May 11, 2021

Master's student Stéphanie Thomson explains how a class at The Graduate Center led her to research and write an article on the desperate search for subsidized day care by low-income parents, published in The New York Times.

Stéphanie Thomson (Photo courtesy of Thomson)
Stéphanie Thomson (Photo courtesy of Thomson)

Stéphanie Thomson is a content strategist in Google’s marketing department. She’s also a freelance writer who’s published work in VogueGQ, and The Guardian, with a focus on issues facing women — such as her article showing that a lack of confidence is not what’s holding back women from leadership roles, published in The Atlantic.

She’s also a student in the M.S. Program in Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences (QMSS). One of her classes led to her most recent article: an examination of the desperate search for subsidized day care by low-income parents, published in The New York Times. Before joining Google, Thomson, who grew up in England and France, worked for the World Economic Forum in Geneva. She recently spoke to The Graduate School about following her interests throughout her wide-ranging career:

The Graduate Center: How did your New York Times article come about?

Thomson: I took a class with Professor Janet Gornick (Political Science, Sociology) last fall on women in work and women in the labor market. I was coming back from maternity leave, and we didn’t have family around us to help out. Luckily, my job is pretty flexible. But I thought, “But what on earth would people do, who wouldn’t have that flexibility?”

And that got me thinking about what’s been happening [since the pandemic] to what was already a shaky childcare infrastructure in New York City. I decided to dig in a little and see if there was any data on what exactly has happened. There were lots of surveys in the child care sector, but no one had systematically gone through and seen which centers are open, which ones are closed, and what does that mean [for parents]? So I did that for my research project. 

Janet’s class is very interactive. I presented my idea and got some feedback, and I discussed with the students and with Janet the kind of anecdotes I’d heard while I was carrying out this research. My research project was very quantitative in nature, but people said those anecdotes really add a lot of color to it. Janet planted the seed that this could potentially be more than just a research project, and that [the issue] has broad policy implications that other people might be interested in hearing about.

I was connected through an acquaintance with someone from The New York Times. I pitched the idea, and they said you need to do more research. I then carried out maybe 30 or 40 interviews. 

GC: What was the best part of working on the project?

Thomson: It’s such an important issue, and I had the chance to speak to a lot of mainly single mothers, low-income parents, people working in the child care sector. I think there has been a lot of coverage in the press about child care and how people are struggling. But I think so much of it has come from a white middle class, white-collar perspective, which is the nature of the beast. A lot of people who work in media are from that particular demographic. So we have a lot of pieces that tend to come from women who have the luxury of working from home and often have the support of a spouse at home. And the people that I spoke to were single mothers, often frontline workers, who didn’t have that luxury. Just being able to get a story out that put a different spin on something that had already been discussed, that was really important to me.

GC: You write a lot about issues of particular importance to women and mothers, such as work-life balance. Is that because of your own work experience? 

Thomson: I think my starting point for any pieces of research that I like doing tends to be, “Oh, I find this interesting.” Or, “This has affected me.” Or, “This seems really unfair. Is there a broader thing going on here that’s beyond my own little experience?” And that’s why QMSS has been fantastic, because sometimes the next point is, “Let me dig into the data and see if the data actually corroborate what I think.” The skills I’ve developed in QMSS have helped me understand when there is something bigger at play.

GC: What drew you to the QMSS program?

Thomson: One of the main things was its flexibility. I think that’s the case for a lot of students at The Graduate Center — we have lives beyond studying. I had, at the time, a full-time job. I still have that job, and I also have a daughter, and I’m expecting my second child.

The faculty was another. I remember going to an open house and hearing from people like Janet and [QMSS director] Jeremy Porter (Sociology), seeing the breadth of the expertise across the faculty.

My background is very qualitative in nature. I did history undergraduate level, a lot of analyzing secondary sources. And I did international relations for my first master’s. I’d very much focused on qualitative research for that. Google is a data-centric company. When people are throwing out all these terms and references in the analyses they’ve done, I’m not expecting that I’ll be able to do a Google computer-science level of analysis, but I would like to understand the methodology behind it and what questions I should be asking. So it was important for me to get literate in quantitative skills.

GC: What do you hope to do when you finish the program? You seem to have several careers going on at once, in journalism and academia and technology.

Thomson: I’ve never been the sort of person who has a very clear idea of “this is what I’m going to do, and therefore, this is how I’m going to get there.” I’ve always let myself be guided by, “Oh, I find this thing interesting, and therefore, I’m going to have a little dabble and see if it really is as interesting as I think.” 

Having a child is a bit of a turning point, I think, especially for a lot of women in their careers. And I think the pandemic has really exacerbated that for people, leading to rethinking about what is it that gives you joy. What is it that’s going to get you up in the morning? I’m going through that process, at the moment, of trying to decide: What do I want to do after the master’s? What do I want to do after the pandemic? What do I want to do after the birth of my second child? I can’t tell you for sure, to be honest. I think, for the time being, I’m going to carry on doing what I’ve always done, and let my curiosity guide me, and hope that ultimately it leads me down the right path.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.