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Q&A with Maeve Gearing, PhD Alumna

October 1, 2014

Now working the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., Maeve Gearing PhD’13 took a few moments away from her research to discuss her experience at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Hear from this successful PhD alum in her own words: 

Q.  What was your background prior to starting Sanford’s PhD program? 

A. I was an economics major at Wellesley College and focused on domestic social policy. I'd taken a lot of policy classes and was particularly interested in how social norms affect policy. How much of policy is driven by whether we approve or disapprove of a behavior? How rational is policy, really? I'd done my undergrad thesis on the economics aspects of gambling, but the moral and policy issues around it also fascinated me. After undergrad I decided I really needed a break from school and went into economic consulting in Boston. It wasn't really related to policy, but I thought it would be a good change and give me the chance to experience the private sector. 

While working, I discovered that while I could learn a lot from the private sector, it wasn't what I wanted to do long term. I came back to policy as a way to do work that felt meaningful and important―work that would help people. I started to investigate public policy, and I was interested in getting a PhD because I wanted to immerse myself in research to learn the skills to really dig deep into issues.

Q. Why get a PhD in public policy?

A. I really wanted to do work with a public character―something that was explicitly focused on helping people. Public policy is different than some other disciplines in that way. It’s not only about the pursuit of knowledge, but it's also about the pursuit of knowledge in the public interest and for the public good. That appealed to me. 

I was also strongly drawn to the multidisciplinary nature of public policy. While I was an economics major as an undergraduate, I'd also take courses in political science, history and all sorts of different disciplines. I wanted the opportunity to bring together theories and methods from different fields. I didn't want to feel siloed. I wanted to be able to use knowledge from everywhere in order to find the best solutions to the problems people face.

Q. Why did you choose Sanford?

A. I investigated a bunch of different public policy programs at different schools. Ultimately what led me to Duke and Sanford was the faculty. I had read some work by Professor Phil Cook, and it seemed like he did the kind of work I was interested in. I researched professors at different schools, but I was most impressed with the depth and breadth of experience at Sanford. I even spoke with some professors at other schools who praised Sanford and their faculty. And I talked with Phil, and he was encouraging. So, all of it really led me to apply to Duke. It was my first choice, and it didn't hurt that the Duke’s financial package was also the most generous.

Q. Was there anything surprising about your PhD journey?

A. As I mentioned already, I thought I was going to come to Duke and study "vice" policy with Phil Cook - gambling, drinking, drugs, etc. Then midway through my second year I realized I wanted to study childhood obesity. I was interested in the attitudes towards obesity and the ways in which policy might or might not mimic policies towards smoking and drinking. So there are parallels, but it was also something quite different. Fortunately, Phil encouraged me every step of the way, even though it wasn't his area of expertise. So I'd say that you have to be prepared for your research aims to shift, and your journey to go in unexpected directions. But if you pick the right school and the right people, they'll be right there with you.

Q.  What advice would you have for prospective Sanford PhD students?

A. I always advise prospective students to speak with the faculty members they are interested in working with. That's the most important thing from my perspective. Do the faculty treat you as a colleague? Sanford professors did with that with me. Think about what you want to do with your degree―how do you want to apply it? Does the school offer those connections? How do they envision the purpose of a PhD in public policy? Basically, you want your goals and your values to align with those of the school.

Q. What are you doing now? 

A. I'm a research associate in the Center for Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute, a think tank and research center in Washington, D.C. I apply for grants and conduct research to evaluate government and nonprofit social programs. Right now I'm working on a number of projects related to alleviating hunger and reducing homelessness and family instability. I’m also looking at the effects of new school lunch nutrition standards and increasing access to work support programs such as food stamps and child care subsidies. 

I feel like my work is making a difference by providing reports directly to agencies that fund social programs. I also get to give a voice to those who benefit from these programs. My work is very rewarding. I really enjoy it.

Learn more about Sanford’s PhD program.