NIJ Director Dr. Nancy La Vigne joins the show to interview Dr. Marie Garcia, Director of NIJ’s Criminal Justice Systems Division and a former NIJ graduate research fellow. They discuss the application process, Marie’s experience as a fellow while at Temple University, and advice for future applicants.
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SPEAKER 1: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, where we shine a light on cutting edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we're doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funded science and technology help us achieve strong communities.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Welcome back to the show. Today we'll be talking about the National Institute of Justice Graduate Research Fellowship Program. I'm Nancy La Vigne, Director of the National Institute of Justice. This is my first time hosting the Justice Today Podcast. And it's quite a delight for me because the topic is one I care deeply about. It's about the Graduate Research Fellowship Program. And the goal of the program is to increase the pool of scholars engaged in research that addresses the challenges of crime and justice in the United States. This fellowship program supports doctoral students at accredited academic institutions whose dissertation research is relevant to crime and/or juvenile justice, and eligibility is open to all disciplines. Now, today, I have the distinct honor and privilege to speak with my NIJ colleague, Dr. Marie Garcia. Dr. Garcia is Director of NIJ's Criminal Justice Systems Division, and she's a former graduate research fellow. Welcome, Marie.
MARIE GARCIA: Hi, Nancy. Thanks for having me today. I'm excited to talk about my experience as an NIJ fellow. So just a little bit about me, I started work at NIJ after graduating from Temple University. D.C. is home, but I'm originally from California. So, thanks again for having me today.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Okay. So, you've called D.C. home, and I know that because you've been here for a pretty long time, right?
MARIE GARCIA: I have. I’ve…
NANCY LA VIGNE: Can you--can you tell listeners a little bit more about your life and work in D.C.?
MARIE GARCIA: Sure. So, I came to D.C. almost 15 years ago, and I've absolutely loved living here in the city. As I said, it's home. I have my roots in California, but my life and my home is here. I've worked at NIJ in a variety of areas, specifically in corrections. I've done some work in law enforcement. But you were my first grantee when I came to NIJ. I was the scientist assigned to your RFID project.
NANCY LA VIGNE: I remember that well because I think you were my very first grant manager or program manager, whatever we called those back in the day. I know we--we've changed the language since then, but I remember that very well. So, we were both new at it together, and that was a really great way to meet you. But that wasn't your very first introduction to NIJ, right? Your first introduction was as a graduate research fellow. And in that regard, I'm really interested in hearing how you even learned about the program, what inspired you to apply, and so if you can share a little bit about that, that would be great.
MARIE GARCIA: Sure. I learned about the program during my third year as a doctoral student at Temple. My dissertation chair and mentor encouraged me to review the program qualifications to see if and when I’d be a viable candidate.
NANCY LA VIGNE: And that dissertation chair, I think I recall you telling me was an NIJ fellow. Was that Ralph Taylor?
MARIE GARCIA: Yes, Dr. Taylor was my dissertation chair, my mentor, and just my guiding light during my five years at Temple. He had been a fellow at NIJ and was very familiar with NIJ’s funding process, their opportunities and just the grant application process in general. So, his experience was really helpful to me.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Yeah, he's--what a great mentor. He was actually a fellow at NIJ, not a graduate research fellow of course, back when I was first working at NIJ a couple decades ago. And I think it's just so important to have those types of mentors in our professional life. So, I'm glad he directed you to the program. Can you tell us a bit about the application process? Because I am aware that it's not simple and takes some time and some paperwork. So, can you just tell us how you navigated that?
MARIE GARCIA: Sure. So, the application process for the program mirrors NIJ's actual application process in general. So, when we put out all of our solicitations every year, the graduate research fellowship is not different. There's a lot of requirements and as you said, a lot of paperwork that goes into the process. But I think one of the interesting things for young scholars to recognize is that this is a great introduction to the federal application process.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Uh-hmm.
MARIE GARCIA: So, they don’t have the same length of a narrative and they don’t have the same, you know, budget requirements in terms of funding amounts, but they certainly do have very similar requirements. So, it gives them an insight into how the federal--how the federal government makes grants.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Right. So, imagine--first of all, I think that’s--there’s probably an administrative burden. So, do applicants have to go through their universities to apply?
MARIE GARCIA: Sure. So, for the graduate research fellowship program, the applicant is the university. So, the student has to work very closely with the university’s Office of Research Administration or Office of Sponsored Projects, whatever the university deems their grants office, because they’re responsible, at least for this program, to submit the application.
NANCY LA VIGNE: And was it--did it take you a lot of time or is it more like coaxing the university to get the paperwork in?
MARIE GARCIA: It was a bit of both. My mentor, Dr. Taylor told me, find out the--so find out what the deadline is and get your application three weeks and it--get it ready three weeks in advance because that's how long it's going to take potentially the university to actually push the buttons for you. So, I actually planned my application process to allow for time to work with the university to get my application in. I thought that was really, really important so that I wasn't rushing on my last day.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Ok.
MARIE GARCIA: But more importantly, it allows you to recognize whether or not you missed a document so you could actually go back and resubmit your application if you need to.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Right. So, the bottom line there is do not wait until the 11th hour because...
