Alumni spotlight on John Ahlquist: Statistics for cross-disciplinary innovation
Dr. John Ahlquist is the associate dean and a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), and director of the school’s Pacific Leadership Fellows Program.
Ahlquist completed the political science CSSS track during his PhD at the University of Washington (UW), graduating in 2008. His interdisciplinary research looks at how advanced capitalism and democratic government reinforce or undermine one another. Ahlquist spoke with CSSS in Fall 2023 about his career trajectory and how he built his confidence in statistics. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: What was your path to your current work?
Answer: I grew up in San Francisco and went to Berkeley for undergrad. I loved it and always knew I wanted to be involved in some sort of intellectual life, but I didn’t know what form that would take.
When I came out of my undergraduate, it was the late nineties when basically everyone got a job if you’d graduated from a top university. I started in finance and consulting, then moved to an internet start-up, where I got my first real exposure to Bayesian statistics. Eventually, I got tired of trying to make the internet a fun place to shop and the first internet boom petered out. That's when I decided to go back to school. I wanted to write and work on things I cared about in a rigorous way. I ended up in political science because it was a broad enough area to explore my research interests spanning sociology, political science, economics, applied statistics, and data science (a term that did not exist at the time).
I was lucky when I got my undergraduate degree, but my timing was not as good when I graduated from UW with my PhD. I came out in the teeth of the 2008 financial crisis when there were no jobs. I took a job at one of the few places that was hiring, in Florida State’s quantitatively-focused political science department. After a couple years, I got offered a job at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I spent four years and got tenure.
Then, when UCSD came knocking, it was a great match for my professional and personal preferences. I’ve been at UCSD for eight years now.
Q: How did you first get involved with CSSS?
A: When I came to UW, there were two people whose work I was really interested in: Margaret Levi (an eminent political scientist who’s since moved on) and Kevin Quinn – who was one of the first people hired into CSSS as a faculty member, and who was at the forefront of applied statistics.
I knew I wanted to learn more about applied statistics — but I didn’t know much more than that. I didn't have the formal math background that would have enabled me to just walk into a graduate statistics program.
Early in my PhD, several key professors, especially Mike Ward, pointed me towards the CSSS weekly seminars. I started going, and it was fabulous. I loved it. It was like learning a new language — where at first you don’t understand much, but as you keep listening, you realize you’re understanding more and more over time. By the time I was finishing my PhD, I was actually able to ask reasonably well-informed questions of the speakers. I’ve even had the opportunity to present.
By attending those seminars, it showed me how an interest in data and statistical methods can be a great vehicle for cross-disciplinary research teams’ collaboration and innovation. Being involved with CSSS made me a much more interesting and more technically-able scholar and collaborator within my corner of social sciences.
I think there’s a reason why so many top applied statisticians end up working on social data or in collaboration with social scientists. It’s tremendously hard to study human beings and try to measure human behavior. If you're interested in the challenges of developing tractable measurement and statistical tools, I feel like the social sciences present some of the most interesting research challenges and questions.
Q: Your academic work has explored many different areas. What are some projects you would highlight?
A: In the last couple years, UCSD has built a new data science institute. Its mission includes incorporating a variety of units on campus: computer science and engineering, but also the social science and humanities presence. I've been deeply involved in trying to make sure that happens. I’ve been inspired by what I experienced with CSSS’ model, where high-quality faculty from engineering, computer science, or statistics are doing cutting-edge work in those fields, and also deeply care about collaboration. As opposed to being consultants, or viewing a social science project like a Petri dish for trying out their new model, they act as real partners in the substance and technical aspects of the research.
Overall, I think my training and connections with CSSS have given me confidence to follow my intuition and contribute to more technical debates in statistics. For example, when I was working with a then-new approach to analyze survey data using indirect questioning methods for sensitive topics, I felt there were some real problems with the tool’s applied, real-world use. I ended up formalizing my intuition and challenging some high-profile experts in print, people whose technical training and prominence far exceeded my own. Other folks can decide for themselves what they think about the arguments — but I was confident in the points was making thanks to my solid statistical training.
For those interested in statistical methodology, I’m very proud of the collaborative work I’ve been able to do on methods to statistically analyze social networks — research that came out of collaborations with previous CSSS faculty (Mike Ward and Peter Hoff) and their students. Our goals were to extend a promising class of models to better fit data structures commonly encountered in the social sciences, especially in international relations and political economy, and show what you can learn when you take network relations and spillovers seriously. We published papers on this work in 2013 and 2018, and I hope to do more in years to come.
Q: What’s one important piece of advice for trainees or graduate students today?
A: By going into a PhD program, you're already self-identifying as a weird person (in a good way!) — and you need to run with it.
Instead, focus on figuring out: what’s your unique flavor of weird? What is so bothersome and interesting and challenging to you that you need to learn about it, figure it out, and tell people about it? Your interests will change over time and get refined, but those are the kinds of projects you should be working on.
I was fortunate enough to have people I was working with at the UW, both in the political science department and in CSSS, who gave me similar advice or encouraged me to work on things I cared about and struggled with — so that’s the advice I give regularly now.
Q: What was one of your favorite spots around the UW campus or the university district in Seattle?
A: One favorite was always the Blue Moon Tavern, a little dive bar right by the interstate. It’s nothing fancy, but I have very fond memories there. I also miss Seattle’s stunningly beautiful natural scenery (but, I don’t miss having a rain cloud over my head for six months of the year!)
Q: What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately that you’d recommend?
A: I just saw Run the Jewels in LA, they’re a hip-hop duo and I’d highly recommend a listen. And, I recently finished the Emily Wilson’s translations of The Odyssey and The Iliad. She’s the first woman to translate the works into English, and they're punchy, modern translations worth reading.
John Ahlquist speaking at a conference.