Criminology graduate Brian Rainey will look to build on undergraduate research in PhD program

Brian Rainey

Criminology and Criminal Justice major Brian Rainey earned his bachelor’s degree with distinction and has been admitted into UMSL’s nationally ranked PhD program. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Brian Rainey is getting ready to move onto the next stage of his life. He just doesn’t have as far to travel as other students who went through commencement ceremonies over the weekend at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Rainey, who graduated with distinction with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice, has been accepted into the department’s PhD program and is aiming to build on the research he’s already started during his undergraduate years.

“It feels a little weird,” Rainey said. “Most of my peers are going into the job market, and I’m just going to be staying in school … for five or six years.”

He’s not complaining.

Rainey has been preparing for graduate school since enrolling at UMSL in the fall of 2016 as a transfer student from Indiana University. He’s excelled in his coursework, made the most of research opportunities with faculty members such as Terrance Taylor, Matt Vogel and Kyle Thomas and taken on leadership positions in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Undergraduate Student Association and Alpha Sigma Phi, the national criminal justice honor society associated with the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, at least in part because he recognized they would bolster his applications for graduate programs.

He is the first CCJ student at UMSL to receive a degree with distinction after researching whether the so-called “code of the streets” – an informal set of rules governing interpersonal behavior in inner-city communities – and perceived risk of victimization had independent effects on the likelihood that youth would experience violent victimization. He shared his research in an undergraduate thesis.

“He is absolutely an outstanding student,” said Taylor, who has served as Rainey’s adviser. “He was at the top of his class in the courses that I taught, and I was very excited when he decided to pursue the thesis option. He has got tremendous natural skills in terms of developing logical assessments of theoretical arguments, and he worked very hard to develop his methodological skills to assess some of his hypotheses they generated.

“It’s pretty rare that we have students that actually take the initiative to do things like that, and I think this is really going to set him up well to go on to the PhD program.”

Rainey, a native of Bedford, Indiana, had been an international studies major when he began his college studies at nearby IU.

But he’d grown up with an interest in the criminal justice system – fostered, in part, by television shows such as “Law & Order” and “NCIS.” It only increased once he took an Introduction to Criminal Justice course as an elective during his time in Bloomington, Indiana.

He’d already moved to St. Louis when he decided to make that the focus of his academic pursuits.

“Criminology brings together some things that that I’ve always been interested in, which is theory, states and the workings of the criminal justice system,” Rainey said.

It was serendipitous that UMSL’s nationally ranked criminology program was in his new backyard.

He was particularly drawn to victimization, fascinated by the situations people are in that lead to them being victimized and how they cope with it.

Rainey began pouring through journal articles – some Taylor suggested, some he found on his own – last spring as he was beginning to formulate ideas for his thesis.

His parents gave him Elijah Anderson’s book, “Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City,” as a birthday present, and it left an impression on him.

“I saw the proposed relationships between five oft-spoken-of subjects, which are fear of crime, perceived risk of victimization, unstructured socializing, code of the street and violent victimization,” Rainey said.

He researched them using data from survey of seventh- and eighth-graders gathered as part of UMSL’s Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, for which department chair Finn Esbensen serves as the principle investigator.

“There’s some discussion that youth take on this image of being tough and take on the orientation of the street to fend off danger,” Taylor said. “That ties in really nicely with youth’s perspectives on whether or not they’re actually vulnerable to victimization, so he was able to see whether or not vulnerability and social identity really affected the likelihood that youth would be victimized.

“I think the big contribution is there is a lot of discussion as to whether the code of the street enhances or reduces the likelihood that youth will be victimized, and in addition to that, trying to get an idea of how vulnerability ties into the image that youth decide to portray themselves as having on the streets.”

Rainey has presented his research at the St. Louis Area Undergraduate Research Symposium and the UMSL Undergraduate Research Symposium this spring and is also slated to give a poster presentation in November at the American Society of Criminology’s annual meeting.

He considered several leading criminology and psychology programs when deciding where to pursue his doctoral work, but the opportunity to continue working with UMSL faculty members and expand on his research was too much to pass up.

“The courses offered are incredibly interesting and relevant to today’s issues, and the faculty here are at the top of their field,” Rainey said. “In addition to that, they’re so nice, so kind and willing to work with the students in order to help us achieve our goals, whether that be as criminal justice practitioners in the future or as academics.”

It’s not every year that UMSL undergraduates matriculate into the selective PhD program, but Taylor is thrilled Rainey will be sticking around.

“I think he made the right decision because we do have a lot to offer, especially in some of the areas that he is interested in,” Taylor said. “I think this is going to be a very seamless transition for him because he’s always working on research projects. This is a win-win situation for everyone, and I’m really excited to be able to continue to work with him over the next several years.”

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