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Webinar: NIJ Research Assistantship Program Informational Webinar

Video, Transcript, and Slides

This recorded webinar, originally held September 28, 2023, provides information on NIJ’s Research Assistantship Program, which offers highly qualified doctoral students the opportunity to bring their expertise to NIJ to work across offices and program areas to obtain a practical and applied research experience. The program is a research focused professional development opportunity for doctoral students from all academic disciplines. NIJ provides funds to participating universities to pay salaries and other costs associated with research assistants who work on NIJ research activities.


STACY LEE: Good afternoon and thanks for joining us for the National Institute of Justice Research Assistantship Program webinar. At this time, it is my pleasure to introduce Dr. Angela Moore, Senior Science Advisor at the National Institute of Justice.

DR. ANGELA MOORE: Thank you so much, Stacy. And thank you everyone for joining us today for this webinar about NIJ's Research Assistant Program, also known as the RAP. Today, what we want to do is talk a little bit about NIJ. We'll provide information about NIJ, how we're organized, and then we're going to discuss the purpose and benefits of the RAP. We'll talk about financial support provided to students through the RAP, the eligibility and application requirements, the review process for applications, what we look for in candidates, and I'll provide some examples of the type of work RAs do for NIJ and hopefully we'll have sufficient time at the end for Q&A.

So who are we? NIJ is the research, development, and evaluation agency of the Department of Justice. Our mission is to improve knowledge and understanding of crime and justice through science. NIJ has nine offices through which we accomplish our work. The Office of the Director, in which she makes all decisions regarding NIJ's work. We have five science offices, which I'll come back to in a minute. Our Office of Communications is essential to disseminating NIJ's work. Our Office of Operations ensures that we have the funds and the mechanisms in which to do our work. And our Office of Grants Management ensures that all of our research awards get processed.

The five science offices in through which research assistants work with NIJ. Our Crime Prevention and Youth Justice is where the bulk of our juvenile justice work is housed along with other topics such as community crime prevention and hate crime. Our Criminal Justice Systems Office includes policing, courts, corrections, and reentry. Investigative and Forensic Sciences as the name indicates, it includes DNA research, as well as our National Missing and Unidentified Persons System also known as NamUs. In our Technology and Standards Office, it includes the development and testing of tools and technologies used by law enforcement along with geospatial research as well as artificial intelligence. And last but not least, our Office of Violence and Victimization Prevention includes gun violence research, community crime prevention, and violence against women, and family violence research and evaluation.

So what's the purpose of the RAP? The three primary goals of the program is first, to grow the field of research, focus on crime and justice research. We want to build the pipeline of researchers. Second is to provide doctoral students with practical and applied research experience. I just want to note at this point that NIJ is not a policy making research agency. We provide the results of research to practitioners, policymakers, and the justice field writ large, and they decide how they want to change their practices and develop or modify policies based on those results. Sometimes we have students that come to NIJ with the hopes of making policy. And so I want to make sure that students know that we are not a policy making organization. And third, the RAP affords doctoral students opportunities to work with NIJ scientists.

What are some of the benefits of the RAP? First, it affords students the opportunity to work with the only federal agency in the U.S. solely dedicated to criminal justice research, development, testing, and evaluation. While there are other agencies that do engage in crime and justice research and evaluation, NIJ is the only one primarily focused on this type of work. The RAP provides opportunities for students to explore careers outside of academia. In addition, the RAP provides networking opportunities with NIJ's partners and stakeholders within and external to government. Also, the RAP enables NIJ scientists to work with some of the best and brightest doctoral students. And last but not least, through the RAP, we provide funding to graduate students.

