What I have learned from my first academic presentation

Yesterday I presented my work on parental migration and health outcomes of children in Indonesia in the development lunch at Duke. It was my first time to present my own research in front of a (relatively) large academic audience. The presentation did not progress as planned (similar with most research initiatives), but I learned a great deal from it. Here’s a few.

  1. Talk about key facts instead of broad histories when you are introducing the context of your study. Providing a description of broad histories is easy for you as a presenter but usually makes the audience more confused about your main argument.
  2. Related to the first point, structure your presentation to focus on the key questions you are interested in answering, the strategies you use to address these questions, and where you have experienced difficulty and need advice on.
  3. In a short presentation, avoid doing a detailed literature review. You are almost guaranteed to miss some papers in the literature, and it is easy to spend a long time answering tangential questions.
  4. Know your question really, really well. Present it to different people and see if anything confuses them. If they are confused, try to diagnose the problem and clarify your question. If there are broad terms in your main question, try to narrow them down to clear-cut, specific definitions that people can directly relate to.
  5. Know when to answer questions, when to delay them, and when to politely turn them down. Always answer clarification questions, but delay questions which you are going to address later in your presentation.
  6. Practice. Practice. Practice. You cannot anticipate everything, but if you do not practice, there will be too many awkward moments.

I encourage other students to present their work early on in the PhD program to practice thinking deeply about a question and explaining it to other people. It will be painful at first, but you will get better at it over time.


Julie Cullen on the Unintended Consequences of Education Reform

Julie Cullen at UCSD visited Duke this week and gave a talk this morning on the unintended consequences of education reform. Her talk is a general summary of the lessons drawn from three papers on 1) the impact of fiscal incentive on student disability rates, 2) school gaming under a performance accountability system, 3) strategic high school choice under Texas’ top ten percent plan.

These papers ask different specific questions, but they all address broadly the mechanisms through which education reforms can change individual behavior and create unintended consequences. The intuition is that whenever eligibility to funding/benefits are conditional on some manipulable measures, those measures will be manipulated. This same logic is applied to examine how fiscal incentives, performance standards, and policies aimed at expanding college access have distorted incentives of schools.

Although I am not very interested in the economics of education, I can imagine the same approach being used to assess other types of government policies, e.g. welfare program participation.

Challenges of a PhD

The economic graduate student council organized a sharing session among PhD students on the challenges of doing a PhD. A few upper year students and job market candidates shared their experiences going through the PhD process. The following is some useful advice:

1. Manage your time well. Develop a regular schedule and stick to it. This will help you develop a rhythm and improve productivity.

2. When you feel there are too many things to do, list the tasks with the approximate time needed to finish them, and bundle big, time consuming ones with small, trivial ones.

3. Talk with people. Talk with your peers about research ideas, problems encountered in your work, and voice out your stress. Also, talk with your advisor(s) regularly and keep them posted about where you are. Even if you have not made a lot of progress, it is worth telling them what you have tried and failed doing.

4. Start preparing for the job market early. This includes simple things like starting your website and uploading materials. It also includes building up your ability to talk about your research in front of a broader audience. An upper year student specializing in IO also mentioned that people outside the economics department (business school, public policy, etc) can be good mentors and friends as well.

I still need to figure a lot of things out, but I’m lucky enough to be at a truly friendly and collaborative department.

Cultivating loving kindness through meditation (3)

The topic tonight was forgiveness through loving kindness meditation. We had an insightful discussion before the actual meditation about the nature of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is about self liberation. A quote from the Buddha says:

Holding on to anger is like holding a hot coal that you are going to throw at someone.

Feeding into the seed of anger in our heart might give us self righteousness, but we also hurt ourselves without solving the real problem.

To forgive is to not to forget. Forgiveness should never be condoning wrong behavior. Instead, we are acknowledging the fact that people might be undergoing confusion and suffering when they hurt others. Knowing this fact allows us to relate hurtful behavior to fundamental elements of humanity and to not target our anger at a specific person. As Martin Luther King. Jr. has wisely pointed out, once we are aware of the fact that there is some good in the worst of us, and there is some evil in the best of us, we are less likely to hate our enemies.

The meditation goes as follows. We imagine three scenarios: instances where we have hurt others, where others have hurt us, and where we have hurt ourselves. We seek forgiveness from others, and offer forgiveness to the people we have hurt as well as to ourselves. The three sentences for each scenario are:

If I have hurt or harmed anyone, knowingly or unknowingly, I ask for their forgiveness.

