January 14, 2013
Economist, ISSR Scholar Murray-Close Focused on Diversity of Family Arrangements
“I’ve been interested in the social sciences since I first attended Smith College as an undergraduate,” says Marta Murray-Close, assistant professor of economics and public policy, who is focused broadly on family economics and economic demography. “I was a psychology major and loved being a departmental research assistant. In fact, the research topics that most interest me now—gender, sexual orientation, and work-family issues—haven’t changed much since then.”
But quite unexpectedly, Murray-Close changed her focus to economics. “I never had much interest in the field because I didn’t know that economics had anything to say about my areas of interest. I assumed that economics was all about banking and business.” Approaching the end of her undergraduate career, Murray-Close had an elective spot to fill in her schedule. Even though she’d spent three and half years avoiding economics, she decided to see what it was all about. “I discovered that economists study all sorts of things—including gender and labor markets,” she says.
After graduation Murray-Close wanted to continue doing research and also make a social contribution. Back in her hometown of St. Paul, she was hired as a part-time survey interviewer at an applied research center. “I made it known that I was interested in a research position and eventually they promoted me to research assistant and then to research associate. That was about as far as I could go with only a BA, so I knew to continue in this vein I needed to go back to school.”
Murray-Close chose to attend the University of Michigan where a world-class interdisciplinary social science research center offers training in economic demography. With her PhD in hand, she came to UMass in the fall of 2011. “It was a dream job: an economics department with an unusual degree of intellectual diversity, senior colleagues I had followed and admired for years—especially Lee Badgett and Nancy Folbre—and junior and senior colleagues who are committed to making the world a better place. If you had asked me when I started grad school where I would eventually want to work, I likely would have said UMass, so I feel very lucky to be here.”
Focused on the diversity of modern family arrangements, Murray-Close is especially interested in the economics of gender and sexual orientation and the economics of nontraditional families. She also explores the implications of work-family trade-offs for the personal and professional lives of men and women where heterosexual married couples head a shrinking proportion of all families and where, even among heterosexual married couples, dual-earner couples are the new norm. “Social policies and programs have been slow to respond to these changes,” says Murray-Close, “but I hope that research that improves our understanding of modern families can help us design better policies to support them.”
It didn’t take Murray-Close long to affiliate herself with the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR) here on campus. Selected as one of the first group of ISSR Research Scholars this year, she received course release for an interdisciplinary seminar of six social science faculty from across the university that meets regularly to develop their individual research grant proposals. (Two such seminars are taking place this year, accommodating twelve faculty members.)
Murray-Close has been examining the challenges highly educated, dual-career couples face when looking for two jobs in the same location. She is especially interested in the decision some couples make to live apart and wonders if maintaining separate residences is a long-term solution or simply a Band-Aid.. She will be looking for funding to complete data collection in a longitudinal survey examining the prevalence, predictors, and consequences of living apart among early-career economists. “Between 2007-08 and 2010-11, my collaborators and I surveyed four graduating cohorts of new PhD economists as they entered the job market for the first time,” she says. “While we initially planned to assess their career sacrifices associated with dual-career location problems, we found that 15 and 20 percent of economists with spouses who responded to our survey avoided career sacrifices by making a personal sacrifice: they expected to be living apart for at least the year after they entered the job market. We will follow up with the economists in our original cohorts to learn about their experiences with living apart over the first three years of their careers.”
Commenting on her experience as an ISSR fellow, Murray-Close notes that the support for grant writing has been invaluable. “ISSR has provided me with resources—both time and peer mentoring—that will significantly strengthen the grant I am writing now and the numerous grants I will undoubtedly write in the future,” she says. “The workshop has also introduced me to faculty in other departments and has helped orient me to the resources that support research on campus. I’m sure that facilitating these kinds of connections across units and departments will be a key contribution of ISSR to the university.”
Murray-Close has been impressed with the excellent resources on campus for demographic and family researchers. ISSR and the Center for Research on Families stand out as examples, as do several specific faculty members in departments beyond economics. “It’s exciting to be surrounded by people who are doing top-notch work in the things about which I’m most passionate.