Doctoral Student Profiles


Editor’s note: These interviews with past and present doctoral students were compiled between March and May 2020.

Katelyn Blair, PhD, MSW

I cannot say enough about the mentorship I received from my professors and committee members … a program that provides research assistantships is invaluable, and UWM does a fantastic job of connecting students to opportunities.

Read more about Katelyn
  • Katelyn Blair is a senior researcher at JBS International, Inc.
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    I was a Ronald E. McNair Scholar in 2012 at Central Michigan University. As a McNair Scholar, I was encouraged to earn my PhD. With a background in social work and psychology, I knew that obtaining my master’s was an important step in my journey of earning my doctorate (in social work, the MSW is a terminal degree). I decided to apply to programs with joint MSW-PhD programs. After I visited UWM and attended a Project Connect session with Dr. Topitzes, I knew I wanted to work with him and his team. I enrolled at UWM in Fall 2013. I earned my MSW in 2014 and my PhD in 2018. The people at UWM drew and kept me in!
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    The joint MSW-PhD program gives students the opportunity to grow their clinical and research skills. I knew all along that I was interested in applied research, and the program did a great job facilitating my learning so I could marry research and practice. And again, I cannot say enough about the mentorship I received from my professors and committee members. Lastly, a program that provides research assistantships is invaluable, and UWM does a fantastic job of connecting students to opportunities. (OH! Have you had Steve’s barbeque?)
  • What research are you working on?
    I am a senior researcher at JBS International, Inc. I work on three major projects: The Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs), the Title IV-E Eligibility Reviews, and the National Youth In Transition Database. For the CFSR project, I analyze data from all 52 states (DC and Puerto Rico) to understand what is actually happening to children and families. I produce aggregate and ad-hoc reports centered around safety, permanency and well-being. The cool thing about my job is that my research helps inform child welfare practice recommendations from the top down. I also help calculate the Statewide Data Indicators (using AFCARS and NCANDS data), which are used to calculate performance for each state on key safety and permanency outcomes. Lastly, I’m still publishing scholarly articles based on my dissertation data and other research projects with affiliates from the Institute for Child and Family Well-Being.
  • What is the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    My PhD program would have been much less enjoyable without the camaraderie of the other students (Bekah, Lixia, Laura, Matt). We were, and still are, close friends.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    Don’t be afraid to explore diverse career options. I thought I wanted to be an applied researcher, then I thought I wanted to be a professor, and now I’m working at a private consulting/research firm and teaching as an adjunct professor on the side. There is no one “right” career path. I also tell anyone who will listen that owning a dog — especially as a doctoral student — will save your sanity.

Andrea Gromoske, PhD, MSW

I found the statistical methods courses to be very rigorous within the department. In addition, the financial support that the department provided students made it easier to get through the program without taking on loads of debt.

Read more about Andrea
  • Andrea Gromoske is president of Gromoske Consulting.
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    Based on my experiences as a master’s student at UW-Milwaukee, I felt that the PhD program would have a very applied lens through which it viewed research and evaluation. I wanted my training to be grounded in what would be helpful to social workers that were on the front lines.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    I found the statistical methods courses to be very rigorous within the department. In addition, the financial support that the department provided students made it easier to get through the program without taking on loads of debt.
  • What research did you work on?
    I worked on a number of research projects with faculty including Dr. Mersky, Dr. Berger, Dr. Janczewski, Dr. Brondino, Dr. LeBel, and Dr. Rose. My own research focused on understanding how the parenting behaviors of teenage mothers might change over time.
  • What was the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    The group of doctoral students that were part of my cohort and those that came into the program before and after I started was a close-knit group. We were able to bounce ideas off of each other, troubleshoot stats problems, get together for fun stuff (like bowling and going out to dinner), and collaborate with each other on research projects. For example, Dr. Janczewski and I worked on child welfare research together and Dr. Voith and I published a few papers together on intimate partner violence and its effects on child development.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    Keep pushing yourself as you go through the program – it is a lot of work, but you will make it to the end. Take opportunities to investigate theories, methodologies, and research from other disciplines – you’ll be surprised at what you find and what can be applied to your own social work research and evaluation.

Jennifer Hernandez-Meier, PhD, MSW

My broad research interests fall within injury prevention, including violence prevention and substance misuse.

