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Kirsten West

Ph.D. 1979


On May 31, 2015 I retired from the U.S. Census Bureau. I worked in the Estimates and Projections area of the Population Division. Reflecting on my career, I note that I managed to become gainfully employed not only in the subject matter area of my choice, but holding the specific job I trained for and aspired to as a graduate student at Chapel Hill. Jay Siegel, co-author of Methods and Materials of Demography, and many other demographers hail from this federal office.

My projects have including estimating the undercount in the decennial census. The Census Bureau uses two methods to evaluate census coverage. One measure is based on dual system estimation derived from a post-enumeration survey. The other measure uses administrative records on births, deaths, immigration and emigration and demographic analysis techniques. I have used both methods to document and attempt to understand the causes of undercount of children, an area of concern in censuses since 1940.

In between the census years, I worked on national, state and county level estimates of the population. The Census Bureau produces these data by sex, age, race and Hispanic origin. It is indeed an interesting challenge to produce high quality estimates with this much detail on a regular schedule.

Twice in my career, I spent time at the National Academy of Sciences working on best ways to estimate poverty at various levels of geography and abuse in the Social Security Administration’s Representative Payee Program. These assignments allowed me to use not only my demographic skills, but also my training in sociology and research methods.

Needless to say, work was never boring. I got a chance to practice what I had learned and to continuously pick up new skills. I have recently been selected as the next Editor-in-Chief for the statistical journal of the International Association of Official Statistics, so the challenges keep coming. My new commitment allows me to travel and stay in touch with national statistical agencies and statisticians throughout the world. I especially appreciate being able to keep up with the work in Scandinavia. These countries rely on population registers to produce their demographic data.

I know that my degree from UNC-Chapel Hill opened doors because prospective employers knew I had been well trained. I came to Chapel Hill on a Noyes fellowship and worked with Krishnan Namboodiri. I was interested in pursuing research on sequential fertility behavior. He had published an article in Demography on this topic and he agreed to take me on as his research assistant. I eventually wrote my dissertation on this topic with Krishnan as my advisor. I think, I was only the second student to do so. I have the outmost respect for his intellect and the strong work ethic he displayed. His day started many hours before that of most graduate students.

As a fringe benefit, I also got to work with Chirayath Suchindran in the Department of Biostatistics. I could not have asked for a better teacher. I spent much time walking between Hamilton Hall and his office on Franklin Street. He was never too busy to talk to me, and he could make the most complicated assignment seem simple and straightforward.

The Carolina Population Center (CPC) was my second home. Here, I got to work with Richard Udry. I spent an entire summer in the library helping him update an article on divorce for the Encyclopedia Britannica. If I am not mistaken that was also the summer I started grading papers for a correspondence course on Marriage and the Family. Most of the students were incarcerated and produced lengthy papers on anything but the assigned topic–too bad I didn’t get paid by the number of pages graded. But the job helped pay the rent in our luxury one-bedroom accommodation in the Yum Yum Apartments in Carrboro.

At CPC, I also worked with Jack Kasarda. We co-authored “Status Enhancement and Fertility: Reproductive Responses to Social Mobility and Educational Opportunity,” with John Billy. The gift of co-authorship from an establish scholar is invaluable when starting out on one’s career.

At some point, Ron Rindfuss entered the picture. He was an inspiration and a role model for all of us. His enthusiasm for ‘anything demography’ was catching. I still look forward to checking in with him at professional meetings, to keep up with his impressive career and his many contributions to the field of demography. I am proud to announce that I was one of his first students and that the experience did not turn him away from teaching!

Likewise, I can say that my cohort took the last seminar on human ecology taught by Amos Hawley. The course gave me a theoretical framework that I have returned to often. In the otherwise atheoretical field of official statistics, there is often a need for predicting outcomes. Demographic plausibility is straightforward, but it does not exist in a vacuum. It helps to understand the recursive relationships between population, organization, environment, and technology. Where would I have been without the POET variables as a fall back when I needed to explain a result.

Other members of the faculty and in the department were part of our daily lives. Especially, Jerry and I treasure the friendships we made with our fellow graduate students during our years in Chapel Hill. We still keep in touch with many and get together to reminisce and tell our now grown children about the good old days. They have heard most of the stories and we are happy that we have entered the grandparent-stage so that we have a chance to tell them all over


Submitted July 2015;