Now working as an education data analyst, Anna Bryant MPP’14 shared her experience as a master’s student at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Hear from this successful MPP alumna in her own words:
Q. What was your background? Why did you want to pursue a master’s degree in public policy?
A. Prior to Sanford, I was a high school math teacher in Nashville, Tenn., my hometown. I also developed curriculum and college preparatory materials for my school’s math department.
Teaching in an underserved community opened my eyes to the many policies and institutions that continued to trap and define my students’ life outcomes. After several years in the classroom, I enrolled in the Duke Master’s of Public Policy program to learn more about the interconnectedness of education, health and welfare policies in order to engage in community change through a more systemic approach.
Q. Why did you choose Sanford’s MPP program?
A. Sanford’s small cohort size was very attractive to me, because I wanted to have close relationships with my colleagues and professors. The courses regarding state Medicaid, welfare and education policy issues aligned with my interests. Also, I have always been interested in using big data, and Sanford’s curriculum offered many opportunities to build a quantitative skill set.
Q. What academic experiences were most meaningful for you?
A. Working with my classmates was by far the most rewarding piece of my Sanford experience. Making connections across different sectors and levels of public service made my framework for policy analysis so much more comprehensive.
I enjoyed my courses on Globalization and Governance, National Security, and Economics of the Family. These classes are practical, well planned and incredibly fascinating. They not only pushed me to develop my analytical skills but also to understand the structures and history that inform what’s happening in the world today.
Q. What are you doing now with the skills you learned?
A. I completed a short fellowship in the summer of 2014 as a data analyst for Memphis City Schools, and I now have similar and permanent position at Metro Nashville Public Schools. My job in both school districts has generally been to evaluate multiple measures of teacher effectiveness in order to determine best practices and effective initiatives within the district’s professional development platform. Basically, I’m using the huge toolset of quantitative and client-management skills as well as the analytical framework that I gained from my classes at Sanford.
Q. Do you have any suggestions for current MPP students?
A. Push yourself to gain a strong sense of the quantitative piece of Sanford’s curriculum. Very few people in the policy world have good intuition about data, but literally every sector in public service seems to be moving in the “incorporate data driven decision-making” direction.
Ask a question or make a comment in class at least once per week. This was something that I really struggled with at first. Sanford’s students are quite strong, and sometimes it’s easy to let people with the most experience or who are known to have the strongest skill set dominate the class discussion. But so much of this training is about how to ask strategically designed questions, make efficient, powerful statements, and communicate with groups of people who may either be intimidating, of a contrary belief or just large in numbers. Practicing this skill not only forces you to get comfortable in potentially uncomfortable situations, but it also pieces the policy puzzle together so much more holistically. Talking about the readings, policy details and professional experiences of my classmates made each paper and analytical exercise so much stronger.
If you are quantitative by nature, push yourself to understand the broader implications and more qualitative pieces of the policy story. The numbers we analyze represent people, and understanding the experiences of those people is critical to policy analysis. There are numerous Sanford professors - Amar Hamoudi, Seth Sanders, Bill Adair and Tana Johnson, for example - who marry these two components well. Take their courses and go to their office hours. All possess robust quantitative skills, but they also have an incredible qualitative sense about the implications, connections and experiences of populations affected by the policies they study.
Q. What was the social life like outside of the classroom?
A. I loved getting to try all the restaurants and breweries in Durham! I learned so much about craft beer, coffee, sustainable eating, and what makes a super creative menu. I also tutored at the Emily K Center and volunteered at the Downtown Durham YMCA. Durham has a strong sense of community that is really great to tap into. You can take advantage of the opportunities to hang out in the city, including farmer’s markets, festivals, Durham Bulls games and free concerts on the American Tobacco Campus!
Besides working often together in groups, there are groups of Sanford students who run together in running club, play intramural sports together, volunteer and tutor. We all hang out together on the weekends. However, this did make it more of a challenge to be involved outside of the Sanford community, and I had to be very purposeful about making sure this was a part of my life.
Q. What advice would you give to prospective MPP applicants?
A. Determine if a small cohort is right for you. Sanford has between 55-65 students each year. Cohort size affects the type of class culture you seek, the types of professor and staff relationships you desire, and the type of group work and leadership opportunities you expect from your program. At Sanford, we are a very tight-knit community!