What does that funding look like? We provide a stipend to students. And students work up to 30 hours per week. They either work for nine to 9 1/2 months for the academic year or 12 months for the whole calendar year. This is based on university policy or contract. The research assistants at NIJ are treated similarly to RAs that are working in the department or college at their sponsoring university. We also provide tuition remission that can be up to 20 credits for RAs who only work during the academic year or 24 credits for RAs who work for the entire calendar year. That is dependent upon the doctoral degree program and discipline, the RA's year in their program, and other university policy. Students can also work during their breaks, fall, winter, spring, and summer. That's contingent upon funding from NIJ as well as approval by NIJ and the university. Working during breaks in the summer is optional for RAs. It is not required.

Health benefits are provided through the funding that NIJ provides to the university and the university provides health benefits to the research assistants. Also, we provide approved travel and training. Training could be in terms of enhancing the skillset of the research assistant. Also travel can be approved as well. We provide funds for students who attend conferences such as American Society of Criminology, the American Sociological Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, also to go to research sites for data collection activities. It's all in accordance with NIJ's needs, the student’s interests, as well as other benefits that are accorded to students through the university.

Lastly, I just want to note that the initial placement in the RAP is for one year with the potential to be extended to two, but that is based on the student's interest, NIJ's needs, and also how well the student performs while working with NIJ. Research assistants are subject to the same code of conduct as at the university and that would also apply to federal contractors. Research assistants are considered federal contractors, not federal employees of NIJ. Lastly, NIJ provides a government laptop for RAs to do their work. So that equipment is provided.

What are the eligibility requirements for research assistants? First and foremost, applicants must be US citizens. They also have to be enrolled in a research-based doctoral degree program at a public or private university. If there're any questions about that, certainly the university can contact the RAP manager and that email will be provided at the end of the PowerPoint presentation. Students must be enrolled throughout their NIJ placement.

In terms of degree programs, candidates must be working towards a doctoral degree throughout the research assistantship period of performance. Degree programs that are included are doctor of philosophy, doctor of public administration, doctor of public health, doctor of social work. We also will accept students in doctoral programs related to education. However, the student must be in a discipline related to the social and behavioral sciences, operations technology, information and sensors research and development or investigative and forensic sciences. As it relates to once an RA is selected, there's certain training that they have to go through such as human subjects training.

Also, all research assistants must go through a background check. Successful completion and approval of all required U.S. Department of Justice profile and prescreening paperwork, security reviews, and background investigation are required. And that process takes up to three months. That's just something for applicants to keep in mind. Next, please. Okay.

In terms of the application requirements. I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about each one of these because they are all clearly described on the NIJ website. But each applicant must provide a Statement of Interest, a Public Safety Challenge Essay, their resume or CV, the writing sample of a scientific paper, unofficial transcripts for a graduate and undergraduate as relevant, one letter of recommendation. Applicants do not need to provide more than one, and three references. I note that we use the term here on the slide, it says work with your Graduate Program Director to submit your application electronically. It may not be Graduate Program Director. We're using that term generically, but I would recommend that the candidate submission be submitted by an authorized representative within the department or the college because the award that we make is between NIJ and the university. Not the student. The submission cannot come from the student directly. We will not accept it. The reason for that is because the agreement is with the university and they are responsible. We can't have students submit and the university don't know that they've applied. So we will not accept a package from a student. It must come from the appropriate representative at the university.

The review process. What happens? First step is that after we review the application and we make sure everything has been submitted within the deadline, the applications are reviewed and rated by NIJ's science staff. We use a rubric and it's based on everything that was submitted. All the requirements, everything gets reviewed and rated except, of course, we don't review and rate the transcripts. But we make sure they have been provided. After we go through that process, and that's the first stage in which some applications will fall out, so the highest rated, we use those to determine whether or not we're going to interview a particular applicant. So selected applicants will be interviewed via video and then again, rated by science staff. And we use another rubric to rate the interview. After that happens, a recommendation is made to the NIJ Director and she, in this case, or her designee will review and make an approval. Once that happens, I, the manager, will reach out to the appropriate official at the university and the student to make the offer. The student can accept or not. And if the student does accept, then we begin the process of doing the paperwork that is required to bring on the student. We have to establish an agreement with the university or use a different funding mechanism if it's a private university, and once that is done, then we have to initiate the background check. The entire process from establishing the agreement and the background check can take up to five months. If all goes well, if there's no delays, the research assistants begin working with NIJ in the fall. And we try to have that aligned with when classes start for the fall semester or however the university is established in terms of their semesters or trimesters.