Read more about Jennifer
  •  Jennifer Hernandez-Meier is an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    When choosing where to obtain a master’s degree in social work as well as earning a subsequent PhD in the same field, UW-Milwaukee was a natural choice for a number of reasons. I was initially attracted to the quality of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare’s MSW program, which was recommended to me by a close family friend. When researching the facilities, professors, and level of community attachment, I was impressed with all three. Clearly, HBSSW was connected with and dedicated to the community in which it is located, which afforded diverse fieldwork opportunities within each specialization. Finally, I was always interested in the area of alcohol and other drug use and HBSSW had a number of faculty conducting research in this area.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    I was getting my MSW when the PhD program was being developed. It was clear that some of its strengths were the faculty and curriculum. As part of the second PhD cohort, I was surrounded with dedicated faculty who provided excellent guidance and mentorship. The program’s grant writing course taught me how to write competitive grants, and my dedicated mentors assisted me with submitting an R36 dissertation grant to NIH during prelims. This deep knowledge of the grant process facilitated successful submissions to the NIH, SAMHSA, CDC, DOJ and private foundations while at MCW. Finally, I often happily reflect on the knowledge I gained throughout the rigorous statistical coursework in the program. Some areas challenged me like I had never been challenged before, but I am clearly prepared to analyze large datasets for my current research and to write competitive analysis sections for grants.
  • What research did you work on?
    I worked with Drs. Berger and Fendrich (now at UConn) on various projects related to substance use. This included a hospital intervention to connect individuals hospitalized with an alcohol use disorder with treatment, investigating a new drug for alcohol use disorder, testing biomarkers for detecting alcohol use in hair and fingernails and investigating alcohol policies, among others. My dissertation examined concurrent polysubstance use (alcohol and marijuana) among college students, including the epidemiology of use and a brief web-based social norms intervention targeted at reducing use.
  • What was the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    The culture among the students and faculty in the doctoral program was one of cooperation and collaboration. Being in a doctoral program is a unique experience and it helps to commiserate, as well as celebrate wins with peers whenever possible. Earlier in the program, my fellow students and I would struggle together with advanced methods and statistics. We would also collaborate on generating potential research ideas and dissertation topics. It was helpful to have supportive peers and faculty from all angles.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    Be committed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Cooperate and collaborate. Use your professors as a resource. Don’t get defensive about feedback. Don’t get caught up on completing the perfect dissertation — it doesn’t exist. Publish parts of your dissertation if you can. Think outside the box when it comes to potential positions that will fit well for you after you graduate (never did I think that I would be faculty in a department of Emergency Medicine).
  • Describe your current job.
    Since 2013, I have been a research scientist at the Comprehensive Injury Center and now a research assistant professor in Emergency Medicine (EM) at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). I was fortunate to be working full-time in an independent research scientist role while I was finishing my dissertation, which I believe afforded me all — and maybe more — experience than what I would have in a formal postdoctoral position. In my time at MCW I have successfully been a PI and Co-PI on federal grants, managing all aspects of projects including: inception, grant writing, and completing all areas related to administration, study activities and dissemination.
  • My broad research interests fall within injury prevention, including violence prevention and substance misuse. With colleagues, I have investigated: state policy impacts on prescribing behavior of opioids; opioid-related continuing medical education; expansion of medications, treatment and telehealth for patients with substance use disorders who present to emergency departments; and am currently Contact PI on an NIH NINDS 4-state hub and spoke network for carrying out Phase 2 clinical trials to test promising medications, devices and biomarkers for pain conditions. Within violence prevention, I have investigated firearm possession policies’ impact on deterring violent deaths (i.e., homicides and suicides) and have worked with a team to translate the public health/medical/law enforcement partnership intervention known as the Cardiff Model for Violence Prevention to the Milwaukee area.
  • As a member of the MCW EM Research Team, I have the privilege of mentoring medical students who are conducting summer and longer-term research projects related to clinical care and public health. I also provide research lectures to our EM residents and advise faculty colleagues on developing and carrying-out evaluation and research projects. It is truly an excellent balance for my research and teaching interests.

Colleen Janczewski, PhD, MSW

In my experience, the faculty are committed and connected to the program. It felt like a boutique program with lots of faculty interaction. The statistics and methods classes are incredibly strong, and there is support for students along the way.

Read more about Colleen
  • Colleen Janczewski is an assistant professor of social work at UW-Milwaukee.
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    I love the community UWM serves. The Helen Bader School of Social Welfare embodies the spirit of community-research partnerships. I knew I wanted to do applied research and this seemed like a great fit. I also wanted a small program. I was a returning student who had been out of the classroom for a long time. I wanted someplace I would feel comfortable.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    In my experience, the faculty are committed and connected to the program. It felt like a boutique program with lots of faculty interaction. The statistics and methods classes are incredibly strong, and there is support for students along the way. I also appreciated the Philosophy of Science class, which has been a strong foundation for my academic career. Moreover, the school has hired some new faculty in recent years with strong research backgrounds – I see this as a sign that it is investing in growing its research program.
  • What research did you work on?
    I had a small role on a few research projects during my course work, including an interesting evaluation of incarcerated mothers as well as some analysis of data from an evaluation of a local CPS agency. Then I had an opportunity to be a research assistant on a federally-funded evaluation of home visiting programs for pregnant mothers and new parents in Wisconsin. In this role, I gathered qualitative and quantitative data and assisted with analyses and general project management tasks. I was fortunate enough to be involved from almost the beginning of that initiative. That was nine years ago: The project is ongoing and growing. I am now a Co-Investigator and continue to publish findings from the project. It was such a formative experience!
  • What was the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    I found the faculty and staff at UW-Milwaukee to be very supportive and committed to student success. Like I said, it’s a small program and you get individual support.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    The decision to pursue a PhD can feel intimidating. Talk to faculty members and current or past students to hear their experiences.

Rebekah Johnson, MSW

My own interests and future research goals are in topics related to the history of the medical model for mental disorder, and the topic of various societal interactions with psychotropic drugs.

