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Public Administration

Ph.D. Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Sapna Varkey

belltower on NC State's campus

Describe your current position, what you enjoy most about it, and what you find most challenging.

I have a dual appointment in the School of Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill. I am the Director of Research and Evaluation for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI) for the School of Medicine. I am also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine. I spend 80% of my time focusing on ODEI research and evaluation for many programs that improve student, faculty, and trainee success. I spend 20% of my time doing traditional academic health service delivery research and supporting the Department of Family Medicine with its DEI initiatives. I have always enjoyed understanding and examining program outcomes so that folks can make improvements. The most challenging part of this job is that sometimes, it is really difficult to measure every good way.

Sapna Varkey
Sapna Varkey.

What is a typical workday for you?

I have a hybrid position; most days I’m doing research from home, and I typically have 2-3 Zoom meetings per day with ODEI team members or other colleagues that I am on projects with. When I do go onto campus, it is usually for meetings, I have a shared office at the Department of Family Medicine and in the SOM’s administrative building.

How did the Ph.D. program at NC State prepare you for your current position?

The PhD program at NCSU prepared me for this job in many ways. First, I am still doing some traditional, scholarly research. There will always be literature to synthesize and methods sections to write, which I love. Second, the program helped me develop discrete skills that are valuable and marketable. For example, my ability to understand data and design a plan for storage and management is an important part of my job. Third, NCSU’s PhD program always appreciated and celebrated interdisciplinary research. Not every program or department has that mindset and I think it’s so valuable when training PhDs and supporting faculty members in the department.

What did you enjoy about being a Ph.D. student?

My favorite part about PhD student life was the flexibility and protected time for exploration. As students, we had the freedom and support to dive into any topic that we wanted. Now, there are so many standing projects and responsibilities, it’s hard to set aside time to explore a new avenue or new research area.

Did you complete any hands-on experiences while in the program?

I did; I worked with the Institute for Nonprofits during my summers. We were working on a project called the Leadership Fellows Academy, which helped nonprofit behavioral healthcare founders develop and improve their capacity to run their organizations. In my eyes, improving leadership capacity in these organizations could help those folks who were receiving services from those organizations (hopefully recover and/or be supported).

I also worked on some projects outside of NCSU during the summer; it’s amazing how many opportunities pop up during the summer. I would highly recommend doing everything you can in the summer, those “extra” projects can make your CV pop once it’s time to get on the job market.

What was your favorite part of the Ph.D. program?

My cohort was the best part of my experience in the Ph.D. program. The people in my cohort provided so much support and joy. I am still very close with a handful of them, and we continue to support each other.

What do you find to be the most interesting, or challenging, part of public administration?

I am always amazed by public administration because it touches every part of our lives. Healthcare service delivery, public participation and democracy, education, etc. are all areas where public administration reaches. They are all also extremely complex, and improving organizations in these areas can have profound effects on people’s lives (for better or worse). That reality has always kept me motivated.

What advice do you have for those considering a career in public administration?

If you’re interested in public administration, you probably enjoy thinking about the details. Public administration is all about implementation – understanding, measuring, analyzing, making the appropriate adjustments, and starting the process all over again. I think being able to understand the granularities of complex systems and organizations and then connecting them to the big picture is what public administration is all about. If that level of exploration is something you enjoy, then you’ll find a good home in public administration.