrong! As a student, this will give you some esteem and make you harder to dismiss (outright, at least). In addition, it may open up opportunities to work on projects you may have otherwise been passed over for due to your interests.

5.       Know Orthodoxy Better than Your Peers

Related to the previous point about working hard, you should also strive to know the domains of orthodoxy better than everyone else. This includes theory, methods, and statistics. For persons talking from the perch of hegemonic privilege, it is very easy to dismiss critical and qualitative students as ignorant and misguided. Your job is to insulate yourself from those claims. If you can talk the talk as well as any other student (or, ideally, as well or better than faculty), you hedge off assertions of your ignorance. For example, I worked hard in my criminological theory class to know the material better than the rest of my cohort. Now, I have a reputation as “the theory guy”—not “the critical theory guy”—but the theory guy in general. Other students frequently ask me for my insights on various theoretical areas. As such, because I strived to know these areas so well, I earned my peers’ (and some faculty members’) respect. In fact, that is one of the few ways you will get respect from some. Since most radical/critical theories are so widely dismissed, an expansive knowledge in this area is not enough to make people appreciate you. Better get ready to know Gottfredson and Hirschi really well (and try making light and having fun with it by finding new and interesting ways to critique their theory)!

6. Find Supportive Faculty

                When you are a critical student in a mainstream/orthodox department, it is important to remember that just because there may be few or no faculty members interested or even versed in critical criminology and criminal justice does not mean that there are no faculty members who will be supportive of you and even friendly to your interests. In fact, these professors may be some of the most vital to your success in the program. They can help you navigate the ins-and-outs of departmental politics and, if they are so inclined, vouch for you and your capabilities should things go awry. If you follow all of the advice given in points one to five, you should have at least a handful of faculty who will support you—regardless of your theoretical or philosophical bent. When it comes time to forming committees, working on research projects, running into problems in your progress through the program, and securing those ever-so-important letters of recommendation for the job market, having friendly and sympathetic faculty on your side cannot be undervalued.


Hopefully the above mentioned pieces of advice help those who are similarly struggling through graduate school. As I write this, I am currently trudging through my dissertation. That means that the little light at the end of the tunnel is much closer. Looking outward at the job market and what the future holds, I also hope the lessons I have learned and detailed here will help when I am a faculty member somewhere. If you have any other pieces of advice, feel free to email me at kfs006@shsu.edu. Perhaps if enough people contribute other advice, a follow-up post could be created (with proper credit given, of course).


Kevin F. Steinmetz is a doctoral candidate at Sam Houston State University. When he is not actively avoiding being prickly, he is working on a dissertation focused on hacking culture. Special thanks to Lindsey Upton and Dr. Jurg Gerber who reviewed an early draft of this blog post.

*Editors note: Kevin’s essay was originally submitted as a blog post; however, an editorial decision was made to include it in the critical essays section.

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