Read more about Rebekah
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    Milwaukee is home; I was very grateful to be accepted into the program because it gave me a reason to come back after having been away for many years. I have really fallen in love with this city since moving back. I am proud of Milwaukee and its institutions, and I have had a great experience here so far.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    The program is remarkably adaptive to the various profiles of its students; at various points during the many years since my initial enrollment, I have participated in the joint MSW/PhD portion, I have been a full-time doctoral student, I have taken an unexpected hiatus, and I have enrolled as a part-time student. All the while, faculty has been flexible and supportive, meeting my always-evolving needs in a way that really goes above and beyond what should reasonably be expected.
  • What research are you working on?
    I am still a part-time student and have not participated in research projects on campus for several years. Outside of the university, I have worked independently with Dr. David Cohen, Associate Dean for Research and faculty in UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, on projects involving the legal interactions with and social perceptions of prescribed psychotropic drugs. In 2016, I worked on a project related to adverse event reporting for psychotropic drugs with Dr. Cohen and Dr. Shannon Hughes, Assistant Professor of Social Work at Colorado State University. My own interests and future research goals are in topics related to the history of the medical model for mental disorder, and the topic of various societal interactions with psychotropic drugs.
  • What is the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    Since I reduced my time on campus while enrolled as a part-time student, I have not participated nearly as much in the doctoral student culture, which was a great support for me while I was a full-time student, and resulted in very meaningful friendships.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    Do not be in a hurry! Take things one semester at a time. Expect to feel incredibly stretched and challenged at times, but know that it never lasts for very long, and every stage of the process moves you a little closer to the goal. As students, we have a lot to be grateful for, so it’s okay if we have to make a few sacrifices along the way.

Patricia Lee King, PhD, MSW

I decided to get a PhD in the hopes that I could develop my skills to better support positive change in social welfare and public health.

Read more about Patricia
  • Patricia Lee King is state project director and quality lead with the Illinois Perinatal Quality Collaborative (ILPQC).
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    I chose to study at UW-Milwaukee because it was a university in and serving the community in which I grew up and was then raising my family. As I learned about the program at UWM, I felt that it demonstrated values that aligned with mine as I built on my work in the fields of social work and public health in the areas of maternal child health and equity. I also valued being part of a program that was new (I was in the first PhD cohort) and building, and I appreciated the support they offered their students.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    I thought that the responsive faculty, methods training, and small doctoral student cohort were strengths.
  • What research did you work on?
    I decided to get a PhD in the hopes that I could develop my skills to better support positive change in social welfare and public health. I had spent several years post masters working in national and local public health policy spaces with a focus of working in program implementation and evaluation in the area of Medicaid, maternal child health, and mental health. While in the doctoral program at UWM, I brought those experiences together through research on differences in maternal mental health screening among women of different races.
  • What was the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    The doctoral program at UWM offered me a space to develop my skills and provided me a community to learn to grow from critical feedback. I’ve always loved learning and the culture of the program helped me mature as a lifelong learner ready to approach complex social problems with a broader tool set, but also humility. I learned to be comfortable with questioning and being unsure.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    The opportunity to pursue a doctoral degree is a gift. Make the most of it. Ask for what you need. Seek challenging opportunities outside of the course work. There is more than one career path from the doctoral program.

Christine Kmiecik, LCSW

The faculty at UWM has created a culture of understanding, flexibility, and mentorship. My PhD peers have also created a culture where brainstorming occurs in a safe, judgment-free space.

Read more about Christine
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    I chose to study at UWM for a few reasons. The main reason being the student to faculty ratio. I knew with the small class sizes the faculty would really get to know me and my research interests. Second, the location of UWM is in the perfect location to conduct research. While Milwaukee is an urban area, enabling a plethora of urban research opportunities, just 30 minutes outside of Milwaukee research with rural populations can also occur. Finally, I chose to study at UWM because of the faculties’ willingness to work with my constricted timeline to complete my PhD program. As an active duty service member, I was given a three-year timeframe to complete this program and UWM agreed to work with me to meet this timeline.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    The strengths of the UWM PhD program lies in the faculties’ willingness to understand students’ individual strengths and weaknesses all while pushing students out of their comfort zones to become strong researchers, problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and subject matter experts.
  • What research are you working on?
    My research is in the area of servicewomen retention. I am interested in understanding how policy is related to work-family balance, organizational commitment, job satisfaction, and ultimately job retention.
  • What is the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    Doctoral work is challenging and humbling. I have spent many hours correcting statistical errors, as well as rewriting papers. As a mother of five young children I have often wondered if I made the correct decision starting this program. Fortunately, the faculty at UWM has created a culture of understanding, flexibility, and mentorship. My PhD peers have also created a culture where brainstorming occurs in a safe, judgment-free space. For this, I am thankful.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    For any future doctoral students at UWM I would challenge them to research the faculty members and their specific areas of research. This information can then be used to establish a mentor from the very beginning of their PhD program.

Margaret Kubek

The professors are experts in the field; as such, students are exposed to top-notch teaching, research, and examples of service to the greater Milwaukee community.

Read more about Margaret
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    The primary factor that drew me to pursue advanced studies at UW-Milwaukee is the school’s reputation in the field of social welfare. A doctorate from this institution is highly respected and worth my time and effort. Additionally, my personal situation dictates that I attend a doctoral program part-time. UWM accommodates this while still affording me the opportunity to have a well-rounded, authentic PhD experience.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    The professors are experts in the field; as such, students are exposed to top-notch teaching, research, and examples of service to the greater Milwaukee community. Additionally, the requirement to take courses in other disciplines provides access to viewpoints that complement social welfare. For example, I took a course in geography that advanced my skills in qualitative research methods. Finally, the flexibility of attending part-time is a key strength of this program for someone in my situation. The course of study my advisor and I have mapped out fits my schedule and timeline, and is adaptable, if needed.
  • What research are you working on?
    As a part-time student, my research practicum under the direction of my advisor won’t begin until next year. However, I’ve been able to investigate my areas of interest in coursework; these interests include qualitative research methods, restorative justice, and K-12 educational policies and practices.
  • What is the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    The work is rigorous, classes are challenging, and expectations are high. There’s the opportunity to develop community with other PhD students, which has been essential when I need to reach out to someone to help me analyze an idea. Most important, professors and advisors are giving of their time and expertise.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    I would advise them to consider the following: form relationships with other PhD students; think creatively about how classes in other departments will complement your core social welfare courses; tap into professors’ expertise and research; find your favorite study nook in the library; and, take some time to read books for pleasure.

