What’s It Like to Work at the US Census Bureau? Dr. García Trejo Talks About Her Experience

Yazmin A. García Trejo, PhD, is a social science researcher at the US Census Bureau (Center for Behavioral Science Methods). Dr. García Trejo earned her PhD at the University of Connecticut, with specializations in comparative and American politics.

What kind of work do you do at the Census? What is a typical day like?

I work as a social science researcher at the Center for Behavioral Science Methods (CBSM). Within CSBM I am part of the Language and Cross-Cultural Research team. CBSM has a unique and strong interdisciplinary component and, on a daily basis, I collaborate with psychologists, linguists, statisticians, mathematicians and sociologists. On a typical day, I work in at least three different areas.

  • Pre-testing of government surveys. This means that before a government survey goes to the stage of data collection we test the quality and comprehension of the questionnaire using cognitive interviews, usability testing, and focus groups. We aim for example, to improve question wording and the experience users have with online surveys. In my team we focus on pre-testing of surveys in languages other than English. For example, I worked on a project studying interviewer doorstep messages to encourage responses to the Census in Arabic, simplified Chinese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese. Depending on the magnitude of the project, we can also work with contractors. Thus, I can also work on leading and supervising the life cycle of an entire research project.
  • My second area of work is as a methodology consultant. I have a background both in quantitative and qualitative methodologies and I am bilingual. Thus, I am able to offer a distinct perspective on questionnaire design, fieldwork, analysis and data collection modes. For example, at the Census I work as a methodologist for the communications research team working on the 2020 Census Barriers and Motivators Study. The findings from this study, which include both a public opinion survey and focus groups with a diversity of audiences, are helping in the media planning and Census campaign messaging for 2020.
  • The third part of my job is related to my participation in conferences, writing reports and publications. As a researcher at the Census Bureau I work with several teams toward presenting our work at conferences and advancing publications.For example, I presented my work at the APSA annual meeting on the relationship between census factual knowledge and census participation among populations with Census low-response scores (e.g. Hispanics, renters, low educational attainment, etc.). I also just presented at the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) on the 2020 Census communications campaign and on methodological issues related to the sexual orientation question and the development of the multi-mode instruments in pre-testing. Recently, we also published a couple of reports for the 2020 Census Barrier, Attitudes and Motivators Study.

What did you study in graduate school? Can you say a bit about your research?

I have a Ph.D. in political science with specializations in comparative politics and American politics from the University of Connecticut. In addition to my Ph.D. in political science, I have two M.A. degrees: in survey research methods and Latin American Studies also from the University of Connecticut.

Through my analysis, I found that the gender gap in political knowledge existed among adults but there was not such a gap among adolescents attending public high schools in two Mexican cities.

For my dissertation, entitled Gender Differences in Political Knowledge: The Case of Mexico, I examined why Mexican women were less likely to know about politics than men were in the last part of the 20th century and early 21st century. I used roughly twenty years of public opinion data to study the adult population and fieldwork to test whether this gender gap in political knowledge was also present before adulthood. During my fieldwork, I designed a self-administered survey that I carried out involving high school students across Mexico. I collected anonymous data from 14 different schools in two cities (Mexico City and Hermosillo, Sonora). Through my analysis, I found that the gender gap in political knowledge existed among adults but there was not such a gap among adolescents attending public high schools in two Mexican cities. I learned that when boys and girls have similar sources of information and are part of a similar environment in school, their political knowledge is similar; the gender gap ensues after graduation, as women take on a disproportionate share of domestic work and as boys’ prior interests mirror the priorities of political parties in Mexico (around issues such as military defense, foreign policy, etc. as opposed to girls’ interests in social and environmental policy). My work demonstrates that schools act as an information haven, neutralizing (albeit temporarily in the case of adult women) the disadvantages that women have historically experienced, either because they are socialized not to be interested in politics, or because they are economically disadvantage and lack the resources to obtain information. During my dissertation work, I was honored to receive several fellowships: A Dissertation fellowship from the American Association of University Women, a Tinker Foundation Fellowship from UConn’s El Instituto: Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies, awards from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and a research fellowship from American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.

