Into the World of Policy Research…

Main lesson: Don’t write a blog about your internship if it contains details about a project that may not be appropriate to share publicly yet. Oops. Here is an edited version.

I’m a MPP/MBA student, but my first year at Duke was purely focused on the MPP. I really had no idea what I was specifically interested in when I first started, but soon my interest in social policy and child/family welfare developed. I became fascinated with the American version of poverty (because we all know that it’s very different from the rest of the world); the contributing factors and consequences are beyond complex, frustrating, but oh so full of opportunities. Through one of my classes this past spring semester (Poverty and Inequality – I highly recommend it to those Duke MPPers out there), I realized that tax and fiscal policy is actually interesting! Shocking, I know. But really, it’s interesting because it drives EVERYTHING. Duh, you say, but I bet you haven’t thought about it as much as you think you have. So, I thought, what better opportunity to learn more about tax and fiscal policy than to intern with the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center for the summer? I’m working with Bob Tannenwald, a Senior Fellow from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities out of DC (MassBudget is a satellite group located in Boston).

Before I get into what I’m actually doing this summer, I have to note that working in downtown Boston is amazing! I really honestly always used to scoff at the idea of working downtown, playing dress-up, and parading around the city like I’m some powerful professional…but really, it’s kind of fun. It is, however, only fun because it’s the summer time, Boston is right on the water so it’s easy to walk to the harbor, and there is a ton of (outdoor) stuff to do and see. Plus, a major bonus is that my commute is literally 10 minutes door-to-door because I’m only 3 stops up on the train from downtown. Yay sleep! :-)

When I started on May 16 (yep, only one week after finals were over, bleck), Bob and I discussed what I would be working on this summer. He was still finishing up a project, but would soon be moving onto a project concerning taxation and entrepreneurship. What he asked of me was to conduct a literature review to get a broad understanding of the major drivers of entrepreneurship (other than taxation), then continue on to looking at the prevailing “myths” regarding the relationship between taxes and entrepreneurial activity. (Note: entrepreneurship is a really hard word to write over and over again).

I went on my way and starting reviewing papers that he already had stacked up (a big stack) and then also looked online to find more general thoughts and ideas on potential drivers of entrepreneurial activity. But, alas, Bob’s current project came calling and now I get to help out with conducting research and trying to educate the masses.

This is where I have learned a lot. I’ve realized that policy research work is very much an addition to my learning about perfection in life, work, and school. Here’s why: There is a serious difference (and serious struggle) between explaining and exposing factors  that you are trying to argue. In looking at the data in an attempt to support Bob’s points, it sometimes raises more questions than it answers. But the important thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter! We just need to expose other potential causes of what we are trying to argue. The most important thing for us is to gather enough evidence to say “hey now, you didn’t really take this into account, and this is a very important factor! (snap)”

Some other things I’ve learned in this process: 1) Census data is actually not as great as you’d hope it’d be and it’s inconsistent over the years; 2) statistical models really can’t account for everything (yes, I’ve been doing regressions!!); 3) Having access to Duke’s library online is sooooo helpful.

All in all, I’m enjoying my internship so far and I am definitely learning a lot about what’s out there, who’s out there, and how to best use all of that information the world has to offer.

I hope all the other Duke MPPers are enjoying their summers and internships! Miss you and catch you on the flip side. :-)

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