Class of 2020: From Studying Same-Sex Relationships to Assessing the Impact of COVID-19 as a Demographer in New York

June 1, 2020

Over the course of last summer, Eric Ketcham defended his dissertation, started a new job, and got married.

Eric Ketcham (Photo courtesy of Ketcham)
Eric Ketcham (Photo courtesy of Ketcham)

Around this time last year, Eric Ketcham (Ph.D. ’20, Sociology), faced a series of events in his personal and professional life that seemed to unfold almost at once. Over the course of the summer, he defended his dissertation, started a new job at the New York City Department of City Planning, and got married at his family home in Easthampton, Massachusetts.
His dissertation, overseen by Professor Neil G. Bennett (GC/Baruch, Sociology), is an analysis of same-sex relationships, using nationally representative data that only recently became available. “I look back on his dissertation period as one that all faculty hope for,” Bennett says. “To work with a very bright, motivated student who’s got the necessary tools to begin with and is only too willing to build on those and ultimately, in the course of learning and applying rigorous methodology, see his ideas come to fruition as a highly impressive piece of scholarship.”
Ketcham recently spoke to The Graduate Center about his research, his work for the city, and graduating during challenging times:
The Graduate Center: How did you become interested in the topic of your dissertation?
Ketcham: My dissertation was about the risk of breaking up for same-sex couples in comparison to different-sex couples in the United States and in Europe, as well as about the availability of same-sex partners in a selection of U.S. cities. It looked at both “formalized” couples (which refers to couples who are married, in a civil union, or in a domestic partnership) and cohabiting couples, which refers to couples who live together without some form of legal recognition. Same-sex couple stability has been a topic of some debate in the literature, and data are hard to come by. Until fairly recently there were no representative data for the United States. A study out of Stanford provided new, representative data, and my adviser, Neil Bennett, and I worked on a study to replicate and expand on the results. The dissertation grew out of this project.

GC: What links do you see between your research and your own life or the lives of others in same-sex relationships?
Ketcham: One of the first people I came out to was a mentor and role model who was in a same-sex union. She told me she thought that same-sex couples were often all the more committed to each other, despite the stereotypes, since recognition of same-sex unions can't be taken for granted, and since it can be harder to find a partner in the first place. While there are many factors at play and self-selection of highly committed individuals into same-sex unions could certainly be one of them, most studies find either that same-sex unions are the same as or are less stable than different-sex unions, depending on whether you look at marriage or cohabitation, and whether you study same-sex couples as a group or male-male and female-female couples separately. Further complicating the topic (but in a good way) is generally increasing acceptance of same-sex unions in the U.S. and in many countries around the world. This changes the context of same-sex unions and likely has an effect on reducing the stress that same-sex couples experience navigating society.

While we have all heard about (or experienced) extreme acts of discrimination or hate, which of course cause significant distress, there are smaller daily events that can also cause stress, like deciding when it is or isn’t safe to hold hands or kiss in public. Over time, these stresses can add up and wear on an individual and on a couple. The fact that same-sex unions and same-sex attraction are becoming more and more widely accepted and even celebrated could, then, manifest itself positively in the stability of unions. I’m looking forward to continuing to see where the research on this subject goes.
GC: You started your job with the Department of City Planning last June. Has your position changed because of the pandemic?
Ketcham: I’m an associate demographic scientist in the Population Division. My role is largely research-based, and my focus areas are migration to and from New York City, millennials, and the 2020 census.
Recently, I have shifted gears to study COVID-19 testing and deaths in New York City. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has released daily data on testing and positive cases by ZIP code, and recently data on COVID-19 deaths by ZIP code. You may have seen news articles that make use of these data. I am working with these data to perform a neighborhood analysis of COVID-19 cases and deaths, with data from the American Community Survey for demographic and socioeconomic characteristics.
My time at The Graduate Center has very much helped me in the position. Much of what I do connects directly to past coursework and methodology I learned in the Demography Certificate Program. And, in particular, the quantitative methods courses I took in the Sociology and Educational Psychology departments have helped me.

Ketcham-wedding-469_3 outside

Ketcham and his husband on their wedding day. (Photo courtesy of Ketcham)
GC: A lot of graduates hope to stay in New York City. How did your geographic preferences influence your job search?
Ketcham: When Neil first asked me where I was willing to move so he could help me with the job search, New York was my only option. My husband works in publishing. New York is the home of the vast majority of this business, and I couldn’t ask him to relocate and upend his career for mine. And besides, I love living in this city. I was extremely selective in the positions I applied for, only applying to two jobs. I was very excited about the prospect of working at the Department of City Planning, and knew it was a good fit for me. In retrospect it might have been wise for me to apply to more positions, including perhaps some further afield from my initial career goals, but it all worked out.   
GC: You’re graduating in a remarkably difficult time. Was it hard for you, and your family and friends, to learn that there wouldn’t be a traditional graduation?
Ketcham: I deposited my dissertation last summer after the deadline to walk in 2019, and received my degree in September. Since the ceremony itself wasn’t going to be for several months, my parents came down to New York in May and were there with me at my defense, along with a few friends. I was able to celebrate with a combined graduation/birthday/bachelor party in June. While I’m sad that I’m not able to participate in the graduation ceremony itself, I was able to celebrate with friends and family closer to when I deposited, and I’m glad for that!