Why and when did you choose to pursue a career beyond the academy?

I finally moved to D.C. and dedicated all my time to finalizing my dissertation. These changes helped me to expand and access networks I did not have the opportunity to build while I was a graduate student.

The main reason I chose to pursue a career beyond academia was that I wanted to be in a place where my research could provide a service to people and directly inform decision-making. This goal was also part of my motivation to start my graduate education. However, before graduating, I sadly realized that academia was not going to be a place where I could do these things. In 2015, the year I graduated, (and even before that) the job market was bad. Jobs for people specializing in Latin America were scarce. By that time, I was witnessing friends and colleagues choosing careers as adjunct professors and falling into this vortex with low salaries and a lack of job security. This caused me to deeply reflect on my future goals. As I was planning my next steps, my husband, Juhem Navarro-Rivera, also a political scientist, was recruited to work in a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C. We lived apart for a few months as I was writing my dissertation, teaching a class and working as a research assistant at the Roper Center. Fortunately, my dissertation project was selected for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) dissertation fellowship. The purpose of this fellowship is to offset a scholar’s living expenses while dedicating full time to complete her dissertation. Roughly at the same time I was also selected as a research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies. I finally moved to D.C. and dedicated all my time to finalizing my dissertation. These changes helped me to expand and access networks I did not have the opportunity to build while I was a graduate student. I started meeting lots of people from other disciplines who had a doctoral degree and were not working in academia. I soon realized that the opportunity to provide a service to society could be found beyond academia. I was suddenly in a place where I could see myself bringing my methodological expertise and research skills into action and service.

My main advice for an aspiring political scientist is to make sure he or she contacts people who are already political scientists. This hopefully will give them more information about the work political scientists do and to see if it is a good fit for their future aspirations.

In what ways did your doctoral training help you in your career?

I cannot even enumerate all the ways that my doctoral training has helped me to do my current job. Organizing and conducting intensive fieldwork as part of my dissertation research prepared me for the constant fieldwork and pre-testing that I do now. The experience of conducting a research project from beginning to end is also a key experience that one gains while completing and defending your dissertation. My decision to specialize in survey methodology and American politics provided me with a wealth of knowledge about methodologies to better understand how institutions work in the United States and their interaction with the public. To this day, I continue to use the advice and knowledge that my mentors passed on to me about how to conduct rigorous, ethical and objective quantitative and qualitative research projects.

What surprised you most about your transition from academia to your first job in applied political science?

Two things surprised me the most.

  1. First, I was pleasantly surprised that we often collaborate in teams at the CBSM and that the research work is not an isolated process. I really enjoy working with interdisciplinary teams. I learn from my team members and they learn from my training as a political scientist and methodologist.
  2. Another thing that surprised me in a positive way was how a career in applied political science provided me with more balance in my professional life and family. There are many pressures that women and men face in academia, including the pressure for women to wait to have children until after tenure. Women and men also face difficulties moving where the jobs are, especially if one has a spouse who needs to find a job in the same discipline. The balance between professional life and family is a delicate one and very difficult to achieve in academia.

What energizes you about your current career?

The CBSM is a unique place to work. I feel my voice counts and I significantly contribute to research projects that inform decision making about actual surveys and qualitative projects. The US Census Bureau is the right place for me to provide a service through my methodological and research expertise.

Would you be interested in returning to academia at some point? Could you elaborate on why or why not?

