Surviving the transition from classes to research in your PhD

Readers of this blog might have noticed that I have not published any post since November last year. This is because I spent the past eight months struggling and surviving the transition from a student to a researcher of economics. During this transition, I have experienced many episodes of self doubt and breakdowns, and my confidence plunged so much that I did not think I would put down any meaningful thoughts. Fortunately, I was able to learn from my struggles and successfully defended my PhD prospectus a month ago (I’m a PhD candidate now!). In this post I hope to share with you what I have learned from my experience.

  • Once you have identified a research topic (not even a specific question), go talk to faculty members with relevant expertise immediately. This sounds daunting, but you should do it because 1) they will be able to point out strengths/weaknesses of your research ideas and save you time, and 2) it will teach you how to communicate with others about your ideas, which you will need to learn eventually.
  • Find at least one faculty member whom you can communicate with on a regular basis. Conducting innovative research is no small task, and you will need guidance at the beginning of this journey. Talking with faculty regularly can also help you feel that you are constantly making progress, which is more important than you think.
  • Time management is crucial to a successful transition from a student to a researcher. Without a class schedule, you can easily develop habits that reduce your productivity. What I have found to be most useful is to develop a routine: set a fixed amount of time where you go to the office and work on your research, but also leave time for social activities and rest. Make sure you have some time to rest everyday so you have something to look forward to when research is not going well (that happens a lot!).
  • Put yourself out there. Do not take negative feedback personally; accept it and improve yourself based on it. When I presented my research for the first time in my second year, I felt so bad about receiving “negative” feedback that I burst into tears in the middle of the presentation. I decided the only solution to this fear of presentation is to present more. Therefore, I presented two more times in the first semester of my third year, trying to do just a little bit better each time. Now I am proud to say that I can present my research ideas clearly and peacefully.
  • Sharpen your communication skills, in writing and in person. Good interpersonal communication skills allow you to make a stronger impression, so others are more likely to remember your research and give meaningful feedback on it. Good writing (in academic papers and in daily email correspondence) will make others understand your goals and help you achieve them. Personally, I always take clear, on-point emails and as a sign that the other person appreciates my time. This makes me want to communicate with them and help them.
  • Do not work in isolation. This is very, very, very important. Because research is highly risky and things don’t turn out the way you expect 99% of the time, you need support along the way. Make sure your office is close to your friends’, and talk to them regularly. At the minimum, they will be able to share your frustration in research. NEVER sacrifice your social life for a marginal increase in “time devoted to research” (which, as we all know, is likely to be devoted to social media).
  • Be more supportive and less judgmental of others. Research is hard, and we all know it. Instead of trashing others’ research, try to understand it and offer your colleagues constructive feedback. If you don’t understand it, maybe you can offer advice on how it can be more understandable.

P.S. I am determined to publish at least one post per week from today on. Stay tuned.

Lessons learnt on communication

The following are what I learnt from doing research and explaining my research to others.

  1. When communicating about a big decision that involves complex emotions, do it in person. Talking in person allows you to be mindful of each others’ emotions and guide the conversation to the most effective direction.
  2. When writing a professional email, make them short and to-the-point. State your requests explicitly.
  3. Acknowledge the differences in communication styles between men and women. Men are usually a lot more direct and less considerate about others’ feelings. But being considerate about others’ feelings can go too far, in which case the effectiveness of communication is compromised.
  4. When you want feedback on a particular idea, make sure you know what exact questions you have and what you need to explain so that others are on the same page. Guide your feedback around your goal, and harvest small critiques along the way.
  5. When you can ask a question by email, do not schedule a meeting. Meetings are the best for organic, open-ended discussions.

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.

2015: Learn, Explore, Create

2014 has been a great year for me. I experienced a lot of uncertainty and anxiety but have also become much more mature. For 2015, here are a few of my keywords:

* Learn *

Learn about economics, in terms of both theory and empirical methods. As a first-year PhD student, learning is my priority. I have come to realize that without a deep understanding about the current literature, ideas are often either too shallow or too outdated. I should also develop my own perspective to see the questions and modeling techniques in different fields under a unified framework, which will allow me to have a bigger repository of ideas and research tools.

Learn about how to communicate ideas, in writing and in person. Writing is like carving a statue out of a bare stone. There are general rules to be followed, but good writing requires a tremendous amount of practice and through this practice, a solid grasp of the reader’s mind.

* Explore *

A fair amount of exploration is needed before one settles on a particular (set of) ideas for dissertation (in the short run) and future research (in the long run). I need to not only be more aware of the resources around me, but also develop the ability to abstract and synthesize relevant information for my own use.

Apart from academics, I hope to explore more about the area where I’m living and to make more friends. This, I believe, will come naturally.

