What is your main research topic?
I am interested in the industrial organization of health insurance and networks.
Did this visit help you to advance your research project(s)?
Definitely. I was able to meet several students and faculty who were very helpful and who gave me a different perspective on my work. I even started a couple of projects while I was abroad.
Did you like the academic environment there? Is it very different from that of TSE? What are the main differences?
I visited U Chicago and Stanford for a few months and in both places I found the faculty and the students extremely welcoming and the academic environment great and quite similar to TSE’s in many ways. I will highlight some of the differences I personally found most striking.
I visited the University of Chicago to attend a course on “Price Theory” which is Chicago’s approach to micro. The course was taught by Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy (who some people call the Sherlock Holmes of Economics) and it offered an interesting new perspective that takes aggregate market quantities such as demand curves as primitives. The course focused on thinking through difficult economic problems using only creativity and basic concepts such as elasticities and the Slutsky equation, and essentially no mathematics beyond univariate calculus.
The thing that surprised me the most was the emphasis on empirical work. It was very surprising to tell people about the generality of the models I had been working on, only to find them asking me about the magnitudes of the effects or about how a much simpler version of my model could be empirically tested. Because TSE has a large share of theorists, it is important for TSE students to be aware of the value placed on empirical research in the current job market.
On a similar note, I also felt that the US departments placed a lot of emphasis on preparing students for the job market. For instance, students tend to focus on their job market paper for most of their PhDs. One can debate if this is ideal for the profession, but it does seem to be a fact. Moreover, I got the impression that US students practice presentations and interviews more often than European students.
Another important difference was student collaboration. Especially in Stanford, I felt that a majority of students were working on papers in groups, which seemed to make the whole experience faster, more fun and more rewarding. Staring at an equation/regression for days is a lot less frustrating if there is someone else around that is just as invested. Perhaps it should even be a rule that students should co-author one of their dissertation chapters.
The last major difference was sandwiches. There were a large number of catered lunch seminars in both universities I visited where students and faculty typically present ongoing work or a recent working paper. While lunch time is a good break from a long day of economics, catered lunch seminars attract lots of participants to come together in an informal environment to discuss each other’s work, create a good sense of community and are a great way of adding an hour of productivity to one’s day with little extra pain. I went for the free food but ended up meeting several people and had a number of ideas while attending. I suspect that investing in sandwiches has a dramatic impact on a department’s research output but I don’t have the data to prove it.
Overall, did you enjoy this experience? Do you recommend to other TSE students to visit another university for some months during their PhD studies? Do you want to add anything else about your experience?
I enjoyed my experience a great deal and would very strongly recommend it. While most departments are not able to offer money and frequently have little desk space, I found faculty and students extremely welcoming to someone willing to make the effort to visit them.