What I’ve learned in my first three weeks as a PhD student

The first three weeks of the fall semester flashed by, and I feel the urge of summarizing a few things I’ve learned so far before I lose track of them. Unlike most first-year PhD students, I only need to take two of the six core courses (micro I and macro II) and am therefore taking two field classes — Demand Estimation with Prof. Jimmy Roberts and Topics in Public Econoimcs with Prof. Juan Carlos Suarez Serrato. I’m also attending lunch groups and seminars to have a better idea of what frontier research is like in different fields.

In Demand Estimation we are studying models of firm behavior such as pricing strategies, collusion vs. perfect competition, introduction of new products, etc. Horizontal and vertical product differentiation are the two conceptual frameworks often used to model the product space. In vertical product differentiation, consumers agree on the desirability of products but have different willingness or ability to pay. With horizontal product differentiation, consumer tastes vary, and product characteristics affect demand. Although I’m not an IO expert yet, I’ve learned that industry knowledge is essential for you to succeed in this field, whether you learn it from experience or from reading. An entrepreneurial spirit is valuable when it comes to finding data.

I’ve also learnt a few things from practice job market talks, seminars, and student presentations.

First, establish your research question before you address it. Clearly framing the question, positioning it in the literature, and describing its contribution are essential before going into the details.

Second, always know what you are explicitly and implicitly assuming in your model. This is especially important for people using the reduced-form approach. Not having a structural model shouldn’t be the excuse for not thinking through the underlying mechanisms.

Third, make sense of your results, in numerical and economic sense. Comparison with existing well-known results can be useful. This is especially true for policy-relevant questions.

Last but not least, interpret, or at least speculate the mechanisms behind your results if they are unexpected.

Now that I’m formally in the PhD process, I’ve come to realize that “work-life balance” is such a vacuous claim. The best time management strategy for me (at least for now) is to have a clear timeline of the things that need to be done (i.e. with a strict deadline) but also bear in mind the long run goals. Don’t work so hard to get burned out early. Instead, organize your life so that you work efficiently and deliver what you need to deliver. As JG has wisely pointed out, no one will get an award for working all day without a rest.

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