Alumni Spotlight on… Melissa Petkovsek

Q: Can you tell us about your current position?

A: Currently, I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri. It is a mid-sized state university with a long history and a fantastic mascot (Mo the Mule). The CJ department is one of the three largest on campus, and we have about 650 undergraduate majors and about 60 graduates, pursuing their master’s of criminal justice. I also serve as Graduate Coordinator for our graduate program and sit on the University Graduate Council. Overall, like most professors, I teach, conduct original research, and serve the academic community both on campus and within my discipline.

Q: What are your current research projects and interests?

A: Generally my research investigates biosocial correlates of behavior and crime, which covers things like genetics, intelligence, and childhood development. I am particularly interested in the relationship between intelligence and behaviors like self-control. More recently, I have diverged slightly, and I’ve been working on studies examining citizen attitudes of body-worn cameras on police officers and a study examining myths of sexual assault.

Q: Why did you choose to pursue Criminal Justice?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior: where does it come from, why are people different, and how to change it. Because of this interest, I started college thinking I would pursue neuroscience. That major was not available when I started at Wooster, and so I majored in psychology and took every neuroscience course offered. I always intended to study deviant behavior and the law, so I focused on legal issues within psychology, and my IS focused on racial stereotyping and emotion in which the participant made legal judgments, like a juror would. After that, criminology was a natural extension of my interests, and in fact, I have found my background in psychology and interest in the brain a significant advantage in my field. Criminal justice and criminology are derivations of sociology, a discipline not traditionally accepting of biological or psychological influences on behavior, since sociology tends to examine behavior via group or culture instead of through the individual. While in my doctoral program, I found myself equipped with a very different knowledge base and set of methodological skills from many of my fellow students, and this unique viewpoint served me well.

Q: How has your training in Psychology prepared you to study Criminal Justice?

A: I already addressed this question (at least a little) in the question above, so here I will share how The College of Wooster prepared me for my training in criminology. I will never have enough positive things to say about my training at Wooster, particularly from the psychology department, which is where I took most of my classes. There is nothing more important than learning how to chase curiosity – to be a critical and analytical thinker – and that is the most valuable skill I gained from Wooster. In addition, the psychology department taught me excellent research methods and helped me hone my writing skills, both of which got me into the doctoral program and contributed to my career today. To me, these are the most crucial skills anyone can learn in college, no matter the field of study. I would put my education at Wooster up against that of many graduate programs, even.

Q: What advice do you have for current Wooster students?

A: My advice will probably come off as weirdly mixed: you don’t need to have a plan, but, you also need to take things seriously right now. This is the ‘real world’, this very moment, and you are in a sort of buffer zone – you are still partially protected from mistakes, but you are also in the best place to set up your future success. Every five or ten-year plan falls off the rails at some point (mine did!), so don’t worry too much about that. Instead, focus on gathering the skills and experiences which will set you apart during the next phase of your life, whether that be achieving excellence in academics (of course) or stepping outside your box to try theatre, travel, or music for the first time. If I could go back in time to my first year at Wooster I would tell myself to ask for help more often, to take more risks despite contrary advice from others, and believe in myself.

Melissa’s IS was titled “Aggressive Affect and Racial Stereotyping of Latino Suspects: Video Games as a Mood Modifier to Investigate Perceptions of Criminality” and was supervised by Dr. Amber Garcia.

Thank you, Dr. Petkovsek!