Xiyao Liu

At HBSSW, there are great opportunities to conduct research and to develop teaching skills.

Read more about Xiyao
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    I first learned about the joint MSW/Ph.D. in social welfare program at UW-Milwaukee from the GADE Guide: A program guide to doctoral study in social work. What appeals to me most is that this program provides a joint MSW/Ph.D. option and the four concentration options (Children and Families, Criminal Justice, Gerontology, and Health/Behavioral Health). The joint option offers the opportunity for clinic training, which is an important component of social work research. It also provides opportunities to develop foundational knowledge of the social work profession. The four concentration options for students to identify as their overall focus of study provides a clear-cut plan as well as reflects faculty expertise. Thus, I accepted the offer from HBSSW at UW-Milwaukee.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    In the GADE Guide, it says “our program is small and close-knit, and our faculty work hard to involve students in all aspects of their research.” After I went there, I really felt a great sense of involvement. There are a variety of supports for each student, such as the appropriate mentoring, and clear and concise expectations that facilitate timely completion of the program milestones. There are also great opportunities for appointments as graduate research and teaching assistants, which provide financial aid and enable doctoral students to develop skills. The field program in HBSSW provides various opportunities for each student to integrate educational knowledge with practice, as it has solid partnerships with hundreds of agencies in Wisconsin. The liaisons invest a lot of time in assisting students with their field placements as well.
  • What research are you working on?
    There are a lot of opportunities to conduct research. Throughout the first academic year, I worked with my advisor – Dr. Melinda Kavanaugh and assisted her in several research projects, which enabled me to practice both quantitative and qualitative research skills.
  • What is the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    In graduate school, especially the PhD program, doctoral students are responsible for their own education. Although our school provides a clear course plan for students in the first three years and supports us, it is our own business to manage all things well. During the first year, I am supported enough by our school, PhD program coordinator Dr. Steve McMurtry, my advisor Dr. Melinda Kavanaugh, and my peers. However, most of the time I need to work and study alone. Thus, it is important to have good time management skills and self-discipline.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    At HBSSW, there are great opportunities to conduct research and to develop teaching skills. There is also a variety of resources and support to prepare each doctoral student to be scholars with core expertise and skills. The joint program at HBSSW provides an opportunity for students without an MSW to develop the foundational knowledge of social work.

Daria Mueller, MSW

I am currently in the analysis phase of my dissertation research, which explores the process of exiting from street-based prostitution and how police encounters influence women’s ability or motivation to exit from prostitution.

Read more about Daria
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee? 
    I chose to study at UW-Milwaukee for a number of reasons, despite the fact that I had been living in Chicago for 10 years when I accepted the offer for the Social Work doctoral program. I grew up on the southside of Milwaukee, and I knew I would have an extensive support system here (e.g., my parents, home church, many friends), which felt important while taking on the long journey of doctoral studies. The other key reason was the way I felt valued and welcomed by the doctoral program coordinator and other faculty and students that I met during my program visit. I knew the small program would offer the financial and educational support that I needed to succeed.
  • What are the strengths of the program? 
    The strengths of the doctoral program are 1) the small size that lends to greater individual attention, 2) the rigorous and challenging coursework, 3) the supportive faculty and environment, 4) the opportunity to assist with important faculty-led research projects, and 5) the ability to work on community-engaged research in Milwaukee.
  • What research are you working on? 
    I am currently in the analysis phase of my dissertation research, which explores the process of exiting from street-based prostitution and how police encounters influence women’s ability or motivation to exit from prostitution. I spent most of 2019 surveying and interviewing women all over the city about their experiences with trading sex and their interactions with the police, and I loved every minute of it. I’ve also been working with Dr. Topitzes on a trauma-informed workforce development intervention research project for the past few years, which has been fascinating and rewarding.
  • What is the culture like for you as a doctoral student? 
    As a doctoral student, the culture is hard to describe, perhaps because it has shifted over the years. Since I began the program, many students have completed their doctoral degrees, while others have just begun. Originally, during the first two years of course work, I was in an office with 6-7 other doctoral students, and we interacted quite a bit and supported each other. Then, I had my son and had to mostly work from home. Later I shared an office with one student from my cohort, which was lovely and supportive. Now, we are in the middle of a pandemic and my 4 year old and I are just stuck at home, feeling quite isolated, like most others! So, I guess the answer is that the culture shifts, depending on one’s circumstances and position/timing in the program. Overall, however, it has been an open, friendly, supportive, and flexible culture, where questions and different perspectives are welcomed.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    My best advice is to choose a research area that you are passionate about as this is what will keep you going! Understand that pursuing a PhD is a long, hard journey, but with lots of room for growth and rewards along the way. Ask questions and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Matt Richie, PhD

Take advantage of the opportunities provided to you. If there’s a project available that isn’t in your field or of interest to you – do it anyway. By taking on these projects, you refine your skills as a researcher and can make contacts for what you really want to focus on.

