Smith is using the skills he gained from the Harris Evening Master’s Program as a Data Scientist for the US Department of Justice.
Headshot of Jake Smith
Jake Smith

While working as a freelance journalist, Jake Smith spent much of his time learning about the social sciences and public policy issues.  “However,” he said, “I wanted a more active role. I was thinking a lot about these problems that interested me, but as a journalist, I couldn’t necessarily do anything about them.”

Smith’s interest in the topics he covered as a reporter, and later as a research editor for Kellogg Insight at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, was influenced by his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and his prior work as a communications coordinator at Harris. Both UChicago experiences, he said, had opened his eyes to the world of quantitative social science and using rigorous methods to understand human behavior. But he lacked the tools to bring those methods into his journalistic work. “I wanted to bring more data and analysis into my stories, but I felt under-equipped,” he said. “I didn’t have the frameworks for what to do with data—or a real understanding of the responsible ways to do analysis.”

Looking to develop those skills, Smith found his way back to the University of Chicago. “I knew Harris’ reputation, and I was interested in the rigorous culture of analytical approaches to policy questions. Most importantly, Harris was in touch with the community—with the city of Chicago—and working on problems relevant to the city. Harris wasn’t just operating clinically in a classroom.”

Smith originally considered both the PhD and full-time MPP programs, but he realized he wasn’t in a place in his career that he could take several years off. “The EMP [Evening Master’s Program] allowed for the flexibility to continue working, so I changed my application,” he said.

Then, while pursuing the Evening Master’s Program, an unexpected opportunity arose. “It was Spring Break 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic had really begun. I was teaching myself [the data programming language] R and did some data analysis just for fun, using the skills I’d been gaining at Harris to build a data storytelling portfolio.” Using a dataset from the Chicago Police Department, Smith uncovered some surprising trends in reported crimes since the outset of the pandemic (“bringing in some the of the principles I’d learned in my Program Evaluation class,” he noted) and put together a blog post on Medium, Crime in Chicago Has Reached a Historic Low During Lockdown.

“Soon after, I got a message from the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division. They had seen the blog post, liked the work I’d done, and invited me to apply for a job. I applied, was accepted, and now work in Washington, D.C. as a Statistician/Data Scientist for the Office of Policy & Legislation in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice.”

Once on the job, Smith said he continued putting his Harris training to work. “I’d never worked at such a gigantic, interconnected organization. It was overwhelming. I definitely tapped the      softer skills I’d gained at Harris—like the strategies we talked about in Leadership and Negotiations—as I navigated my way.”

For prospective students, Smith recommends first finding your passion and then figuring out how data applies to it. “A lot of places that have not typically had data scientists now need people who have both a real interest in the subject and data skills,” he said. “The emphasis Harris places on using data responsibly—to think carefully and cautiously about data in order to use it effectively—is a unique and invaluable cornerstone of the Harris experience.”