Emerging Scholar Spotlight: Cait Cavanagh

August 2017

Cait Cavanagh, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor with appointments in the School of Criminal Justice and the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University. After completing her B.A. in Psychology at the University of Rochester, Cait interned in the European Union Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. Through this experience, she learned first-hand how high-quality social science research can affect public policy. As a result, she shifted her interest in studying adolescent development broadly to producing policy-applicable research to help youth and their families interact with the law. She received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at UC Irvine, with specializations in Psychology and Law and Quantitative Methods.

Broadly, Cait’s research focuses on the intersections of psychology, social policy, and criminology to explain how social contexts shape adolescent behavior. As a developmental psychologist, she is particularly interested in the dynamic parent-child relationship. Juvenile offending inflicts high costs on youth, their families, and local communities. Cait examines how the family context contributes to the etiology of, and desistance from, juvenile offending, as well as the effects of juvenile offending on the family. Her goal is to guide decision makers with limited resources toward programs that are most likely to be effective. In this way, Cait hopes to inform policy using developmentally-sound research to improve how the juvenile justice system interfaces with children and families.

Just as the dissemination of research to practitioners and policy makers is a goal of Cait’s research, she also places an emphasis on disseminating knowledge through mentorship of the next generation of scholars. She has mentored over 40 undergraduate research assistants in conducting rigorous, ethical research; formulating research questions; successfully applying for funding; and presenting at professional conferences. Her mentorship has been recognized through both intramural awards (n=7) and attention from professional groups (see her invited Webinar on mentoring research assistants for the American Psychology-Law Society).

Cait has two pieces of advice for emerging scholars. The first is to say yes to as many opportunities as possible. “Being generous with your time will pay dividends by positioning you as a well-rounded, well-connected academic,” Cait says. For example, holding departmental-, university-, and national-level service positions has broadened her research network. For emerging scholars, a strong and extensive research network is critical for obtaining the perfect job (many which are advertised via word of mouth) and, eventually, tenure (which requires letters of support from field leaders). Additionally, Cait has been successful in securing extramural national grants and fellowships (n=9), a success she credits to “saying yes” to every funding opportunity that could fit her research questions. “Even if securing a given grant is a long shot, you’ll gain experience in articulating your research for funders just by applying.”

Cait’s second piece of advice for emerging scholars is to learn as many advanced quantitative methods as possible. “This may involve challenging yourself to take a difficult-sounding class, securing funding to attend a statistics seminar, or teaching yourself by practicing from a book.” Many SRA emerging scholars work with longitudinal data. Advanced statistics enrich the developmental research questions that longitudinal datasets can answer.

Dr. Cavanagh is currently leading a large-scale study of risk assessment at intake in a local juvenile court. For more on her research, look for her most recent article on the parent-child relationship following a youth’s first arrest (Cavanagh & Cauffman, 2017) in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

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