A couple of things to note. Since COVID-19, RAs have not been working on site at NIJ. NIJ staff are currently not working on site. We're only required to go into the office two days every two weeks or one day per week. So it doesn't make sense for us to require RAs to move to the DC metro region to work remotely. At the present time, we do not anticipate this changing. The current RAs, they are all working remotely and they will continue to work remotely for the 2023-2024 academic and/or calendar year. We anticipate that will stay the same for the 2024-2025 academic and/or calendar year.

RAs are university employees. They're supervised by the university and classified as contractors while working with NIJ. On-site management is provided by me, as the RAP manager, as well as the scientists who work with the RAs. The RAs work with the scientist and the manager to develop their work plan. Also, RAs work is subject to midyear and annual reviews, as well as check-ins with scientists.

What are we looking for in terms of candidates? RAs need to have strong writing skills, strong reasoning ability, and with that, we mean that research assistants must be able to work independently, accurately, and in a timely manner and also be willing to take initiative. Work will be assigned, but RAs also should be able to request and talk to scientists about work that they're interested in engaging in. RAs need to have advanced communication skills, so candidates must be able to communicate effectively orally and in writing in order to prepare comprehensive research reports, proposals, and evaluation, be able to make recommendations, be able to present on behalf of NIJ, and as well as be able to enhance the work that we do. Applicants should have specialized training, so in other words, there's a particular area of focus. And with that, we try to align applicant's area of interest with the particular research office so that they can work and continue to build their research interest. But we also expect RAs to function as a generalist if necessary. Sometimes RAs are asked to work in an area in which they don't have a background, so it's an opportunity to learn a new area, so we expect that, and that does happen. Sometimes we have a project that comes in from the Assistant Attorney General's office or even from The White House, and we'll ask an RA to work on that. So they might have to get up to speed really quickly on the topic so that they can lend their skills to that particular area. So that's what we expect for research assistants to be able to do.

To give you an idea of some of the types of work RAs are involved in, they may develop measurement databases for research projects. They may develop programmatic databases so we can look at the trends in terms of the research that we supported. RAs conduct quantitative and qualitative analyses and they produce peer-reviewed journal articles. They may draft reports, engage in intramural research studies with NIJ scientists. RAs present research findings. This could be NIJ work, but RAs also are afforded an opportunity to present their own research through the RAP. And they also co-author various types of NIJ articles, reports, white papers, briefs, and summaries.

In terms of the placement, RAs are placed for one year with the opportunity to have that extended to two. Decisions about placement are made annually. It's based on need, funding, and how well the RAs perform while working with NIJ.

Hopefully, we've addressed some of the questions you might have had, but at this time, we're ready for additional questions. Stacy, do we have questions to address?

STACY LEE: We do. “Is there a specific length maximum for the writing sample?”


STACY LEE: “Can students on international visa status but enrolled in a U.S. doctoral program in good standing apply?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: As indicated earlier, you have to be a U.S. citizen or a permanent U.S. resident.

STACY LEE: “Does the scientific paper have to be your own research or can it be an interpretation of someone else's research?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: The paper should be written by the student, the applicant. Whatever that looks like is up to the student, but it has to be provided by the student. So if they're critiquing someone else's work, that's fine, but it must be of a scientific nature.

STACY LEE: “Does it help the background check process if the student has a clearance from another federal agency?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: I wish it did, but normally, DOJ does its own background check. That might be taken into consideration but I could not guarantee that that would shorten the process.