Read more about Matt
  • Matt Richie is an assistant professor of criminal justice at UW-Oshkosh.
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    I knew I wanted to do applied research and I knew that the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee worked a lot with the community. I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on when I applied to graduate school but the criminal justice department had experts in the areas that interested me. Dr. LeBel and Dr. Stojkovic were big names in corrections; Dr. Freiburger had published quite a bit on court decision-making and sentencing; and Dr. Brandl was a well-established policing scholar. So even if I didn’t know what I wanted to study, I knew those individuals would help facilitate that decision as well as my growth as a professional academic.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    I’ve sometimes had difficulty empathizing with other doctoral students because they seemed to not be getting enough one-on-one interaction with faculty. I don’t think I ever had this problem at UW-Milwaukee. I tried to make it clear that I would work on any project they needed assistance with. The faculty in the criminal justice department balance expectations with instruction – meaning that they assign tasks and instruct on how to do them, which allowed me to take on projects that were not impossible, but were also challenging. I think another strength of the program is the opportunity for research and teaching. I was allowed to teach in the classroom and online in my time at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but I was also allowed to do several different types of research from evaluating drug treatment courts to examining how stop and frisk practices impacted use of force incidents in law enforcement to evaluating a program that assists individuals in not being evicted from their homes.
  • What research did you work on?
    I worked on the following projects:
    Evaluation of the Milwaukee County Drug Treatment Court;
    Evaluation of the Milwauakee County Veterans Treatment Initiative (now Veterans Treatment Court);
    Evaluation of Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Program;
    Co-wrote book chapters on topics of prisoner reentry, psychological effects of incarceration, social media presentation of self;
    Worked on a study that looked at elderly prisoner misconduct;
    Master’s thesis was on the effect of concealed carry legislation on violent and property crime;
    Dissertation examined recidivism in a suburban county, mixed methods study combining regression and cluster analyses as well as one-on-one in-depth interviews;
    Dr. Brandl and I got the NYPD stop and frisk data and examined its relationship to use of force;
    I evaluated Wisconsin Community Services OWI Pretrial Risk Assessment (OPRA);
    Dr. Freiburger allowed me to assist on a juvenile sentencing database as well as a place-based policing project that required me to not only collect data in the community but also analyze these data;
    I transcribed focus groups for Dr. Hassell as part of her Byrne Grant;
    I cleaned and helped analyze the data for a calls for service, quality of life policing project with Dr. Randol.
  • What was the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    When I was in graduate school, an article came out that said half of all graduate students have a mental health issue (of course the joke was that the other half are lying or are unaware they have such an issue). This wasn’t my experience. Graduate school was hard but it was never unfair. The deal was simple – do good work, get more opportunities, look better on the job market, graduate and get a job. The 10th and 11th floors of Enderis Hall were a fun place to learn and work. They celebrated with me when I had my kids and when my son was in the hospital, UW-Milwaukee responded in the most gracious way. I remember telling Gwat what was all going on and as soon as I finished she said “What do you need? What can we do?” I cannot thank my former co-workers enough for their outpouring of support when things were rough. This type of generosity is common at the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare, because the people that work there recognize that we are all on the same team and we all want the best for one another. The Helen Bader School of Social Welfare was a wonderful place to learn and work for six years. It wasn’t always easy or fun, but it was always worth it.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    Take advantage of the opportunities provided to you. If there’s a project available that isn’t in your field or of interest to you – do it anyway. By taking on these projects, you refine your skills as a researcher and can make contacts for what you really want to focus on. I worked on the music and memory project that dealt with Alzheimer’s in older individuals – not at all my field but it allowed to do work on mail surveys and better understand survey design and the problems that can arise when doing this kind of research. Your skills as a researcher are what will set you apart from the field – knowing a lot about one topic will not.
  • On a similar note, try not to come in “knowing” what you’ll be researching. Expose yourself to other topics and see if those interest you. I came to graduate school leaning toward policing but when I was assigned to Dr. LeBel and worked on the corrections research he was working on I knew corrections was what I wanted to study; Get good at proofreading; Be nice to the administrative staff and IT – they are the people that run the place; Be careful when they ask students to volunteer for a photoshoot – your picture might end up on a brochure at your current place of employment.
  • It’s a lot of work, so take care of yourself, but recognize that taking care of yourself might mean crossing items of your list instead of relaxing; Effort can mean more to your supervisors than proficiency at times. You might not know it all, but if you keep working at it, they will think that is more impressive; Appreciate your time at the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. At times it will feel like it will never end – and then it does and there’s a little sadness in leaving such a wonderful place, but the connections you make there will go with you and you’re always part of that family.

Nicole Robinson, MSW, MPH

More and more sectors are committing to equity – racial equity, gender equity, health equity and sometimes economic equity. There is even more urgency with the pandemic. If equity is a trojan horse for liberation, critical and radical scholars will be needed.

