GSAS: Hi Nick, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your perspectives on your time at GSAS. Can you tell us a little about your research and the dissertation you worked on at NYU?
Nick: Most generally speaking, my research is about how we can design socially cohesive and inclusive societies. Within this broader research question, there are two main streams I look at. One is different strategies we can use to reduce intergroup inequalities and conflict. The other major area of investigation is studying the consequences of what happens when efforts to design inclusive societies fail.
My geographic scope is relatively broad, but a lot of my work is in India. I spent a Fulbright year there researching household gender politics, as well as relations between different ethnic categories: notably, Muslims and Hindus, and Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes. I've also done a lot of work in Sub-saharan Africa, and then finally, some work on polarization across cultural contexts—so for example, Egypt versus the US, and more recently, a project that looks at the US versus India.
GSAS: And what about your dissertation?
Nick: In Political Science, many of us choose to write dissertations made up of several interrelated papers. I had a three paper dissertation. One was on India, and two were on Africa. They all had to do with how we increase access to justice and reduce inequalities between marginalized populations and the greater society. One strategy I looked at in particular was state intervention. For example, what are the effects of a large political quota on economic outcomes?
My second paper was on reforming customary institutions and thinking about how to make them more inclusive in Somalia. And finally, I worked on a project in South Sudan on the negative consequences of ethnic conflict on reaching agreement on a peace settlement.
GSAS: What made you want to pursue a PhD?
Nick: To be honest, I didn't really know what I was getting into when I went for a PhD. I knew that I really liked doing research, and I knew in particular that I really wanted to strengthen my methodological skills. The political science program at NYU was known for having a really strong methodological training, and I remember when I was going into the PhD program, I was thinking, if I don't decide to do academia it would be nice to come away with some skills for a job in, for instance, an intergovernmental organization such as the UN or World Bank.
In terms of my research, I've always been interested in intergroup relations. My grandfather was a political refugee, and at the University of Michigan, where I did my undergrad, I took a lot of really interesting courses—in particular, history courses—with striking takeaways for me at the time. For example, that a lot of the outcomes we find problematic in the world are really by design—people fight to create institutions in a way that some benefit and others don’t.
I took this amazing course, called “History of American Suburbia,” which talked about how many of the zoning policies that people complain about today were purposeful. People were fighting for segregation. That prompted me to think from an institutional angle—how can we redesign institutions to counteract some of these issues?
GSAS: How did you make the most of your time at GSAS?
Nick: I think one thing was that I was very open, in part, because I didn't really know what I was getting into. I spent a lot of time before I found my advisor, so I ended up finding someone who was a really good fit for me. It was helpful to be open and see what really excited me and who I really connected with as an advisor because they play such an important role.
I was also very open to different opportunities outside of the department. I worked for GSAS for a couple of years as an Institutional Research Analyst to help them with a survey of alumni career pathways. I also worked as a Data Fellow. That was for a program where you would work alongside instructors for seminars to help students one-on-one with data projects. It was really helpful for them and really cool for me. I also became really good friends with a number of people in my PhD cohort and ended up co-authoring with them.
GSAS: Can you tell us about how you got to consult for the UN?
Nick: Interestingly enough, that was the product of taking some risks, some of which panned out, and some of which didn't. During the Fulbright year I had a number of of projects, some big, some small, but the biggest one was very difficult to implement. Ultimately we had planned a field experiment that, for a number of reasons, we weren't able to conduct. It was difficult and disappointing, but it also led to my first consulting job with the UN. They found out I was working on state responsiveness to marginalized populations, and they happened to be conducting a project that they wanted me to help evaluate. It also led to other smaller projects in India, even though I wasn’t able to do that larger project.
GSAS: I feel like that's a great life lesson. Even if the main things you’re focused on don’t pan out, they may lead to other unexpected opportunities. That’s just really good advice to live by. But you did choose the academic route. How did you decide on that? And how did you prepare yourself for the academic job market? You're also not at a US-based institution, which will also be interesting for students to hear about.
Nick: In terms of how I ended up deciding on the academic route, I simply wanted to give it a shot. I was going on the market in the fall and wasn’t graduating until May, so my reasoning was that if I didn't get a job in the fall, I could still go for a non-academic position in the spring. I was very open to applying to jobs outside of the US from the beginning. In fact, I was interested in living in Europe in particular, so I applied for a number of jobs in the EU. It’s not always easy, because the US and European job markets don't always align. But in Aarhus, where I’m currently based, it does.
In terms of preparation, I found that it was really useful to have a set of advisors at different stages of their careers who could play different roles on my committee. My main advisor was very senior and was very helpful for big picture advice. But I also had more junior faculty who kept me on task with preparing all my materials by certain dates, getting drafts ready and getting feedback in time. They were all very accessible whenever I had questions, and it was useful to have variety in their support. Having a support base—really good friends from my program going through the same thing—also helped.
GSAS: Nick, I loved hearing about your experience. What’s next for you? What are your next big projects? You have your feet in many different worlds. How would you synthesize everything you've done and where you're moving forward?
Nick: Well, I was just promoted to associate professor.
Nick: So I plan on being here in Denmark for the foreseeable future. But a next step I’m looking forward to is creating a research team around some of the projects I’m excited about. The idea is to get a big grant and then hire a team. One project I'm working on is thinking about how historical narratives affect people's conceptions of national identity and the right to speak on behalf of members of a nation, and how that might impact descriptive representation of different groups in society. And some other projects as well! That's the shorter term. In the longer term I do have an interest in having a more applied impact, and so I would like to continue to work on program evaluation with organizations like the UN. Or with the Danish Refugee Council. There are a number of groups doing really inspiring work.