An Interview with James Fox
“But I would caution criminology students about the misconceptions surrounding crime that are reinforced by popular culture. The media and entertainment industries give an exaggerated view of violent crime especially and reinforce myths about the nature of offenders.”
James Fox has been a professor of criminology for 35 years. He teaches at Northeastern University, which is located in Boston, Massachusetts.
James has a PhD in Sociology with a specialization in criminology, as well as 2 masters degrees: a Master in Science in Criminology and a Master of Science in Statistics. He also has a Bachelor of Science in Sociology. James earned all of his degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. His extensive educational background has helped him become a nationally recognized expert on crime and criminal behavior. In addition to writing for the Boston Globe’s Crime and Punishment blog, he is the author of 18 books, including 5 on his main research interest, serial murder.
In your own words, what is criminology?
Criminology is the scientific study of criminal behavior. We want to understand its nature, patterns and trends. Part of being a criminology teacher is also to provide students a factual basis for understanding criminal behavior, especially those students who are burdened with a lot of myths about the subject.
What classes do you teach in criminology?
I mainly teach classes about statistics and research in criminology, which help students develop the knowledge necessary to interpret data in criminal justice research and reports. I also teach an undergraduate course about criminal violence that surveys criminal behavior, media violence and intervention strategies.
How long have you been a professor of criminology?
I have been teaching criminology for 35 years now.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying criminology,” what would your response be?
I would begin by telling the student that those who study criminology have the potential to influence society in an important way. In fact, much of our public policy is centered on crime and punishment. The research we do guides that public policy and informs the creation and reform of laws.
But I would caution criminology students about the misconceptions surrounding crime that are reinforced by popular culture. The media and entertainment industries give an exaggerated view of violent crime especially and reinforce myths about the nature of offenders. For example, contrary to what you see on television, murders do not comprise the vast majority of crimes, or even violent crimes, in real life.
In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles or difficulties that students entering a criminology program have?
Criminology students often have difficulty with the heavy statistical component in the coursework. They tend to think they left math behind in high school. But criminology, like most of the social sciences, is an empirical field. In fact, criminology is an advanced social science in terms of its reliance on data and statistical analysis.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a criminologist and what traits would hinder success?
In order to succeed in criminology, or in any field, students must understand research. Criminology is not as evidence-based as organic chemistry and electrical engineering, but it is not based on pure gut feeling either. Students need scientific minds to grasp the research materials, which can require very close attention to detail.
One mindset that would hinder criminology students is thinking that they already know everything about crime. Some students lack the ability to approach problems that contradict what they believe to be the truth. But in this field they need to keep their minds open and leave their prejudices at the door. They especially have to let go of their preconceptions about why people commit crimes, who commits crimes or how society ought to deal with crime.
What courses in criminology are most important for a student to take?
The first-year introductory course in criminal justice is absolutely vital. The class lays out how the criminal justice system works from the police to corrections. That will start them off with a basic understanding of criminal behavior and the causal factors that influence patterns in crime.
I also recommend that students take courses in criminal law, research methods and statistics, which make up the basic ingredients of criminology. Students must gain an essential understanding of the complexities of law and how to use statistical research to inform the public policy.
Outside of criminology, what courses would you recommend to a student?
Students in a criminology program should take classes in sociology, psychology and basic math. The sociology and psychology classes will help them to develop logical thinking processes, while the math classes will provide a thorough understanding of concepts like percentages and rates. Students don’t need higher math, such as calculus, but an understanding of the practical applications of math is essential in this field.
What skills can students expect to gain while studying criminology?
Students of criminology can expect to gain skills in critical reasoning . For example, if they read a study that shows that X causes Y, they need to understand how that research was carried out and whether it is valid. Too often, people just look at a study’s conclusion and trust that the person who did the research knew what they were doing. But if a person who controls policy, for example, simply accepts the findings of others as if they were gospel, then he is not really a decision maker, but just a rubber stamper.
For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of criminology?
I recommend at least a masters degree in criminology, even for students who are not interested in teaching. The masters degree will give students the opportunity to specialize in a particular field and qualify them for positions of leadership or management. They will then be able to make decisions instead of just implementing them.
In contrast, the bachelors degree in criminology provides students with a general knowledge base but no specialized skills. It is adequate if a student wants to be a practitioner, such as a police officer, but the job market will still be difficult because a lot of people have similar qualifications.
What is the job outlook for students with degrees in criminology?
The job outlook for criminology graduates is fairly good. Crime is still with us, and it is not going away. If you want to be a police officer or correctional officer, there is always hiring going on because of retirement and a high degree of burnout.
A lot of students enter a criminology program with the intention of becoming a criminal profiler, but they have to recognize that there aren’t very many jobs that involve profiling. One of my specialties happens to be serial murder, but there are many more people who want to specialize in that than there are criminals who commit that particular crime.
How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying criminology at the graduate level?
Before you decide to go to graduate school, I recommend researching the specific areas of criminology that interest you. Better yet, experience those areas through shadowing or internships. That will help you narrow down what you want to do in the field so that you are ready for your grad school program.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying criminology?
I encourage students to study criminology, but to keep an open mind. Even though you may be fascinated by crime, you have to be willing to leave your opinions at the door. It is a great field, but it is not like on TV.
Additionally, internships are always a great opportunity for students to get a foot in the door. At Northeastern we have a Co-op program where students get a year and a half of full-time job experience while they are pursuing their degree. Even if your university doesn’t have an internship program, do something during the summer that relates to your career goals, even if it is a volunteer position.