Dr. Chris Sullivan: 2020 Excellence in Mentoring of Doctoral Students Award

Written by Chris Pasion, graduate assistant to The Graduate School.

Dr. Chris Sullivan sitting in his office.

Dr. Chris Sullivan, the director of graduate studies for the School of Criminal Justice, is this year’s recipient of The Graduate School’s Excellence in Mentoring of Doctoral Students Award. He has worked at the university for over a decade and is recognized for his supportive role in guiding his students through their doctoral programs. Many students that Dr. Sullivan has worked with have gone on to become professors themselves, making significant contributions to their chosen fields all across the country. Dr. Sullivan says that it is a source of great pride to see them enter the field and to be able to check in with them to see how their journeys are going past his role as a mentor. He says, “when they’re out there doing it and don’t need me anymore… that’s the goal.” 

It wasn’t always Dr. Sullivan’s plan to teach, or even work in academia at all for that matter; his undergraduate career at University of Massachusetts Lowell was spent, like many of his peers in the criminal justice program, planning to go into practice as a law enforcement officer. After developing an interest in juvenile justice and developmental criminology and reflecting on how his disposition and skillset might benefit him elsewhere, Dr. Sullivan turned his attention towards higher education and joined a criminal justice master’s program with the encouragement of his mentors. His career in academia began with a graduate assistant position in the department, a path he has followed all the way to where he is now.

On his discipline of choice, Dr. Sullivan says, “Criminal justice is unique in that it’s an amalgamation of a number of different fields with different perspectives and methods that are brought to it.” This amalgamation is reflected in the students found within the program, a diverse group that comes from varied backgrounds and research interests. Dr. Sullivan says working with students who bring unique questions, problems, and interests keeps him “enthusiastic about the job that I do. It’s kept me interested in sharpening and continuing to develop myself.” 

Dr. Chris Sullivan sitting in his office.

Dr. Sullivan’s mentorship of students is a collaborative, guided experience – both for the students and for himself – that sees each party learning from the other. His students often come to him with ideas for research. Dr. Sullivan often lets them take the lead and looks for ways to apply his breadth of knowledge to steer the project in the right direction. He says that the process of getting a paper into publication for the first time is something “you really only can learn by going through it with someone who can help you and guide you along the way,” which is the role he takes with students. 

The type of collaboration that is had with cooperative research is much different than that of a traditional classroom; rather than work with students in a larger class, it is much more hands-on with the student directly. Dr. Sullivan often incorporates his research topics into the classroom setting, which allows for students to provide new perspectives on his own work. He says that teaching and research are “symbiotic in a lot of ways” and each informs the other. Many of the thoughts and ideas that went into Dr. Sullivan’s most recent book, Taking Juvenile Justice Seriously: Developmental Insights and System Challenges, developed from conversations he had with students in his seminar classes.

Dr. Sullivan provides one parting word of advice to graduate students at large: stay curious. He says, “if you maintain that stance of actively learning during and after your degree program, then you’re likely to get where you want to go and also have more enjoyment in terms of being able to discover things that you don’t know.”