If anyone has hurt or harmed me, knowingly or unknowingly, I offer them forgiveness.

For all the ways I have hurt or harmed myself, knowingly or unknowingly, I offer myself forgiveness.

Notice that rather than direct apology, we are “offering” forgiveness to cultivate the intention.

The next step is to visualize each of the three cases and repeat a longer text which says the similar. At the end of the meditation, feel the breath and notice the changes in your body (likely you feel some pressure is gone).

After the meditation, Sumi offered two pieces of advice on how to forgive. First, we should understand that quite often people are acting badly because they are confused themselves. Second, we should be aware that most times the harm is not personal. Some hurtful behavior is directed towards a certain group of people, not an individual in particular.

Next time we will do loving kindness for all beings.

Cultivating loving kindness through meditation (2)

The topic for discussion today at the Buddhist meditation meeting is loving kindness towards a difficult person.

We have all encountered difficult people in our lives. However, it is worth noticing that the difficult people might not be as “bad” as we think they are. They might have different perspectives and lifestyles from ours, or they might make misguided decisions even under good intentions. Moreover, they might be undergoing suffering themselves, and this suffering shows up in their lack of understanding towards others.

It is easier to extend our loving kindness to these difficult people once we extends the space of our heart. If you add a spoon of salt into a glass of water, the water will taste very salty. However, if add the same amount of salt into a lake, the saltiness will be washed away. Just like the capacity of the lake is able to dilute saltiness, we will be able to dilute the bitterness from interacting with difficult people by extending our empathy towards them.

Developing loving kindness for a difficult person is straight forward in meditation practice. Following the previous procedure, after we extend loving kindness to the neutral person, we pick a difficult person and think about he/she in a context where he/she is happy or have done something good to others. Then we try our best to wish them happy, safe, healthy, and be at peace. The next step of all human beings follows directly.

The topic for next week is forgiveness through loving kindness meditation.

Cultivating loving kindness through meditation (1)

In the midst of busy academic work, I have started to go to the Buddhist Meditation Group’s weekly meetings on Monday evenings.

Our topic today is cultivating loving kindness — the ability to love ourselves and to deliver love and kindness to people around us. In today’s session, Sumi guided us through a meditation which consists of three steps.

As a first step, we tried to think of someone who love and care for us unconditionally. It can be a mentor, an elder, or a peer. Picture how they look and position them in a situation where they appear to be happy. Then concentrate your energy, “say” to them the following four sentences:

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you be safe.

May you be peaceful. (You can change it to another sentence as you wish)

The second step is to think of a friend who really cares about and admires you. This is meant to develop loving and kindness towards yourself. Again, visualize this person, then think about something nice you have done recently (e.g. helping someone carry a heavy bag) and what it says about you. Then say the four sentences to yourself.

The third and final step is to think of a “neutral person”, someone who you don’t like or dislike. It can be the safeguard in your apartment complex, or the cashier at a restaurant you often go to. Picture that person, and wish them happy, healthy, safe, and peaceful.

At the end of the meditation, we also extended our loving kindness to everyone who was in the room and said the four sentences to all of us. This made me particularly happy — I feel blessed as a result of collective loving kindness.

Next week we are going to talk about cultivating loving kindness towards difficult people (of which there is an endless supply). I’m really looking forward to that.

Two things learnt about identifying research topics

I was talking to a professor about my ideas for the research proposal. Last week I was telling him I’d do something related to planned obsolescence but thought it would be really hard to find credible data to evaluate the level of planned obsolescence. Although it is a fascinating and important topic (theoretically and practically), there is almost zero empirical study and therefore no empirical framework for me to directly adopt.

When I expressed my concerns, the professor straightened his face and said seriously: “You can’t have this attitude when you’re looking for research topics. I know it’s hard to find data for this, but that doesn’t mean you CAN’T do it.” Then he went on to suggest a few potential sources (most anecdotal). I think he was right about the attitude. The very essence of research is the discovery of something new. This is where excitement and frustration come from, where years of work are spent. To become a successful researcher, I need to get rid of the fear for the unknown and undefined.

The second thing I learnt is the importance of justifying why your research matters. This is important because a) you can only succeed at something you truly have passion about and interested in finding out the answer, and b) you will need to convince others that your research matters to get a job and (more importantly) to establish your credibility in your field. I’ve seen a couple upper-year students present their research and failing to tell the audience why we should care. The result is a group of semi-asleep audience and little useful feedback.