PhD Week 1: The Proposal

(Or: Excerpts from a sample PhD application)

What does it take to apply successfully to a PhD program? I still have no idea, despite having done it once. Regardless, below is some of what I included in my PhD proposal to the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. This is already out of date–and it was out of date long before I even started classes. People said my areas of interest would change. Check!

In the Ph.D. program at the LBJ School, I hope to move through three phases of work. First, I will apply the research methods I learn in the program to the domain of social innovation. Second, I will begin to apply these methods, including complex systems theory and network science, to questions of policy formation. Third, I will turn my attention to specific policy problems, including immigration.

At the beginning of my Ph.D., I hope to continue to study the formation and structure of the world of social innovation. I have been active in this field for the last five years as an investor and advisor to entrepreneurs, and as a result have access to data and interview participants. The research questions I have about this emerging field relate to the networks of relationships that have shaped and been shaped by the development of the sector. What is the nature of this ecosystem of players that sits at the intersection of finance and philanthropy? How do effective social entrepreneurs build and maintain networks around their businesses?

Armed with the tools and skills I develop in exploring some those questions, I would then turn my attention to questions of political campaigns and policy formation, which I believe have much more in common with the world of entrepreneurship than is commonly understood. Exploring how social networks and complex adaptive systems theory might explain a number of campaign and policy phenomena, I will begin with three questions.

First, what can we say about the structure of social networks in legislatures, and specifically the Texas state legislature? Taking into account campaign donations, staff overlap and group membership, which actors emerge as central to legislative networks? Given their centrality, can we infer influence over voting decisions and resource flows? When placed in contrast to actual resource flows, such a model could theoretically identify hidden points of leverage within a system, and over time could predict the political rise and fall of individual actors.

Second, what do the networks of effective candidates look like? In the world of entrepreneurship, researchers are turning to questions of how entrepreneurs construct and manipulate their networks. What lessons from that research can be applied to the development of political candidates? A number of programs claim to train and connect political candidates, for example, but little work has been done on these programs’ effectiveness at embedding potential candidates in networks of power and influence. There has also [not] been little study of the way that candidates construct their networks of financial and political support.

Third, how can network science help us understand how policies are created? Network scientists have only just begun to explore how ideas spread through social networks. The application of network analysis to policy formation could reveal insights about how policy ideas gain and lose momentum in legislatures. Why, for example, has comprehensive immigration reform remained a part of congressional discourse for the last decade, without gaining quite enough momentum to pass?

To be able to do this work requires a range of expertise that I hope to develop at the University of Texas. First is an understanding of the methods and theory of public policy research. Given that grounding, the questions I then propose to study require a mix of qualitative, quantitative, and computational methods. Qualitatively, much of my research will involve interviews and demand theoretical grounding. Quantitatively, I will need to acquire further expertise in both statistical methods and in systems approaches, such as agent-based modeling. Computationally, I will need to become literate in back-end programming languages such as Python and R, database structures such as Hadoop and Spark, and data visualization tools.

All of this is available in the UT system, and there are a number of professors at the LBJ School and UT Austin whose work I would hope to learn from as I pursue these research questions. Chief among them is Varun Rai, whose interest in networks and the spread of ideas lines up well with what I hope to learn in the Ph.D. program. At McCombs, [Reuben] McDaniel’s work in understanding complex adaptive systems will add another layer of depth.* The resources at UT around immigration policy are second to none, and researchers at a range of departments–from Computer Science to the College of Liberal Arts–touch on network theory.

By adding those resources to the public policy expertise of the LBJ School, I aim to build the tools and relationships necessary to explore the complex web of human interaction. In applying those tools to the realm of public policy, my aim is push forward our understanding of how policy is formulated–and hopefully, contribute to better public policy.

*Reuben McDaniel (1936-2016) taught at McCombs School of Business at UT-Austin, imprinting the lives of countless students and alterting the course of my own intellectual development. Read more about him on the UT-Austin website here.

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