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A Week in the Life of Sarah Peko-Spicer: PhD Candidate in Statistics and Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences Fellow

Created: September 6, 2018
Sarah Peko-Spicer

Statistics PhD candidate and Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences (MPES) fellow Sarah Peko-Spicer researches new methods to measure the effectiveness of social science interventions with an eye on how research can better impact real-world policy and practice.

Her experience as a data analyst for Pittsburgh Public Schools led Sarah to pursue a PhD because she saw the potential of academic research to shape policy making at the school-district level. “I realized that I could have a life in academia that satisfied my intellectual curiosity but was still impactful,” Sarah said. She decided to study statistics at Northwestern in part because it hosts the Institute for Policy Research that supports policy-relevant research across disciplines.

Now in her fourth year at Northwestern, Sarah has become an active student leader with a focus on Northwestern policies that affect graduate students. She most recently served as the 2017-18 president of the Graduate Leadership & Advocacy Council (GLAC). Sarah describes GLAC as “the closest thing we have to a student senate for graduate students” and is proud of how the council advocates with The Graduate School on behalf of graduate students.

GLAC draws its advocacy priorities from the annual student survey it administers, analyzes, and reports. In years past, the council has advocated for higher stipends, improvements to the health care plan, and changes to the conflict resolution process for graduate students. One of Sarah’s key initiatives as president has been to streamline the survey process. This summer she met with GLAC survey coordinators Kumar Ramanathan and Frank Fineis to discuss the survey rollout and analysis plan. After the survey wraps up in September, GLAC will conduct the analysis with plans to share the report in December.

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In addition to leadership in GLAC, Sarah works with fellow students by organizing a Statistical Methods in the Social Sciences working group with her adviser, Professor Larry Hedges, and fellow graduate students.

Because Sarah is situated in a small department in which researchers have varied interests, she notes that it is easy to feel isolated in her work. She has been both envious of and inspired by friends whose work is supported in research labs. To create similar opportunities for feedback and collaboration, Sarah and her colleague Jacob Schauer started the working group about a year ago. Over the summer, the group met once a week to work on a paper about replication of scientific research. Although it is hard to cultivate the collaborative culture of labs, Sarah is hopeful the working group will continue. Her adviser even wrote about the group in a recent grant application.

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While summer is a time to focus on research, Sarah also finds it important to relax. She creates “no statistics allowed” days to foster a healthy work-life balance. “So much of getting a PhD is finding your identity as an academic, and it’s easy to let that consume you,” she said. Her adviser also believes in the philosophy of taking time off, and Sarah feels this has been invaluable to her success in the program. For example, she juggles short story collections like Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang alongside her statistics reading to stay inspired.

For Sarah, taking time off also means spending quality time with friends. And she loves to hang out at the beach, which she says is her favorite part about living in Evanston. A recent picnic at the Clark Street beach was the perfect opportunity to reconnect and celebrate with friends who just passed their dissertation prospectus defenses. “Each picnic is taking time to show people that I care about our friendship,” she expressed.

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Sarah is now transitioning out of her student leadership role in GLAC to focus on her dissertation research on single-case designs (SCD) in which subjects serve as their own control group as an alternative to the randomized-control trial (RCT), which is considered gold standard for evidence of effectiveness in educational research.

She takes inspiration from the women of color who have forged paths in her field. “At times, my journey to a PhD has been lonely and frustrating, and I've certainly found myself questioning whether or not I belong,” Sarah said. “In a primarily white and male-dominated field, it's been crucial to see and talk to people who look like me and who share in this particular brand of isolation. They give me that little bit of reassurance that this space belongs to me, too.”

Sarah also draws inspiration from her mother, who left her home in Lesotho to pursue an education and a PhD in the U.S., while pregnant with Sarah. “She has always encouraged me to pursue my interests and, along with my father, has made it as easy as possible for me to do so,” Sarah remarked.

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