As described by Dr. Celia Gomez, Co-Director of the Center for Qualitative and Mixed Methods at the RAND Corporation, policy research is “research designed to understand the effects of public policies and programs on the people and communities they touch.”
Gomez is a scholar of applied human development who studies education policies that promote the well-being of children and their families. She joined Free the Facts last Wednesday to share her insights into graduate school, discuss best practices for conducting policy research, and explain the difference between qualitative and quantitative methods.
Gomez shared several key insights with Free the Facts Ambassadors during the final Master Class Series event of the spring semester:
1. Qualitative and quantitative research are equally rigorous and insightful.
Gomez explained that there is a misconception among academics that quantitative research is more rigorous and valuable than qualitative research—but she disagrees. She explained that both are equally insightful and can be pursued with the same level of academic rigor. What really matters, she said, is the quality of the overall research question.
Researchers select their research method based on their question, rather than simply modeling their question around their favorite method. Quantitative methods revolve around numbers, costs, and statistical analyses. They work best for research questions such as, “How much?” and “How often?”
On the other hand, qualitative methods seek to create a narrative using textual evidence, interviews, and thematic analyses. These methods suit research questions such as, “What’s the experience of a certain group?” and “How does this process function?”
Both methods can even be used to answer different questions within a single study. Gomez described this approach as mixed-methods research, and explained that it allows for a more comprehensive approach to complex problems. Diversifying research methods within a single study can actually yield the best results.
“We don’t want to be like a person with just one hammer, where everything looks like a nail to them. Instead, policy researchers should try and have many tools in their research toolbox.” Gomez said.
2. On-the-ground experience is key to policy research.
When asked what advice she would give to college students who are interested in a career in policy research, Gomez had one key pointer: Get experience on the ground.
Having worked in preschools and classrooms earlier in her career, Gomez said she is now well-prepared to understand the real-world ramifications of her current policy research. While poring over texts or crunching numbers, researchers can often lose sight of the human side of their work.
“Policymaking and policy research doesn’t just exist at a high level. It has real consequences.” Gomez explained.
She went on to provide additional tips for college students, including that a graduate degree isn’t always necessary to build a career in policy research. What matters more for landing your first research job is that you have experience that’s relevant to the type of research you want to pursue.
3. The research process may be long, but it’s worth it.
The length of the research process can vary wildly depending on the type of research, Gomez explained. However, all policy research is worthwhile—whether the study takes a few months or several years.
“Research is notoriously slow. Researchers tend to be perfectionists. But one thing that drew me to RAND is that we’re more driven to make our research as relevant and accessible as possible,” Gomez said.
She explained that one challenge that comes with a lengthy research process is ensuring that the findings are still relevant by the time the study is completed. That’s why her work at RAND has been focused on conducting research that is accessible to the general population. While niche topics can be valuable for policymakers and her fellow scholars, she has focused on research topics that are relevant to a wider audience, such as preschool education and ESL programs.
Free the Facts is dedicated to providing young Americans with the tools and information they need to navigate the policy challenges of the future, so we were thrilled to conclude our first-ever Master Class Series with such a relevant and insightful Q&A session. We would like to thank our guest speakers and Ambassadors who made these events a success. If you are interested in attending future Master Class Series events and other Free the Facts programming, apply to become an Ambassador and check out the rest of our Leadership Programs today!