* Create *

The ultimate goal of research is to advance the boundary of human knowledge. Creativity is a key ingredient to good research. I definitely need to improve in this aspect. Hope to come back with more insights in a year.

One important difference between a PhD student and an undergrad/masters student is that work is no longer distinguishable from leisure. Everything seems to be related to economics in some way. While I know economic is very important to me, I am also trying to not be buried in the ivory tower and to communicate with people from other backgrounds. We have a lot to learn from each other.

Finally, a few thoughts on love and distance. If I can give one piece of advice to people in long distance relationships, I would say: don’t see distance as your enemy. View it as an opportunity for you to become more independent individuals. You can achieve personal growth while maintaining the emotional bond with your significant other. Strive to become a better person so that the next time you meet, you are able to deliver more positive energy to each other. Don’t panic if the relationship doesn’t work out — when that happens, it’s rarely about the distance.


Using Bibtex to manage references in LaTex

BibTeX is a useful reference management tool for academic writers. The Wikibooks provides a detailed description on how to use BibTeX. For most references you only need to search the article on GoogleScholar and select “import into BibTeX” to get the codes.

If you are using WinEdt like me, follow this procedure (I imagine the procedure should be similar for other editors) to link BibTeX with Latex and generate the bibliography.

After compiling your .bib file and adding the relevant Latex commands in your .tex file, hit the following key combinations while you’re in .tex file:

  1. CTL-SHIFT-L: runs LaTeX2e. Since the program is designed to work with BibTeX, and you have used the code in your TeX file, it generates an .aux file called which contains all of the citations which you used in the document.
  2. CTL-SHIFT-B: runs BibTeX. This command searches for the “.aux” file, searches your BibTeX file for the relevant citations, and creates a .bbl file containing all information for the works cited in your .tex file. This is a crucial step; without it the citations will appear as question marks and the bibliography won’t be generated.
  3. CTL-SHIFT-L: runs LaTeX2e to let LaTeX create the bibliography inside the document with the bibliography (.bbl) file.
  4. CTL-SHIFT-L: runs LaTeX2e again to make sure all of the references match up.

After every change in your .bib file, you have to do 2-4 again.

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.

Learning from writing research proposals

Now that I’m done with my PhD micro midterm and two proposals, I finally have some time to write down what I’ve learned in the past few weeks. The learning curve was pretty steep, and there were moments when I felt more torture than excitement. Many thanks to JG for help and support along the way.

I encountered major difficulties when I was writing my proposal for the public finance class. My topic was on the wage gap between rural migrants and urban local workers in China, and I found it difficult to 1) state a clearly framed question and 2) find the right conceptual framework/economic model to address it.

Stating a clearly question is not always easy. It was only by talking with my professor and fellow PhD students that I discovered I didn’t know what exactly my question was. A well framed question might be “How does policy A affect outcome B in region C?”, or “What is the level of substitution between product A and product B in market C?”, or something slightly more general than these. I found that as beginners, it’s very easy to make one of the following two mistakes (or both):

1. Thinking too much in descriptive terms but not being able to write down a clear question. This will become obvious when you are explaining your research to a colleague or even a friend who is not in the economics profession.

2. Getting too ambitious and hoping to address too many (complex) questions in one paper. This might lead to failure in finding a suitable framework/model to address all your questions. I was heading towards this direction until an upper year PhD student kindly pointed it out in our conversation.

Solutions for these problems? Sorry, I don’t really know any since I’m also struggling through this process. But the following two practices should in general be helpful:

1. Explain your research to others. Sometimes we tend to avoid talking about research with others, but then we are less likely to be aware of any lack of clarity in our research questions or any invalid assumptions we are making. It is better to “lose face” in front of a friend than to lose track of where you exactly are with your research.

2. Start simple. Find the central question you are trying to address, and write/use a model for that goal. If the question you are asking is too complex, break it down into pieces or find a simple example to illustrate. When I was writing my model, it felt like banging my head against the wall. In retrospect, however, it was because I was trying to feed too many things into a model and it confused myself.

When we are writing proposals, we should also develop a positive and proactive attitude. It can be frustrating, especially for beginners (like me!), but with challenges comes fast progress and eventually we become better. I think an open mindset and positive attitude are really important for doing a PhD in general.

A story to share at the end of this post: I ran into a third-year PhD student the other day. He asked:”How has your first year been?” I was struggling to come up with a model for my demand estimation class, so I looked at him with weary eyes and said:”Tired, it’s pretty challenging.” He asked further:”Are you bored?” “No! No way!”I shaked my head. “Well, that’s good.” He smiled. I am starting to understand the importance of maintaining the passion for doing research in doing a PhD and becoming a good researcher.