Read more about Nicole
  • The other day I participated in a webinar with healer Gibran Rivera on human connections and adaptive leadership. He noted that COVID-19 is a great pattern interrupter and that right now we are witnessing deep changes in our values, beliefs, and assumptions; and a continuous bright light on the dominant strands of society that perpetuate injustice. This collective experience offers us the chance to discard “old programming” that has never served the greater good. It was a powerful webinar and it reminded me of how important it is to be a member of the social work field, a field that is determined to realize social justice values. Social workers are in every system – health, economic, government, and private industry – and we bring these values along with many research tools. At UW-Milwaukee, I have enjoyed exploring decolonizing research and critical criminology. I am currently learning more about convict criminology, the study of crime and prisons by ex-convict academics and radical scholars. On the last leg of my Ph.D. journey, I am appreciating how each paradigm has impacted my research design and I am also humbly recognizing design elements that were not in alignment. I guess you could call it “old programming.” Navigating the conclusions I draw for my dissertation study on place effects and recidivism has taken a lot of time as a result. More and more sectors are committing to equity – racial equity, gender equity, health equity and sometimes economic equity. There is even more urgency with the pandemic. If equity is a trojan horse for liberation, critical and radical scholars will be needed. These are scholars who ground their studies in critical theory, critical pedagogy, and aligned research designs. I feel like the experience at UWM has prepared me to make critical theory research accessible to policymakers, practitioners, and program participants.

Sarwat Sharif, MSW

At the PhD level, the program at HBSSW is relatively small, yet the faculty has a wide range of research interests. They take a scientifically, rigorous, interdisciplinary approach to their research and expect the same from students.

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  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    As gun violence at school premises is increasing around the globe, the world needs people to come together to mitigate the adverse impact of targeted school violence on school-age youth. Through the Adverse Childhood Effects (ACE) literature, we know that exposure to adversities can affect a child’s development altering their life course outcome.
  • When I was finalizing a school for the Ph.D. program, I made a decision based on four criteria. The first was to work with a scholar who shared my passion for understanding ACEs, was invested in child wellbeing, and believed in the value of a holistic intervention design that is aimed at reducing or treating early life psychological trauma. I wanted to be confident that under the mentorship of such an expert, I will also become a quality researcher that contributes to making a difference in the lives of school-age youth who have experienced firearm-related atrocities at their place of learning. I hoped that I could help them overcome the psychological challenges that come with such exposure. When Dr. James ‘Dimitri’ Topitzes agreed to be my advisor, I knew UW-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare (HBSSW) was the right place for me. I have been in the program for a year, and I am ecstatic that I was accepted in the program and have the opportunity to work with the most brilliant minds working to enhance child wellbeing in Wisconsin, the US, and globally.
  • The second criteria was the program size. I wanted to be a part of a program where I could receive individualized attention from the professors and the department. The team and my peers would know me, and I would have the opportunity to know them. I enjoy interacting with the people at HBSSW. Our discussions foster critical thinking and we enjoy challenging each other. All the professors are invested in our success and take out time for us when needed.
  • The third criteria was UW-Milwaukee’s R1 status. The university’s R1 status ranks it in the top 130 out of more than 4,338 eligible universities. As a future researcher, knowing that I am studying at a school that holds this prestigious recognition is important to me. I know I am learning and growing with the best and brightest minds.
  • Finally, 1,200 international students study at UW-Milwaukee. I have made many friends from different cultures and backgrounds, enjoyed their food and festivities, and hope they appreciate mine. I have formed bonds that I hope I will maintain for life. While choosing a place to gain quality education, I also wanted to have some room for fun and relaxation. UW-Milwaukee offered it all.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    At the PhD level, the program at HBSSW is relatively small, yet the faculty has a wide range of research interests. They take a scientifically, rigorous, interdisciplinary approach to their research and expect the same from the students. This amplifies the learning experience and allows us to explore various research methods and strategies that are applicable in our interest domain. The whole department is invested in our success and wants us to excel as scholars.
  • Moreover, in contrast to other schools in the US, our class sizes are comparatively small. However, at times the sessions allow for interdisciplinary collaborations, as PhD students from different disciplines can join us during our sessions. We can learn from our peers, which is excellent, especially as the Social Work discipline requires us to examine various factors that can impact a social issue, such as the person in the environment. This helps us to be critical of different perspectives and disciplines, and not to look at the issue through a single lens.
  • What research are you working on?
    I am working with Dr. James ‘Dimitri’ Topitzes on an innovative prison reentry project, the Smart Reentry. The Department of Justice manages the program with a community partner. The project goal is to reduce the recidivism rate for high-to-medium risk participants by 50%. Focusing on the Center Street Corridor in Milwaukee, I am assisting Dr. Topitzes in performing a process evaluation of the program. We are taking both a qualitative and quantitative approach to evaluate program success.
  • What is the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    Graduate school has its ups and downs. Currently, we are experiencing COVID-19 pandemic, and the school has gone online. These are challenging times for all of us, students, faculty, and staff. At times like such, we need the support of our peers and faculty.
  • During this chaotic time, I have found myself connected to my peers. I know that they are available whenever I need them, and I know I am present for them as well. While we are future scholars, we are also individuals with real emotions and stressors. At HBSSW, we are a team, working together, laughing, and are a phone call or email away from one another. Difficult times can test bonds and relationships. And I know that I can rely on my peers and faculty for support. There is nowhere I would rather be right now.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    Everyone has a reason for choosing a program or school. What was critical for me may not be essential for you. However, take your time to learn about the school and the program as much as you can. Visit the school and try to meet the faculty if you have the opportunity.
  • In today’s emerging economy, we do not work in silos. Researchers create collaborations and work with colleagues with both similar and diverse interests to deliver comprehensive results. Hence, choose a school and program that will help you be a quality researcher so that you can be a part of such collaborations. I know for me, UW-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare PhD program offered the platform to be a quality researcher and form much needed human connections that ensure my success.

