Now working as a consultant Vincent Whalen MPP’18 shared his experience as a master’s student at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Hear from this successful MPP alumnus in his own words:
What was your background? Why did you want to pursue a Master's degree in Public Policy?
Prior to Sanford, I was a 2015-16 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Madrid, Spain following my graduation from Providence College. Although I had a broad interest in policy prior to my Fulbright year, it was living abroad and teaching abroad that solidified my decision to pursue a master’s degree in public policy. Learning about Spain’s and other European countries’ education systems helped me to understand how policy decisions shape educational outcomes—something I wanted to explore more deeply in graduate school.
Why did you choose Sanford's MPP program?
I chose Sanford’s MPP Program thanks to the advice and encouragement of a Providence College sociology professor and Sanford School alumna, Dr. Eve Veliz-Moran (MPP ’00), who I met in the fall of senior year. As a double major in Spanish and economics, I wanted to apply my economics skills in some practical way but wasn't sure what my next steps should be. When Dr. Veliz-Moran mentioned her Sanford MPP degree in class one day, I went to her office hours to discuss the degree and how it might align with my interests. After an hour of discussing Sanford’s outstanding career advising and job placements, alumni network, and skill-building coursework, I was sold! I applied and was accepted to Sanford in the spring of 2016.
Meeting Dr. Veliz-Moran was just the beginning of many meaningful interactions I’ve had with Sanford alumni ever since.
What academic experiences were most meaningful for you?
Three experiences stand out for me.
In my first semester, Dr. Jay Pearson’s ethics class was particularly enlightening. We drilled down into the often-overlooked realities of structural inequality and how public policy impacts groups that are systematically disadvantaged. Having never studied structural inequality formally, I felt prepared to approach policy problems with a broader lens after taking that course.
In my second semester, I had the good fortune to enroll in the final master’s course taught by Dr. Helen “Sunny” Ladd, an economist and leading expert on education policy issues. In this K-12 education policy course, I learned so much about our country’s education system and what empirical research has to say about education policy decisions at the federal, state, and local levels. We even had the chance to observe elementary school classrooms in the Durham Public Schools to see North Carolina’s education policy in action.
Finally, my Master’s Project allowed me to tackle an education policy issue for a real-world client. Under the guidance of my faculty advisor, Dr. Charles Clotfelter, I conducted original research and developed recommendations for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). NACAC wanted to increase its public school counselor membership base to promote more equitable student participation in the college admission process. The client plans to implement some of my recommendations. Having that direct impact on a client and, in part, on the broader college admission landscape, was a truly meaningful academic experience.
What are you doing now with the skills you learned?
As of July 2018, I have joined Deloitte Consulting LLP as a Human Capital Consultant in the Government & Public Services practice. Consulting for public sector clients incorporates many of the skills I learned at Sanford, such as succinct writing, stakeholder analysis, collaborating in teams, fostering client relations, and developing clear, well-researched recommendations on the policy issues at hand.
For my first project assignment, I am assisting with the implementation of a new case management system in Health and Human Services for a New England state. In my daily role, I work directly with the project team and state employees on training, troubleshooting, and reporting to improve the workflow of cases in Health and Human Services.
Do you have any suggestions for current MPP students?
Network! For an introvert like me, this can be painful, but it’s absolutely necessary in the field we’ve chosen. After a few phone calls, emails, and one-on-one conversations with alumni and other practitioners, you really start to get the hang of it and realize that policy folks want to help you succeed. Every conversation can help you expand your network, so don’t shy away from talking with new people.
I would also advise current students to be open to studying or interning in policy areas that are outside your comfort zone. Although my personal interest is in education policy, I interned at the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) and was placed on the Natural Resources and Environment team to assist with a project related to Native American affairs—and I loved it! In my current consulting job, government clients represent all kinds of policy, so it’s important to keep an open mind and understand that your MPP toolkit can be applied across many different policy areas.
What was the social life like outside of the classroom?
Durham is a great place to live since so many people in their 20's and 30's come to the Research Triangle for school. There are plenty of bars, breweries, restaurants, performing arts events, and sports to help you take a break from your studies and build lasting friendships with your classmates.
Attending Duke turned me into a Blue Devil fan for life as well, so I strongly encourage MPP’s to attend as many basketball games in Cameron Indoor Stadium as they can!
In addition, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, the mountains to the west, and the beaches to the east are all at your fingertips.
Finally, thanks to the Sanford Social Committee, there were always fun activities planned for Sanford graduate students, such as a weekly Policy Pub happy hour and the annual "Sanford Prom" to celebrate the end of the year. Your social life is what you make of it, of course, but Sanford, Duke, and Durham are there to help you find that balance.
What advice would you give to prospective MPP applicants?
I think it’s important for prospective students to have an idea of the 1-2 policy areas they would most like to explore in graduate school. Even if those interests change after enrollment—and they probably will—you’ll want to use your first year to kickstart your career path, particularly when securing a summer internship. Honing in on your interests early will make networking, course selection, finding research opportunities, and the internship search much less stressful!
Also, I would advise applicants with less than two years of work experience (like myself) to be clear in their personal statement about what they want to get out of the program academically and professionally. Since most incoming students have 2+ years of post-college work experience, you’ll want to articulate why a professional, career-focused policy degree is the best fit for you.