James Densley

James Densley graduated with a first class honours degree in Sociology and American Studies and is now Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University, Minnesota (USA).

As a full time faculty member, I teach undergraduate and graduate courses in the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. A number of my students are active or aspiring police officers, which makes for great classroom discussion. I also maintain an active research program. I’m particularly interested in street gangs, organized crime, violence, and theoretical criminology. My first book, How Gangs Work (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), for example, charts two years of ethnographic research with gangs in London.

Academic life has many perks beyond flexible schedules and summers off! My job encourages a life of learning – every day I get to teach things I’m genuinely interested in and to teach them well I get paid to read new and exciting books and answer new and exciting questions through research. Every day is different. I also get to work on a vibrant university campus and exchange ideas with people from all walks of life. Academic life, in turn, presents other opportunities such as charity, consultancy, and media work – it’s pretty exciting when the BBC call asking for an interview! But there are still challenges. No other occupation has so many people questioning what they do all the time – everything I do is subject to anonymous peer-review. Perhaps the biggest challenge is working with students encumbered with debt but unprepared for university-level coursework. I communicate high expectations and respect diverse talents and ways of learning, but some students just aren’t ready.

Years ago it was not uncommon to find career academics with little more than a Master’s degree. Now, entry-level academic jobs require a PhD and in some cases successful completion of a post-doctoral fellowship. It’s a long and winding road. The first step of course is finishing your Bachelor’s degree. You’ll need a 2:1 or higher to get into a reputable graduate programme.

Next, use your Master’s degree to build a foundation for your PhD. If you already have 20,000 words written then the 100,000 word final thesis won’t seem like such an unconquerable mountain! In many ways, a PhD marks the beginning, not the end, of an academic journey – it’s certainly not your masterwork (you have an entire career to write that!), but far too many students drop out of PhD programmes because they can’t see the wood through the trees. It’s better just to get on with it and throughout your 7-10 year stint as a student, look to serve the faculty in your department. Do good work for them and encourage a mentoring relationship because these are the people who will eventually help you find work.

Indeed, it was my tutors at Northampton (specifically Ian Buchanan, Wolfgang Deicke, Glyn Daly, Mike Wyness and Graham Mcbeath) who encouraged me to apply for graduate school in the first place. They did the programme research and wrote the letters of reference that eventually helped secure me a place at the University of Oxford. There I completed the MSc in Sociology. I later enrolled in the NYC Teaching Fellows (an American equivalent to “Teach First” that takes earnest graduates and, in an effort to plug the teacher shortage and bridge the achievement gap, provides a quick on-ramp to needy inner city schools). It was while teaching in New York that I became interested in street gangs. At the same time my old tutors at Oxford were developing a new institute for the study of “Extra-Legal Governance”. My interest in street gangs was a perfect fit. I was accepted onto their doctoral programme and the rest is history.

As a social scientist, study is my career – I started with a BA in sociology and now have a PhD in the subject! And who could’ve predicted after minoring in American Studies I would live and work in the United States? I took American Studies for fun but I use what I learned in my economics, history, politics, and popular culture courses almost every day. American friends and colleagues are surprised I know so much about their country and it’s all down to the exceptional education I received at Northampton.

The degree at Northampton taught me not what to think but how to think – critical thinking is a requisite skill for an academic. My courses in sociology also first introduced me to all the key ideas and thinkers that I now refer to in my own teaching and research. It is the foundation upon which my entire career is built.

I was a first generation university student so I had no idea what I was doing when I first arrived at Northampton. I thought “professors” all dressed in lab coats and experimented on rats. Academics with lots of letters after their name intimidated me. But academics are perfectly human (albeit somewhat eccentric) and want to see students succeed. We don’t bite. Advice I’d give to an undergraduate interested in this line of work is – if you have a question about an assignment, a job, an issue, anything – just ask.

My second piece of advice is great writers are also great readers. Ask your tutors for recommendations beyond the reading list. In sociology / criminology, for example, there are great ethnographies about football match fixers, drug dealers, prison guards, and police officers that don’t read like conventional “academic” volumes. Read them and you’re doing your homework without actually doing your homework. You’re also learning how to communicate complex ideas in an accessible manner, which can only help when you write your next essay.

Finally, try to attend guest lectures or colloquia on campus. When there’s no grade incentive students often pass over these events but in reality such forums provide an opportunity to question the best and brightest in the field and meet with potential future academic supervisors or employers. Academic presentations are the bread and butter of an academic career but there is an etiquette and formula to them. You only learn it by attending academic presentations.

I spent most of secondary school in the Headmaster’s office. The course at the University of Northampton turned things around for me. Faculty were open and honest, they challenged me and taught me the value of education. I am eternally grateful. Moreover, three of the guys I lived with at Northampton are still my best friends a decade later. We often look back and laugh at days spent at the library, evenings spent at Spencer Perceval Hall, nights spent at the Students’ Union bars and weekends spent drowning in mud on the outdoor playing fields. Personally and professionally, Northampton changed my life for the good. I highly recommend it.