Alyssa Sheeran, PhD

UWM is unique in a sense because of the vast agencies and organizations within Milwaukee. This provides many connections and opportunities for research to be conducted in the criminal justice field. I have been fortunate to work on several projects within the Milwaukee and surrounding areas that allowed me to network and gain knowledge and experience as it relates to both quantitative and qualitative research.

Read more about Alyssa
  • Alyssa Sheeran is an assistant professor at UW-Milwaukee. She received her PhD in May 2020.
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    I have been at UW-Milwaukee for many years now. I completed both my bachelors and masters degrees at UW-Milwaukee and now am working toward my doctoral degree. I initially chose to study at UW-Milwaukee for several reasons: (1) it was close to home where I could be near my family and friends, (2) UWM had a great reputation and degree program for criminal justice, and (3) UWM had a great reputation for outstanding research. I continued to stay at UWM because of the outstanding faculty and the opportunities/experience that I was able to gain through the program!
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    The Helen Bader School of Social Welfare faculty have been outstanding at all levels of my education. During my masters and doctoral programming, I have been able to work closely with faculty and gain research experience. UWM is unique in a sense because of the vast agencies and organizations within Milwaukee. This provides many connections and opportunities for research to be conducted in the criminal justice field. I have been fortunate to work on several projects within the Milwaukee and surrounding areas that allowed me to network and gain knowledge and experience as it relates to both quantitative and qualitative research. The doctoral program has been incredibly beneficial to my studies. I appreciate that the program focuses on research and statistics. I strongly believe this puts UWM students at an advantage because of the expertise they are able to gain and the research they are able to engage in.
  • What research are you working on?
    Currently, I am working on my dissertation where I am examining the influence of individual- and neighborhood-level characteristics on the likelihood of recidivism for individuals released from jail. Specifically, I am examining a sample of individuals who were sentenced at the House of Correction in Milwaukee County and were released in 2013 and 2014. Using a three year follow-up period, I’m employing multilevel modeling to determine whether these factors are associated with a jail ex-inmate’s likelihood of receiving a new charge, conviction, or incarceration term. Aside from my dissertation, I serve as a Research Associate on a project that evaluates the Milwaukee County Adult Drug Treatment Court. This research includes attending weekly staffing meetings and court sessions to observe interactions between participants and court personnel. Further, qualitative interviews and exit surveys are conducted, additional quantitative data, and recidivism measures are analyzed to examine treatment court effectiveness.
  • What is the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    The culture at UWM has been great! Both students and faculty are respectful and always willing to help each other. Students are very supportive of one another and always willing to offer advice or answer questions. Faculty are also supportive and encouraging of students; and they are eager to have students participate in research and various projects.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    The best advice I can offer to future doctoral students is to work on as many projects and research opportunities as they can! Outside of the degree requirements, I have had the opportunity to work on several papers and research projects with UWM faculty, and I believe I have gained knowledge and experience that I would not otherwise have learned in a classroom. I have been able to practice various research methods, conduct analyses, and make valuable connections to various criminal justice agencies around Wisconsin.

Laura Voith, PhD, MSW

If I could choose to do my doctoral training all over again, I would make the same decision to go to UW-Milwaukee and work with my advisor.

Read more about Laura
  • Laura Voith is an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University.
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    I chose to study at UW-Milwaukee because they were the most committed to my development as a scholar. The faculty who I networked with before coming to the program were invested in my success and provided opportunity for research experience. And, the program’s competitive stipend paired with the low cost of living in Milwaukee made completing a PhD program feasible.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    The doctoral program’s greatest strength is the faculty. I worked with multiple faculty members who provided exposure to different research programs, methodologies, and project management styles. The one-on-one training with my advisor, Dr. James Dimitri Topitzes, was invaluable to my development as a scholar, teacher, and professional. If I could choose to do my doctoral training all over again, I would make the same decision to go to UW-Milwaukee and work with my advisor.
  • What research did you work on?
    After joining the program, I first had the opportunity of supporting Dr. Laura Otto-Salaj’s work to understand how trauma, addiction, and violence intersect to affect low-income, African American women’s lives. I then assisted Dr. Rhonda Montgomery’s work to support caregivers suffering from burnout. With the support of several faculty, I also conducted a qualitative research study to understand trauma recovery among teenage girls in the Philippines. Finally, I worked with Dr. James Dimitri Topitzes on several projects that examined the effects of violence exposure in childhood and the effects of interventions such as social emotional learning and trauma-informed care with low-income youth. Each of these studies served as building blocks to my mixed methods dissertation examining the effects of individual- and neighborhood-level factors on intimate partner violence.
  • What is the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    HBSSW has a great culture that allows faculty, staff, and students to be friendly as well as intellectually rigorous together. This combination promotes a culture that helped me find my confidence as I transitioned from student to scholar.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    I recommend students actively engage all faculty and staff connected with the doctoral program so they can maximize opportunities for research, teaching, and service. There is a wealth of experience among this group of people that can prepare students with the tools they need for success.

Tajammal Yasin, MSW

I am keen to explore evidence-based parenting interventions and their impact on reducing child maltreatment. I am also interested in advancing my research to see if child maltreatment mediates between abusive parenting practices and children’s mental and behavioral health.