STACY LEE: “Are RAs paired with a single mentor? And if so, how is this mentor selected?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: No, they are not. And the reason is because RAs may work with more than one scientist, so those scientists can serve sort of as what I would call situational mentors. But in addition to the scientist, the RAP Manager, which is me, provides mentoring to the RAs as well.

STACY LEE: “Is an Ed.D. program considered eligible?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: It depends on the type of background the doctoral student has. So if they're in education, if the focus is on the social and behavioral sciences, or something related to technology and standards, or investigative and forensic science. So the focus has to be on that if the student is in the ED program.

STACY LEE: “Are part-time doctoral students eligible?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: The students, they're going to work for NIJ 20 to 24 hours. And so, if the university allows that. But normally, the RAs are full-time doctoral students.

STACY LEE: And there's a second part to that one. It says, "Do you prefer students finish course requirements before applying?"

DR. ANGELA MOORE: Some doctoral students that have worked with us have already advanced the candidacy. Some have not. It really is up to the student. But one thing I want to mention, it is critically important to us that students finish. The RAP is an opportunity to learn, to grow, et cetera, but it should not hinder or interfere with the students continuing with her or his degree and completing. Because as I like to say, your success is our success. So we want students to finish, so that's something to consider in applying. Will this be helpful and beneficial, and can you work with NIJ and still get your course work and your dissertation done if you are at that stage when you come to work with NIJ?

STACY LEE: Okay. Next question is, "What is the best way to get a sense of the research currently ongoing at NIJ, and whether this is a good fit with our interests?"

DR. ANGELA MOORE: So I'm glad someone asked that question. The first thing you want to do is go to the webpage where we describe the RAP and carefully review everything that's there because all the requirements for the Research Assistantship Program is on that webpage as well as names of former and current research assistants. And then the second is to search the NIJ website to see the different things we do and we fund. And then a spoiler alert, or helpful hint, you will be asked what do you know about NIJ, if you receive an interview. And it certainly is disappointing when an applicant cannot answer questions, basic questions about NIJ. And so if an applicant is not going to take the time to read the NIJ website prior to an interview, then they likely are probably not going to be a good fit.

STACY LEE: “Is having publication good for securing an RA position,” I'm guessing having been published?

DR. ANGELA MOORE: That certainly is helpful, but it's not all about quantity, certainly it's about quality. It's also demonstrating that one is capable and qualified to be an RA based upon the application package one provides. I also want to mention at this point, it is very important for students to work with the individual who is responsible for submitting their packet, and making sure that person does it, and does it by the deadline. Regrettably, there have been situations where that person, whoever it is at the university, did not submit a student's application on time. So it was denied. And it wasn't the student's fault. So you have to make sure that you are in contact with that person and you ensure that they actually submitted it and it was submitted on time.

STACY LEE: And the next question is, "Which year in a PhD should someone apply?"

DR. ANGELA MOORE: That's up to the student. We can't tell you when you should apply. I can say this, that you want to be the most qualified if you can for the position. You want to have the skills that we're looking for. So if you consider ideal candidates, you want to have solid knowledge of analytical, statistical, and research and evaluation methods. You want to have that knowledge. You want to be solid in terms of your communication and writing skills, and how developed you are. That depends on the student. We can't say what year one needs to be in order to have accomplished that. I know we've had questions in the past regarding why don't we have masters level. And one of the reasons is because we're trying to grow the field and not all masters students are going to into a Ph.D. program and complete it. So that's why we've limited it at this point to doctoral students. Also, we've had challenges in the past because masters-level students weren't ready or prepared for the level of work they were going to do in the RAP, so that's why.

