Pennington’s interdisciplinary background in political science and physics serves as a foundation for his research interests and professional endeavors.
Headshot of Will Pennington
Will Pennington

“I got into public policy because I wanted to challenge myself,” said Will Pennington, MACRM’23. “I felt I could expand my research capabilities and make a greater impact by embracing a new field—economic research.”

At first blush, Pennington’s professional background—a physicist for Dynetics, Inc., in Huntsville, Alabama—might seem miles away from economic research. However, he’s quick to point out the connections. “I worked in the Sensor Systems Analysis and Engineering group, where I used a lot of model-based programming skills and applied language skills like Python and other technical programming languages. For example, we once worked with the Marshall Space Flight Center to overhaul their controls system using a specialized program called LabVIEW, a visual programming language used to control laboratory hardware. I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of leading the team to uncover the best way to modify the system to fit the Center’s needs. It was rewarding to lead a team and establish something concrete.”

However, Pennington didn’t develop an interest in applying research methods to policy solely at work. During his undergraduate experience at Auburn University, where he earned a dual degree in political science and physics, one independent study course in particular shifted his focus.

“The course focused on legislative productivity and provided an overview of some fundamental literature on Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (i.e., most budgetary changes in Congress are incremental, with the exception of intermittent dramatic adjustments). What struck me about this work was the similarity between the statistical methods/concepts I used in physics and what I was studying in political science literature. This experience really convinced me that I would love doing research in the social sciences.”

The Master of Arts in Public Policy with a Certificate in Research Methods (MACRM) program at Harris, Pennington said, stood out because of its quantitative focus. “Quant is where my strengths and interests lie, so I felt a great confluence with the MACRM program. I was more interested in finding solutions to the hard problems, as opposed to the subsequent implementation of those solutions, and MACRM was the place I could do that research.”

To that end, Pennington immersed himself in research during his time at Harris. “I contributed to projects ranging from examining gubernatorial powers with Professor William Howell to exploring consumption responses to labor income shocks with Professor Damon Jones. These experiences definitely sharpened my data analysis skills and deepened my understanding of econometric models and policy analysis.”

Central to Pennington's motivations, he said, is his faith. “As a Christian, a big part of why I got into policy research was because I felt a call to try to make an impact with what I'm doing. So, Harris’s motto felt like the perfect blend of using my scientific skillset to do research that impacts people in a positive way and look at how we can do better with policies to improve certain outcomes.”

Looking ahead, Pennington sees himself in economic research-focused positions. “I feel like my Harris degree gave me a strong empirical and theoretical foundation in economics. Whereas before, I saw myself in a purely scientific role, now I'm looking at economic, policy, and data-driven jobs because I have experience with econometrics and data theory. My Harris experience definitely changed my outlook on jobs I can apply for—and which ones I want.”