Read more about Tajammal
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    My decision to choose UW-Milwaukee was influenced by my keen interest in child and family wellbeing. I came to know about the Institute for Child and Family Well-Being (ICFW) and the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare (HBSSW) through my research about child and family wellbeing focused social work programs. I was interested in a program where I can have the opportunity to engage in research related to child and family well-being along with earning a PhD degree, so HBSSW was an excellent option for me as it provided both. In addition, I was particularly interested in research on early childhood adversities and later life outcomes. I found that Dr. Joshua P. Mersky and Dr. James W. Topitzes at ICFW had done instrumental research on trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their current projects, e.g. Families and Children Thriving (FACT) study, Family Foundation Home Visiting (FFHV) program etc., were a great attraction as excellent learning opportunities to me. So, naturally, HBSSW became my top choice. Moreover, HBBSW also offers a specialization in five different areas of social work, child and family welfare being one of them, that was also an important element for my decision to join UWM. Furthermore, I loved the location of UWM. I love being close to nature and UWM was a perfect fit because it is situated near lake Michigan and in the vicinity of large parks.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    There are a lot of factors which make the PhD program at HBSSW, one of the best. I like the program as it is flexible and self-paced, I have the opportunity to opt for courses, plan for work and progress at my own pace. The program also offers a wide variety of research paths for doctoral students, which allows students to excel in diverse research interests. The faculty at HBSSW is comprised of very experienced and learned professionals, who provide extensive opportunities of research and teaching to the doctoral students through graduate assistantships. The assistantships not only help to sustain students financially while focusing on their studies, but also help them to increase their teaching and research potential. In addition, HBSSW has a very encouraging and supportive environment that nurtures a healthy working relationship between the doctoral students and faculty members. The strong network helps the students collaborate, learn and produce academic publications which are crucial for the career of a doctoral student.
  • What research are you working on?
    I am broadly interested in children and families. Most of the projects I work on include interventions and programs designed for child and family well-being. These programs include research and evaluation of Milwaukee Family Drug Treatment Court, home visiting programs, parenting interventions, and trauma and resilience. Moreover, I am keen to explore evidence-based parenting interventions and their impact on reducing child maltreatment. I am also interested in advancing my research to see if child maltreatment mediates between abusive parenting practices and children’s mental and behavioral health. ICFW and HBSSW both have instrumentally helped me to meet my research goals. HBSSW also supports students to attend conferences, courses and special events to further improve their academic scholarship.
  • What is the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    I found the culture at HBSSW for myself and other doctoral students to be very supportive and empowering. The whole administration, staff and faculty are knitted together to accommodate your expanding skills and abilities. I came in August 2017 and it did not take me more than a few months to fully gel with the staff and administration. I feel HBSSW is determined for my success. I came from Pakistan as an international student and had a lot of challenges during the first one-and-a-half year but HBSSW and the director for doctoral students mentored and supported me at every step. Frankly, the people at HBSSW are like my own family.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    My advice for the future doctoral students is that UWM and especially HBSSW is the place that not only helps you advance your academic goals, but also nurtures your scholarly abilities to prepare you for real-world experience. The graduate school along with the social work department has tremendous opportunities for the doctoral students. Above all, UWM has earned and maintained an “R1” (Research 1) status for the past few years. It is among the top research universities in the country. It is one of only 130 universities out of 4,338 across US to receive this ultimate recognition for top doctoral universities from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. In addition, future students who are interested in any of the research areas; applied gerontology, criminal justice, family and child welfare, and behavioral health, HBSSW must be among their top choices, as they have highly experienced and efficient faculty in all of these areas. Moreover, HBBSW also heads various research centers and an institute which involves multidisciplinary collaboration through partnerships with researchers on campus and across the U.S.

Lixia Zhang, PhD, MSW

At UWM, I did research with Dr. Joshua Mersky and other professors on the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), intergenerational transmission of ACEs, and cross-cultural childhood adversity and trauma.

Read more about Lixia
  • Lixia Zhang is an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
  • Why did you choose to study at UW-Milwaukee?
    UW-Milwaukee is a top research university, which provides many opportunities for doctoral students to learn and do their own research. Also, it provides many kinds of research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and fellowships for doctoral students.
  • What are the strengths of the program?
    The Ph.D program at Helen Bader School has many great strengths. First of all, the school has a group of wonderful professors who are very warm and intelligent. They are all doing great research. I have learned so much from them! Also, unlike big doctoral programs, our doctoral program is relatively small. Thus, doctoral students really get a lot of attention and good training from our professors. The professors also provide many research, collaboration and funding opportunities for doctoral students, which promote doctoral students’ success greatly.
  • What research did you work on?
    At UWM, I did research with Dr. Joshua Mersky and other professors on the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), intergenerational transmission of ACEs, and cross-cultural childhood adversity and trauma.
  • What was the culture like for you as a doctoral student?
    I think Helen Bader School creates an environment where doctoral students feel very safe and free to be involved. When I was there, as a foreign student, I always felt accepted and included in everything. I felt comfortable to share with my professors and fellow doctoral students how I felt and they were all willing to help me solve any problems I encountered. I still work closely with my UWM professors, friends and colleagues today.
  • What advice do you have for future doctoral students at UW-Milwaukee?
    There are many factors that impact doctoral students’ success. My essential advice is work hard and be perseverant, because the journey of getting a Ph.D is like a full marathon.