MARIE GARCIA: No, do not wait.
NANCY LA VIGNE: ...there's a lot of boxes to check and so planning in advance, and I know you would be very planful.
MARIE GARCIA: Yes.
NANCY LA VIGNE: It really pays off because you don't want to go to all that effort and then find out and then right up at the--against the deadline that you're missing a form, because again, it is rather complex, although most universities are accustomed to applying for federal grants.
MARIE GARCIA: Yeah. And Temple is a very big school and so they were very, very knowledgeable about the application process, and they wanted to make sure I was successful because they knew they’ve seen rejections from NIJ and other science agencies, so they knew please get this right and submit often if you need to so that you can actually be competitive.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Right. So, rejections for silly reasons though, right? Like…
MARIE GARCIA: Absolutely.
NANCY LA VIGNE: …because you missed checking a box.
MARIE GARCIA: Yes.
NANCY LA VIGNE: I mean obviously they've seen it's a competitive process. And congrats even though it's years later. Congrats for becoming a graduate research fellow. Can you tell us about the dissertation topic? That must have been part of the reason you were awarded a fellowship.
MARIE GARCIA: Sure. So, my dissertation topic, actually I focused on correctional safety health and wellness, which is something that NIJ is working on this year and in previous years. So, prior to coming to Temple University, I worked at a corrections institution in California where I was a mental health counselor, and I worked with about 20 to 30 incarcerated women. Every day, I was in charge of helping them navigate the reentry process and kind of helping them work with their parole officer and find housing when they left the institution, making sure they met all their court-related requirements. So, I've always been very interested in the field of corrections. I'm also someone whose family is directly impacted by incarceration. So, this has always been a topic very near and dear to me. So, when I was focusing on my dissertation topic, what was really interesting is that, at the time, Temple did not have any corrections experts. Dr. Taylor is an...
NANCY LA VIGNE: Astonishing.
MARIE GARCIA: Yes. He’s a—he’s an expert in all things amazing.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Community-based. Yeah.
MARIE GARCIA: Yeah, social psychology. But he really didn’t know corrections. And he, instead of saying, well, do something that I’m familiar with, he said, you know, we’ll learn this together. So, I focused on bureau prison data where I looked at their perceptions of risk and danger for correctional officers in their institution. And I looked at their levels of stress, satisfaction, and other demographic and other variables to measure what matter to them in terms of their perceptions of safety in the institutional environment.
NANCY LA VIGNE: That's fascinating. And it remains so relevant today. So, tell us a little bit about after you got the award, what was that experience like?
MARIE GARCIA: So, the process was really interesting to me and surprising as well because I’ve never been a fellow. I’ve never been a—you know, I’ve received scholarships at that point, but I had never received a federal fellowship. So, I felt like my life was on the line when we signed all the documents, except I didn't know then what I know now. But by the time I received the fellowship, I had completed my comprehensive exams and I had defended my prospectus. So, I was well on my way to finishing my dissertation. But the experience itself was just very light, if I can describe it that way, because I didn't have any responsibilities in my last 18 months of my program. I was able to focus on my dissertation. I didn't even have to go to the university if I didn't want to. I could just stay at home and focus. And it was really just amazing to have this very quiet, very...
NANCY LA VIGNE: Focused time.
MARIE GARCIA: ...dedicated time. Yes, very focused. And Dr. Taylor just let me--you know, we checked in on a weekly basis, but he just let me go forth and just do what I thought was what I needed at the time. And it was just really calm, which is not how most people would describe their graduate program experience.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Well, you got lucky. But, you know, to your point, so the fellowship is not just a fellowship, it comes with money. So that money can free you up so that you don't have to be a research assistant or a teaching assistant, especially during those critical months where you're finishing up that dissertation and preparing for your defense.
MARIE GARCIA: Yeah, it was great. And I had been lucky enough to receive a fellowship from Temple. So, my first and fourth year, I had no responsibilities. But I did have research assignments and teaching assistantships during my second and third year. So, I was well aware of having to balance my time and get everything done and try to have a personal life, which was kind of unheard of. But it was--it was really--it was really fun. It was very--it was just great. I had a really great experience as being a fellow. And you're right, the money helped. And I will say the money has significantly increased since I was a fellow, so everyone that's listening should apply.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Fantastic. Did you get to know other graduate research fellows in your cohort?
MARIE GARCIA: So, I didn't at the time. I did get to know my--the scientist that was assigned to my project, Christine Crossland. I got to know her really, really well. And she had been a tenured NIJ employee at that time, so she was really great in terms of helping me navigate just the federal process. And she helped me learn a lot about NIJ. But in terms of learning and getting to know my other fellows, I didn't at the time. But what was interesting is once I graduated Temple, came to NIJ, I met several of them in the field, generally, just working and communicating with them about different research projects. So, I got to meet them after the fact.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Okay. Well, speaking of after the fact, can you tell our listeners a bit about your post-graduate research fellowship career?