I see we have a question that popped up, and so I will answer the question now. The announcement for the next cohort of Research Assistants has not been posted yet. We would like to post it very soon. In case you might not be aware, we are dealing with the potential of a government shutdown. So we are in a wait-and-see mode to determine when we're going to announce for the next cohort, which would be for the 2024-2025 academic and calendar year. We have not announced yet because we're waiting to see what's going to happen. But just keep checking the website to see when it is posted. That will determine what happens, will determine what the deadline will be, et cetera. That's why it is not posted yet. If it was up to me, it would already be posted, but we have to deal with the potential for the government shutdown, and that's why it has not been posted yet.

But despite not having announced it yet, we fully intend to announce it. So there's no reason why potential applicants cannot start working on their documents now. That gives you ample time to write a compelling statement of interest, to write a thoughtful and clear and concise challenge essay. You don't have to wait and you certainly don't want to wait until the last minute to secure your recommendation. Make sure you have someone who can prepare a recommendation that knows you well enough to speak about your work. So if you are interested in becoming an RA with NIJ, I highly encourage you to start the process now.

STACY LEE: “If an RA already has an advisor, is it possible to work with him rather than an NIJ mentor?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: I'm not sure I understand the question. If a student is going to become an RA at NIJ, they're going to be working with NIJ scientists. Now certainly who the student decides to be their mentor, that's up to the student. They don't have to have a mentor at NIJ. They certainly can seek that out and it can be provided. But the students that are serving as Research Assistants, they work with scientists, they work on various research projects, other program development activities, et cetera. So it's up to the student. But they will be assigned to work with one or more scientists at NIJ during their tenure as a Research Assistant.

STACY LEE: “Can I send a paper that I co-authored for a group research project?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: I would not recommend a co-authored paper because it's hard to determine who did the work on the paper. The writing sample, it could be something that a student did in one of their classes. It's better if it's authored by the applicant solely rather than with someone else. That way, we can see how well the student writes, their thinking process, reasoning, et cetera. So I don't recommend that. We won't reject it, but it makes it very hard to determine who did the work if there's more than one author on that paper.

STACY LEE: “Do most RAs complete their dissertations using NIJ data or is the research conducted as part of the research assistantship typically independent from the dissertation?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: It depends. So, sorry for equivocating, because we have had students who have come as research assistants, have worked on a particular project, and then decided to use data from a particular project. We cannot provide students data from a project that they work on while a research assistant. However, the student can pursue, and there's a process and there are things that have to be done. And we've had students do that before and it has been handled by our Human Subjects Protection Officer to make sure all the rules and regulations that applied in NIJ getting the data, also apply to the student getting the data. So we don't provide the data, but we can certainly serve as a conduit for the student getting the data. But the research projects that students work on, while research assistants are independent of the data they use for their dissertation. Can it come — can it be data that was generated through NIJ projects, et cetera? Yes. But the process for students to get that data is separate from the work they do, so it's not like if a student works on a grant and then can use data from a grant for their dissertation. These things are independent. We have to keep them separate. But it could happen as a result of the student being a research assistant that they decide they want to work on data from an NIJ project and then the process of getting that data is pursued. And NIJ can assist with that, but we can't just give the student the data.

STACY LEE: “Can students on fellowships participate in the program?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: As long as there's no double-dipping or supplanting of funds, that is possible. The challenge is, because NIJ covers certain things, if those things are already being covered through a fellowship like tuition remission, health benefits and other things, we would not cover that too. It certainly could be possible, but it might be difficult if money has already been provided for those things to then also work through the RAP. Because the RAP is not just to work on a research project. We really are supporting the students in their matriculation. So if there's already funding to do that, we would not provide funds for the same thing.

STACY LEE: “Does the NIJ representative coordinate with our faculty mentors or directly with us on research projects?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: Directly with the student. The faculty representative or mentor or advisor, the information we provide to that individual is how the student is doing in the program. And that's the annual or bi-annual review we do of the student's performance.

STACY LEE: “Does the RA work create conflict with existing doctoral research or can both be pursued without prejudice to each other?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: It does not cause conflict. If there's any type of conflict — and part of the process, students will sign non-disclosure agreements. They will be assessed for conflict of interest, so there should not be any, because those are things that we look into once the student comes on board.

