Department of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Unveils Ph.D. Program

UM doctoral program in criminal justice policy studies offers opportunities to affect change

The new doctoral program in criminal justice policy studies is housed in the School of Applied Sciences. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – After launching an online Master of Criminal Justice program this fall, the University of Mississippi School of Applied Sciences is preparing to roll out another new degree program for spring 2021, a doctorate in criminal justice policy studies.

The Ph.D. in Criminal Justice Policy Studies is designed to prepare students to affect change within systems of law enforcement, corrections and homeland security at a policy level. The program aims to help students become competent and productive scholars in creating, studying and evaluating criminal justice policies while preparing for jobs in the industry, including careers as professors, researchers for public and private organizations, and policy analysts.

Wesley Jennings

“This is a unique program in that most doctoral programs across the country focus on criminology,” said Wesley Jennings, chair and professor of criminal justice and legal studies. “While students will get a thorough background in criminology in our program, they will get an even more in-depth understanding of the ways to create policy that can improve practices at an agency or systemwide level.

“We are the only doctoral program in the SEC West, one of only a handful in the region and one of only 44 nationally. Most are in very rural areas in the western half of the country.”

Students in the program will engage in 45 hours of coursework beyond the master’s degree, which is less than most programs of its kind require, Jennings said. Besides the 21 hours of core requirements – including a proseminar and advanced criminal justice policy studies, advanced criminal justice statistics, and advanced criminal justice theory and policy – students can further specialize with core-area electives in criminal justice system and issues; methods, data and analysis; or policy studies.

Master’s student Clay Taylor, of Dallas, said he is thrilled the department is launching the program in time for him to continue his studies at UM.

“I am looking forward to the mentorship from Dr. Jennings and other faculty,” Taylor said. “They teach at such a high level, and to be able to be a part of that is such a blessing and incredible opportunity.

“Secondly, I get to spend more time at Ole Miss and Oxford. I am so drawn in by the academic environment at Ole Miss, as well as the social environment, it makes getting my Ph.D. that much better. I would also say that getting to continue doing research and expand my knowledge on issues that are so important in today’s times is also just such a blessing and great experience.”

An assistant professor and the department’s graduate program director, Kimberly Kaiser serves as the primary point of contact for the doctoral program. She answers questions from prospective students, guides them through the application process and advises them on their academic progress throughout the program.

“From a research and teaching perspective, I bring knowledge on both policy-related and community-based research design,” Kaiser said. “In my graduate courses, I emphasize understanding the broad impacts of policy decisions, especially how those decisions can impact people and communities.

“I also focus on understanding what elements can impede the implementation of evidence-based policy at the program or community level.”

David McElreath

The department began the process of starting the program when Kaiser and fellow assistant professor Francis Boateng were hired in 2016, she said.

“We were recruited to help the department build towards this goal and to grow our focus on applied research in criminal justice,” Kaiser said. “At that time, we recognized the growing need for a Ph.D. program that had a clear application to real-world policy issues in criminal justice.

“Rather than having a more theoretical Ph.D. program, we wanted our program to focus on how research and knowledge can inform, reform and assess criminal justice policy and inform best practices. Over the past four years, we have worked hard to design a Ph.D. program that is unique, innovative and fills a need for policy-driven and applied research in the field of criminal justice.”

The success of a doctoral program largely depends on the department’s ability to attract qualified students from diverse background, including international students, Boateng said.

“As a minority and an international scholar, my presence will serve to attract highly qualified international students to our Ph.D. program,” he said. “Additionally, I will bring a wealth of international experience to the program that will enrich the learning experience of our Ph.D. students.

“Ph.D. programs create leaders and experts in the field, and by having a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice Policy Studies, we are not only going to create leaders and experts but also ambassadors for the department. Currently, there is no university in the state of Mississippi that offers the Ph.D. in criminal justice, and this is a major issue, given the need for such a program.”

Much of the inspiration for the new program has been the recognition that Ole Miss is the state’s flagship university and should therefore be the institution that offers the top-tier programs, especially in the areas of social sciences, longtime professor David McElreath said.

“From my perspective, I believe I bring an applied element into the instructional pool, especially in the areas of homeland security and national security policy,” McElreath said. “I have in the past served as a consultant on the national level with the Department of State and currently instruct for the Federal Bureau of Investigation Regional Law Enforcement Command College.”

Abigail Novak

Abby Novak, a new assistant professor, brings experience to the department working with secondary data and a wide range of statistical methodologies that help students in the doctoral program design their own studies in the field.

“Often, criminologists work with secondary data, and that can require adopting and adjusting statistical approaches to the data, or being familiar with a wide range of data sources,” Novak said. “I believe my knowledge in these areas will be beneficial to doctoral students, and my interdisciplinary background, education, work in the field and research interests will be beneficial in helping students to contextualize and deepen their research interests and knowledge.”

For more information about the Ph.D. in Criminal Justice Policy Studies, email Kaiser at or visit