I do not think I had to “leave” academia completely, but I navigate it in my own terms. The reality is that I was trained to become a professor and a scholar and that will be always present in my life. In my case, I continue publishing independently drawing on my research on Latinos/as and secularism. For example, when I was a gratis scholar at El Instituto, I co-authored “Secularism, Race, and Political Affiliation in America” with Juhem Navarro-Rivera for the Oxford Handbook of Secularism (2017). I have also published encyclopedia entries for Contemporary Issues for People of Color and the Encyclopedia of Latinos as Voters, Candidates and Office Holders (2016). I am currently a Senior fellow researcher at the Institute for Humanist Studies currently working on a book chapter on Humanism. I also enjoy mentoring students and connecting them with my network. I presented at the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders 2018 and I am participating this year again. I have also presented guest lectures for American University’s School of Communications and for the University of Maryland’s Joint Program in Survey Methodology. I will be interested in returning to academia only temporarily on a program that allows me to continue my work as a social science researcher in non-academic settings.

Can you offer any advice to aspiring political scientists?

If I were to pursue my Ph.D. again I would do it in this field without hesitation. The level of critical thinking and my studies of American politics, comparative politics, and my additional graduate degrees on survey methodology and Latin American studies are invaluable to me. My main advice for an aspiring political scientist is to make sure he or she contacts people who are already political scientists. This hopefully will give them more information about the work political scientists do and to see if it is a good fit for their future aspirations.

Do you have any advice for PhD students considering an applied career in political science? Are there any specific resources you would recommend?

My advice is simple. If academia does not work for you, there is life beyond academia. Keep your eyes open for professional opportunities. Ask for informational interviews with people who are working outside academia. Then, you will discover whether this is something that interests you or if you want to continue focusing on academia. I also highly recommend taking as many classes on quantitative and qualitative methodologies as possible even if these classes are not offered in your home department.

What advice would you give to graduate advisors and mentors about how they can support graduate students who might be interested in applied careers in political science?

I had the privilege of having wonderful and supportive dissertation committee members and mentors through research centers in graduate school. My mentors guided me through graduate school and beyond. Thus, my main advice to graduate advisors is to be supportive of your students’ decisions. I would advise mentors to put graduate students in contact with researchers outside academia when students express an interest in exploring this possibility. I feel there is a stereotype in academia about people who are not professors as if we somehow “failed” the discipline. I would advise mentors to fight this type of mindset as it is not true at all and researchers outside academia also make great contributions to the field. Through my career, I saw many colleagues struggling with their committees and facing a lack of support for their professional plans. I would say to professors that if you do not have the time and/or the dedication to work with a student, it is best to express this early and clearly. Professors are our role models and we learn how to navigate the discipline and our professional journey through their example and support.

What advice would you give to political science departments about how they can better support graduate students who might be interested in applied careers in political science?

Political science departments need to be realistic with their students. The reality is that the academic market is very competitive and is not a good fit for everybody. There are currently not enough tenure track positions for all the new graduates coming out. I have seen, for example, announcements for post-docs lasting only one year. This is not enough time for students to produce enough publications while also applying to jobs. Students who do not have additional financial support from their families and are the first generation to graduate from high school, college and graduate school have a particularly difficult time. It is important to understand that these students are skipping sometimes one or two generations in terms of education and even more in terms of social class. The discipline should take into account these disparities and realities when talking to students about their future professional steps.

Given this context, I have three recommendations for political science departments.

  1. First, I would recommend that departments maintain contact with students who are employed in applied careers. For example, UConn’s department of Political Science graduate director, Dr. Jane Gordon, is doing some really valuable work teaching a class on professional development and inviting alumni to present their current work. Other departments should follow this example.
  2. My second recommendation is to encourage the leadership in political science departments to keep their minds open to PhD researchers who have worked outside academia and later seek to return. I feel that political science departments are losing a great opportunity to integrate a fresh perspective from researchers outside academia and /or policy makers within their classrooms. I would like to see programs inviting experts outside academia for a couple of years back to the classroom to share and provide skills to students who do not wish to or cannot find academic jobs.
  3. Finally, the discipline and departments should not contribute to the stigma that working outside academia is a failure. I have many colleagues with a PhD in hand who work beyond academia and who publish and are making great contributions with their research in a diversity of innovative ways. I encourage departmental leaders to revise their accreditation standards. For example, consider giving departments “points” not only for the placement of students in academic institutions but also for those students who work in other settings like government, private and non-profit organization among others.