STACY LEE: “Can I submit my dissertation that was recently completed and approved by my university and now being published by ProQuest?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: If you completed your dissertation and your program, you would not be eligible for the RAP.

STACY LEE: “How much is the stipend provided by NIJ?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: That depends on the university. As part of this process, as we are establishing the agreement with the university. The university works with the student to develop a budget, and they submit that budget to NIJ. We have discussion, what have you, and then that budget becomes approved by NIJ, and those are the funds the students will have. So the stipend is determined by the university, not by NIJ.

STACY LEE: “If a student's course of study in a doctoral program requires them to take more credit hours than that are covered by NIJ, is the student required to find outside funding to cover the rest of their tuition?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: I don't know the answer to that question at this point, but we can work on getting the answer to that question. I haven't experienced that before where students were taking more credits than we have specified. We'll get an answer to that question and we will post it under the FAQs.

Follow-up Answer:

No. NIJ will only pay for up to 20 credits for RAs who work for NIJ during the academic year only, and up to 24 credits for RAs who work for NIJ throughout the calendar year. So if students are required to take more than 20 or 24 credits in an academic or calendar year, respectively, the student will have to cover the difference.

STACY LEE: "What does the Research Assistantship Program during the summer look like?"

DR. ANGELA MOORE: During the summer, RAs generally have worked up to 40 hours a week and they're continuing the work that they have been doing throughout the year. So it's not different work, it's just usually more hours that they can devote to the work that they're doing.

STACY LEE: “Is there an acceptance in forensic psychology?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: It certainly can be as long as the applicant demonstrates the relevance of their work to crime and justice issues.

STACY LEE: “Does the Ph.D. in education studies count?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: Yes. And as noted previously, it's eligible as long as the work is in a supported discipline, in the social and behavioral sciences, operations technology, technology development and standards, or investigative and forensic sciences.

STACY LEE: “When are the interviews for selected applicants?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: Those interviews could be a month after receipt of all the applications. As noted, we have the first step in the process is to go through, review all applications, rate, rank them, et cetera, and determine which students we want to interview. So that could be about a month after receipt of the application. It just depends on the timing on which they are received. Usually the deadline for submission of applications has been in January of the following year. So if we announce in the fall and the deadline is usually in January, and we are making our decisions and starting the process of paperwork between March and April.

STACY LEE: “Is the number of hours worked per week determined by the school's requirements or is there a set number of hours worked per week?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: It's determined by the school's requirements. So research assistants at NIJ are comparable to those at the university.

STACY LEE: “When has the application deadline typically been in previous years?”

DR. ANGELA MOORE: The deadline usually is in January.

We announce in the fall and the deadline is usually in January.

STACY LEE: Okay. And I think that's all of the questions that we have right now.

DR. ANGELA MOORE: Great. Well, as you see on the last slide, you can go to the webpage at the URL indicated (https://nij.ojp.gov/funding/nijs-research-assistantship-program) so that you can get more specific information about the requirements, also what students have done in the past. If you have questions, certainly you can email them to the [email protected]. You can ask your questions. Some applicants have reached out and asked if they could talk with a current RA and many of the RAs are amenable to that, so I would recommend that as well. If you have questions, they're willing to tell you about the good, the great, and the challenging of being an RA. Certainly keep in mind that we are part of the U.S. Department of Justice, and so that carries everything that one would expect working for a large federal agency, which we are a bureaucracy. But there's good aspects of bureaucracy and there can be some challenging aspects of bureaucracy as well. But if you want to learn about what we do in the federal government, if you want to have an opportunity to contribute to research development and the like at a federal agency dedicated to crime and justice, then I would strongly encourage you to apply.

STACY LEE: On behalf of the National Institute of Justice, thank you for joining today's webinar. This will end today's presentation.

Date Published: October 23, 2023