Inequality minor leads to research career for Elissa Cohen '12

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Rebecca Valli
Elissa Cohen
Robert Barker/University Photography
Elissa Cohen ’12 talks about her research career Nov. 3 in Uris Hall during a lecture sponsored by the Center for the Study of Inequality.

Research, said Elissa Cohen ’12, is like following Alice down the rabbit hole: questions lead to questions lead to more questions. And she loves it.

In a talk on Nov. 3 in Uris Hall sponsored by the Center for the Study of Inequality, Cohen told students about her career journey, which led to her becoming a research associate at the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center. Her path began with a physics major, but that ultimately didn’t last.

“When I realized I didn’t want to be a physicist, I had somewhat of an identity crisis,” she said. “I later declared an economics major, having discovered the social sciences allowed me to use applied math to answer questions about people in their everyday lives.”

But then a course with sociologist Kim Weeden on social inequalities changed everything for Cohen, inspiring her to add a minor in inequality studies.

“That course shaped the rest of my Cornell experience and where I’ve been the last four and half years,” she said. “I really liked the questions the course posed. I also appreciated how the minor in inequality studies’ interdepartmental structure offered me opportunities to explore inequality from a multitude of disciplines.”

To do her senior thesis on inequality, she added a sociology major (minors don’t allow senior theses). Her thesis topic was on the impact of work-family expectations on the likelihood of majoring in a STEM field.

“My senior thesis was a really powerful experience,” said Cohen. “I was able to take what I was learning in my Cornell coursework and come up with an original question that was important to me. I was then able to use the skills I had learned through the minor and through other research experiences I had on campus to answer that question.”

Working on her senior thesis reinforced for Cohen that although she was interested in pursuing a research career, she didn’t want to go straight to graduate school. She began to explore what kind of jobs would allow her to take what she had learned and apply her interest in inequality in a job.

“My senior thesis definitely helped me get my job at the Urban Institute,” she said. “In my interview, they had me walk them through my research process and explain why I chose my question and how I went about answering it.”

Her Cornell courses have directly impacted her work, said Cohen.

“The inequality minor exposed me to a broad array of topics I might not otherwise have studied and taught me how to ask the right questions. For example, I learned about welfare reform in my classes and have since worked on the Welfare Rules Database project for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, tracking and analyzing TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] policy across the country. Cornell gave me a strong foundational knowledge of what these public assistance programs were, as well as the research skills to approach cataloging, interpreting and analyzing the data. I had the skills to jump in right away and figure out the story behind the data, to see patterns for what they were, and to come up with unbiased answers.”

Cohen’s primary research at the Urban Institute has focused on U.S. Department of Labor workforce program evaluations and on the state-level administration of U.S. Department Health and Human Services programs, such as TANF and Medicaid.

The research Cohen does is not strictly academic, she emphasized. “We’re striving to understand how policy affects real peoples’ lives to find practical solutions to challenges that arise from inequality.”

But, said Cohen, “I make no judgments in my research. My role is to analyze and interpret the data. It’s up to the politicians to act on that information.”

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.


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