Alex’s Adventures in Academia-land

Intro

While I usually use this blog to work on casual pet projects, I wanted to take an opportunity to use the medium to discuss academic research. Writing is an instinctive mechanism for me to process my thoughts on a topic, but it is one that I use sparingly to discuss the meta-narrative of my own decisions and behavior. The impetus for this self-reflection is the following exciting news: I’ll be pursuing my PhD in economics at Harvard starting this fall! The decision has naturally prompted me to think about my adventures thus far in the academic sphere and the scope of my ambitions and interests.

Think of this as a more organized and open outlet for many of the words (written, spoken, and silently thought) that have bounced around my head throughout the (now 100% finished!) applications process. This post contains a mixture of excerpts from academic personal statements from PhD applications as well as even undergraduate ones (turns out the overwhelming majority of my college application essays involved math in some way, shape, or form).[1] The purpose of this piece is multi-pronged: I’m hoping to (Part I) introduce my interest in economics research on a personal level, (Part II) clearly outline research questions and topics that I have worked on, and (Part III) describe potential eventual research ambitions.[2]

Part I: The number friends

A framed piece of legal paper hung in my parents’ room for nearly a dozen years. The numbers 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 were etched onto the page. Each held a shade or two of color, leaked from a gifted box of gel pens, within its skinny outline. A speech bubble burst from each number so it could introduce itself or articulate feelings that might be beyond its self-quantification. ‘9’ philosophizes that “it is hard to be odd,” while ‘1’ grumbles over lonesomeness. Atop this paper is the simply written title “The Number Friends.”[3]

Many of my childhood memories are inseparably intertwined with numbers. Learning the exponents of 2 while poking my head into the ice cream freezer at our local deli. Multiplying numbers by wicking my finger against moisture on my grandmother’s 1980 Volvo. Calculating and writing up the winning percentages of baseball teams on the white board in our living room. (It’s an understatement to say that the 2000 subway series was an exciting time in my early life.) To cut to the chase, I was always fond of numbers. My numbers—those I played with as though they were a set of stuffed animals in my living room—hardly resemble those many people groan about—their dusty gray, corporate counterparts.

Despite my interest in the numbers that were stacked on top of each other to fill the standings in the sports section, I grew up ignoring a word that often found itself on adjacent pages of the inky paper— “economics.” The word always seemed to be coming from the lips of men in suits who carried leather briefcases and drank dark, serious coffees. It was a word that I did not associate with anything but Mr. Monopoly—that is, until my senior year of high school when I took an economics class for the first time. Carrying the weightless tools of microeconomics outside of the classroom, I quickly found myself internally modeling the grumpiness of my classmates based on the outside temperature, the day’s schedule type, the quality of their chosen lunch, and the morning delays (or, hopefully, lack thereof) on their regular subway line; explaining my teenage decisions to my parents by implicitly highlighting our very different utility functions; and even debating how one could “optimally” match up students for prom.[4] Imagine my joy in 2012 when Alvin E. Roth won the Economics Nobel for work that redesigned the mechanism for students to select into my exam high school (Stuyvesant High School[5])! The eventual knowledge that groundbreaking work in game theory and market design had implicitly played a role in my presence at that school and, accordingly, in my first foray into economics was incredibly exciting and inspiring. My innate adoration of mathematics and logic combined with my attention to the dynamics of the human world around me molded me into a young economist.[6]

Part IIa: Early research exposure

In my undergraduate studies, I eagerly continued formulating arguments and theories using the building blocks of microeconomic theory and began to seek out academic opportunities to explore these interests. In particular, my fondness for behavioral economics was solidified when I earned a job as a Research Assistant to Professor Sarah Jacobsen my junior year and discovered how assumptions of rational choice do not necessarily hold in human decision-making.  In helping evaluate the results of experimental economic studies, I was intrigued by the gap between seemingly concrete theory and the realities of human behavior.[7] I dived deeper into economics research by working on campus at Williams that following summer as a 1957 Research Fellow for Professor Yung Suk Lee, focusing on a project about the expansion of exam schools and opportunities to attain academic achievement. In this role, I used knowledge of exam cutoffs for admission into specialized New York exam schools and compared academic outcomes for students that were at the margin (both above and below cutoffs) to investigate the much-debated impact of these schools on later academic success. As well as exposing me to statistical methodologies such as regression discontinuity design, the summer taught me how to work independently and probe assumptions and logical frameworks at the core of well-respected studies.

Part IIb: Wine economics as senior thesis

At the end of my junior year, I was lucky enough to be awarded the Carl Van Duyne Prize in Economics and received funding to pursue a senior honors thesis; this opportunity was the catalyst for the start of my self-directed economics research. My project focused on the intersection of applied econometrics and behavioral economics and examined the dynamic response of prices in the wine market to wine critic reviews. Since consumers have often not experienced a given wine ex ante when considering what to buy, reviews and ratings of quality play a consequential role in shaping consumer and market dynamics. My fascination with this subject was derived from the knowledge that, though ratings measure quality, they also influence consumers independent of their accuracy; for this reason, my curiosity about how researchers could disentangle the concepts of hype and quality grew.

