From Law to Coding: Writing my SPIA Quantitative Junior Paper

Photo depicts grand Princeton building at night time, with ivy climbing up brick that appears reddish in the lighting.
From courses at SPIA to starry nights at Nassau Hall, there are many opportunities to reflect on what type of research is meaningful to you

There are many reasons why I chose to major in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), ranging from the impact that we have through service and the focus on policy and law. One unique feature of SPIA is the ability for concentrators to take more qualitative courses such as SPI333: Law, Institutions, and Public Policy and quantitatively-based courses, such as POL346: Applied Quantitative Analysis. During the Fall of my junior year, I wrote a more qualitative junior paper on risk assessment tools in the pretrial adjudication system and analyzed whether or not they make more biased decisions than do humans (see here to read more about my experience). Headed into my junior spring, I was presented with the choice of writing another qualitative paper or joining a quantitative research lab. Thankfully, I felt confident in my coding abilities due to past courses I had taken which prepared me for this moment (see here to read about how I gained a quantitative background in R as a SPIA major). I chose the lab without hesitation and my spring semester independent research journey began.

I enrolled in SPI404: Impatient Politics: Time Horizons in Public Opinion about Public Policy which is automatically accompanied with a SPIA research lab which further enhanced my coding background. Our professor, Markus Prior, was very helpful to us in beginning our writing process, and I am certain your professor will be too. He assigned us weekly projects, such as a paper topic proposal and a mock table for our paper. I found it effective to first sit down and brainstorm topics on my own. I most importantly asked myself: what am I passionate about? What research question could I use to make a meaningful contribution?

I realized that I wanted to center my paper around education views and COVID-19. I tutored low-income youth in the past and observed first-hand how difficult it was for many of the elementary students to attend school given their low access to necessary technology and resources. I thought often about the policy implications and how public perception of these inadequacies may have changed throughout COVID-19. This thought process was a way for me to reflect on what impact I wanted to have through my paper, and how it may relate to the topic of my seminar. I met with my Professor at office hours to better form this link, and he relayed me to appropriate sources and databases.

After hammering down the goal of my paper, it was time for me to find the needed data. My seminar professor as well as my lab professor, Wendy Castillo, provided us with a list of potential sources, including American National Election Studies (ANES), Roper iPoll, and Pew Research Center, if you are interested in public opinion data. I spent a week looking through the questions asked to see how they relate to my topic and how I may adjust my topic according to the questions. I found a question on ANES asked before and after the start of COVID-19 on views towards public school funding. I realized that this could be a way for me to assess if people began to take education reform more seriously after the pandemic. I then began my quantitative analysis, which consisted of crosstabs, regressions, and more. I recommend making an appointment with a Stokes Library Research Consultant for your quantitative papers, and specifically those in R. The professionals may recommend commands, explore errors, and walk through potential solutions. 

I was able to produce a successful final product which found that people became significantly less supportive of public school funding after the pandemic, even though more funding was needed. These unfortunate results had many policy implications that I explored through my own research, through the help of my Professor, and through bouncing ideas off of my peers. My research journey was long and at times difficult, but it was worth it to find original and impactful results. I encourage you to find a topic which you are passionate about, not just one that is related to the course material, and to take advantage of resources such as Stokes. Your independent research and senior thesis decisions are forever so I hope that you love what you research and research what you love.

— Ryan Champeau, Social Sciences Correspondent