MARIE GARCIA: Sure. So as soon as I graduated Temple, three weeks later, I moved to D.C., and I started my job here at NIJ and I’ve not looked back. So, I've been here, as I mentioned, for about 15 years, and my job has changed over time in terms of the role that I've played at NIJ. I started, of course, as a junior scientist, just fresh out of graduate school, always focusing on corrections in some way, which has been really great. And as you mentioned at the top of the introduction, I now work as the supervisor here at NIJ. I'm the Director of the Criminal Justice Systems Division, which has been incredibly fun and a lot of work, but it's been really, really great. And, you know, having this experience as a fellow, you know, having the education, having that background, having the practitioner experience, I think has really helped me at NIJ because our customer, as you know, the people that we really want to influence with our work, is the practitioner. And I feel really grateful that I had that experience and that when I speak about the work that I do at NIJ, I can really speak from that perspective, so it's been really great. Now, I--again, I still work in the field of corrections. I'm working on the First Step Act. I'm working with BOP in a lot of engagements. I'm still managing my own projects and still scientists on projects, so it's still doing a lot of really interesting work here at NIJ.
NANCY LA VIGNE: That's fantastic. So--but just to be clear for listeners, the Graduate Research Fellowship Program is not a pathway necessarily to working at NIJ, but that we know a lot of people who seek and receive the fellowships go into academic settings. It just happens that you were interested in going into a nonacademic setting, which I appreciate since I did as well. But it sounds like the fellowship program gave you a lot of insights into NIJ and how we operate that made you interested in applying to become a permanent federal employee.
MARIE GARCIA: Yeah. You know, one of the things I knew very early when I went to Temple, two things. One, I wasn’t done on my journey as a student in learning. I wasn’t done yet, so I wanted to get the doctorate. But two, I knew I didn’t want to do academia. I knew that from day one. And Temple is an R1, and they train you for being researchers, scholars going into the field and at the—at the academic—you know, at different academic institutions. But I—that wasn’t what I wanted. And again, my mentor, who was wonderful, said, "I don't know that world, but I'm going to help you try to navigate it," which is why he told me about NIJ, which was really great. And you're right, getting the fellowship isn't an entree into our world here at the department, but it certainly does give you a different perspective on what you can do with your education.
NANCY LA VIGNE: That's right. And like you were saying before, you also get insights into how the solicitation process works. So even if you end up in an academic institution, if you want to compete for grant dollars for research, you have more of a sense of how to go about doing that, so that's a leg up right there.
MARIE GARCIA: Absolutely. And I actually used to manage the GRF Program several years ago, and I have seen our fellows turn into grantees at their institutions, whether it be a think-tank or an academic institution. So, it certainly does give you an insight into how the process works, and I think it really gives people a leg up.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Well, I think it’s a fantastic program. I’m glad we were able to bring it back last year, given funding constraints last year and even perhaps the year before, we were unable to offer this program. This is something that I care deeply about as director, and I intend to keep it running for as long as I am director. So, do you have any final thoughts for our listeners regarding the program? Any suggestions or like little pieces of advice that you haven’t already covered?
MARIE GARCIA: Sure, absolutely. I think one thing for graduate students to recognize is that this is a great selling point when you're on the job market.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Uh-hmm.
MARIE GARCIA: So, it's something to highlight in your vita, it's something to highlight when you're doing job talks, because universities want to bring in people who can bring in money. So, if you can show—even as a graduate student, I was able to be successful and submit a successful narrative and be competitive. I think that’s a great selling point. So, you've gotten federal dollars to do your research, it's a great marketing tool, so I would use it to your advantage. And I think something else that we all know, kind of hindsight now, is that doctoral study programs can take longer than you think. Life happens when you're in graduate school, your life changes. So even if you don't get funding the first time around, try again, because you could very well get funding the next time around because you'll learn more about the process, you'll get consensus comments that help you, you know, change your narrative and change potentially the scope of your work that could be helpful. So, try again and take it from me, it's a great experience. I had a wonderful time being a fellow. And again, the money is fantastic. So, it's a great program, one of the bright shiny stars here at NIJ. So, if you're listening and you're a student, I would definitely apply.
NANCY LA VIGNE: That's fantastic. And, you know, I just want to underscore that your example was in the social sciences, but the fellowship program applies to all disciplines, right?
MARIE GARCIA: That's correct. That's correct. We fund work in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and of course the social sciences.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Uh-hmm. So, it’s really open to anyone at any discipline who is interested in pursuing a dissertation on a topic related to crime or justice.
MARIE GARCIA: Yep, that’s absolutely correct. So, sign up, and I wish you the best of luck.
NANCY LA VIGNE: That's fantastic. Well, you sold me. I feel like I want to go back to grad school. But the good thing though NIJ is that we're always learning here, right?
MARIE GARCIA: Absolutely.
NANCY LA VIGNE: Well, thank you so much for your time, Marie. This is Dr. Marie Garcia, and this is the Justice Today Podcast. And we're so glad that you all tuned in today to learn more about our Graduate Research Fellowship Program.
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Opinions or points of view expressed in these recordings represent those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any commercial products and manufacturers discussed in these recordings are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice.