On her decision to pursue a Master's in Public Policy
guminski headshot

Sarah Guminski, MPP '17

HOMETOWN:

Lemont, Ill.

CURRENT ROLE: 

Research Data Analyst and Project Coordinator for the Institute of Policy Research, Northwestern University

UNDERGRADUATE DEGREE:

Bachelor’s degree in economics with minor in mathematical sciences, DePaul University

PREVIOUS EMPLOYMENT:

Worked as research assistant studying monetary economics and financial institutions at the DePaul University Department of Economics

Sarah Guminski had an epiphany while working for a social service center for low-income families in Chicago. Realizing that she was not using her economics degree to reach actual people, she was inspired to apply for a Master of Public Policy so she could learn the tools that would allow her to think like an economist while applying her knowledge to social policy. Learn more about her journey and why she values her Harris education.

Why public policy?

My background is in economics and math, and I believe that public policy at its best is really just another application of social science. In my undergrad, I studied more traditional economics but was also very interested in the policy-related applications of economics in my city. During my senior year of college, I worked at an after school program on Chicago’s West Side, which started as an alternative outlet for kids to get away from the violence in their neighborhoods.

Oftentimes in an econ classroom, you learn about concepts like the unemployment rate, but actually working with people who are carrying the weight of an increased unemployment rate and other social issues that feed off of economic instability really makes those concepts come alive. This intersection made me interested in a school like Harris. It’s not just an MPP – it’s more like an applied masters in economics.

What was the moment you realized you wanted to go back to graduate school for an MPP?

I knew while I was in undergrad that I wanted to work in research, so learning more about research methods and applications in a masters program seemed like the right fit at the right time. Being from Chicago, and staying in Chicago my whole life, I can see that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done right now. I want to contribute to that work by building a bridge between academia and practice.

Why Harris?

I can’t think of a better school if you’re interested in economics. At UChicago, every department has economists in it. So applying rigorous analysis to areas you don’t traditionally think of as spaces where economists belong felt like the right fit for me. I actually think that being in an economics-focused program with people from different backgrounds makes you rethink the exactness, or the completeness, of the science of economics.

There can be this bias in economic research where we don’t look further than where we have good data. But you are around a lot of people (at Harris) who think with a historian’s mindset, a teacher’s mindset. It takes a bunch of people who think in different ways and are trained in different ways using that cross-disciplinary approach to policy to really address these persistent problems that we care about. Harris gives us all the same tools so that we can translate those different experiences into the same language.

In your current role, how has Harris’ curriculum and/or your Harris experience been most beneficial?

I am the quantitative data manager for my research group. We’re researching two-generation approaches to poverty alleviation, so it starts with kids who are in Head Start, and it builds off of those kids to bring more wraparound services to their families. I think a lot of people agree that early childhood education is a good thing, but we see very often that for many families it’s not enough, especially when many low-income families face a wide set of issues. The idea of the program we’re studying is that when you help kids get a solid start in school while helping parents go back to school, you’ll see compounding effects of investment in these same families that you won’t get by addressing them separately. But we don’t know. And that’s the role of objective research.

My lab is led by developmental psychologists, so they are very good at thinking about what outcomes we’re trying to measure with child development and parent or family development. My role within the team is thinking about how we measure that and how we quantify the outcomes we’re looking for in order to know if our intuition that a program is a good idea is actually working. If it does work, what you learn at Harris is how to produce really good quality, rigorous evidence so that the programs that work can be scaled up and spread to other populations.

Is there any advice you would give to a prospective student who is just starting the graduate school application process?

Be as genuine as possible in things like your statement of purpose, or other places where you get to show more of your personality. Now that I have been in the program at Harris – I went back and reread my statement of purpose and thought, of course I got into Harris. What I wrote about was almost like a recruitment brochure for Harris because I really, genuinely wanted to do the kind of work that Harris is doing.

What big ideas motivate you daily?

A lot of people ask you what your policy area is, and I don’t really have one. Most of what I’m interested in falls broadly under the umbrella of social policy, but I’ve always been more interested in the research methods. How do we quantify things that people already feel matter but don’t know how to empirically prove? I am interested in giving credence to the idea that when you can back good policy with good research, that’s when you’re doing the most social good.