While other economists have studied similar topics, no previous work had defined hype and quality as unobserved concepts. Given the fact that I defined these two dimensions of a product as unobserved, a naive cross-sectional regression would not have sufficed in comparing the respective roles. Therefore, I instead used a panel structural vector autoregression methodology to approach this topic from a new angle. (For more on this method, see Pedroni 2013.) I exploited knowledge of the dynamics of an online wine community (CellarTracker) as well as the behavior of the consumer rating mechanism in order to construct short-run restrictions to identify structural shocks. Therefore, by combining both substantive knowledge of wine and the wine drinking community with statistical techniques, I was able to work on a novel approach to a continuously intriguing problem.

I continue to work with my advisor Professor Peter Pedroni on translating the concepts beyond the scope of wine to broader research pertaining to high-end goods. In fact, I’m going to the American Association of Wine Economists Meeting in Bordeaux to present on this in June![8] In preparing a paper for conference submission, we treat information from expert reviews of high-end goods as a part of a broader signal extraction problem tackled by consumers of such goods. (More to come on this soon…) During June 2015, I presented this ongoing work at the interdisciplinary Connected Life Conference at Oxford University, which fostered collaboration with computer scientists, sociologists, and other researchers.[9]

Part IIc: Working at the intersection of law and economics @ Stanford

Since graduating from Williams, I have worked with Professor John Donohue at Stanford Law School as a Research Fellow.[10] In this pre-doctoral role, I work on projects at the intersection of law and economics, with a particular focus on the economics of crime and related econometric and statistical methodologies. For instance, I got to play a large role in developing and reviewing the paper “The Empirical Evaluation of Law: The Dream and the Nightmare” (published in the Journal of American Law and Economics Review).[11] This paper charts the enormous advances in estimating causal effects of laws and policies in the past few decades and points out the frequency of conflicting studies on identical questions. Given the conflicting nature of many studies, it can be hard to know what should be believed and the media, think tanks, and others often exploit this difficulty to promote certain studies for private political or social agendas. Accordingly, in discussing the methodological soundness of various approaches, this article seeks to begin a discussion about how we want to manage the translation between research and media coverage especially when it comes to politically contentious topics.

On a related note, I am currently working on a project that uses a statistical technique called synthetic controls (see Abadie & Gardeazabal 2003 and Abadie, Diamond, & Hainmueller 2009) to look at the impact of right-to-carry laws on crime in the United States. The impact of right-to-carry gun laws on crime has been debated within both the academic community and the public sphere for decades. To address some of the inherent weaknesses of panel data models, we are using the aforementioned synthetic controls methodology, a methodology that generates counterfactual units by creating a weighted combination of similar (in terms of the pre-treatment period) control units. Panel data studies are often extremely sensitive to minor changes in choices of explanatory variables. Therefore, by working on new approaches to these sorts of questions, we seek out methods that generate robust results that have the potential to help guide policy decisions in pivotal areas, where slicing and dicing numbers can be done to fit virtually any policy agenda. The broader impacts of creating robust decision-making processes for analyzing the impact of controversial policies is one of the aspects of economics about which I am most passionate.

Part IIIa: Potential research ambitions in economics

During PhD visits, it is common to pitch your interests to professors. At the macro level (and using some slick economics jargon), I am most interested in behavioral economics, and applied microeconomics. Applied microeconomics is a lovably large umbrella term that easily contains both urban economics, and law and economics, and, therefore, the previous sentence adequately articulates both my interest in the effects of psychological/social/cognitive/emotional factors on decision making as well as the application of microeconomic theory to the study of crime, cities, law, and education. (That undoubtedly leaves space for a lot of potential research topics!)

While I have a number of continuing interests, such as the reputational influence of experts in networks as investigated in the wine project (in the behavioral realm), or economics of crime topics at Stanford, I believe one of the ripest and most important areas for economic research is actually a union of behavioral economics with the economics of crime. That is, further investigating how people find themselves participating in crime.

I am often struck by how often individuals, myself included, buy into illusions of choice. It is tempting to view one’s accomplishments as essentially a function of personal social/academic merit. This is especially true among the more privileged among us—those of us who grew up benefitting from the financial success of family members, the color of our skin, and overall, positive reenforcement in most facets of our lives. I became aware of the influence of environmental behavioral factors while observing my own behaviors in a school context. In high school, I was lucky enough to be a beneficiary of overwhelmingly positive forces (driven/ambitious peers and thoughtful/encouraging teachers). The profound influence of positive classrooms like my own can be easily seen in a recent study by Card and Giuliano. The study found that participation by “non-gifted” students in a “gifted” classroom lead to significant achievement gains for the minority students (gains of 0.5 standard deviations in reading/math). Incredibly, the authors did not attribute the gains to teacher quality or peer effects, but to “the effects to a combination of factors like teacher expectations and negative peer pressure that lead high-ability minority students to under-perform in regular classes but are reduced in a GHA classroom environment“!

While education topics are increasingly receiving a behavioral treatment in the literature (due in part to the ability to fashion experiments in classrooms and, potentially, due to the less politically contentious nature of education), the current state of the economics of crime is still deeply entrenched in Beckerian ideas of deterrence–criminals make cost-benefit calculations in their minds and then use these to inform decisions. This type of reasoning (which is not incorrect, as much as it is lacking in dimensions of the human experience) over the past decades has lead to piles and piles of papers trying to separate out the impact of sentence enhancements (seen around the time of the 1990’s crime decline) into an incapacitation effect (people are off the street in prison and thus incapable of committing crimes) and a deterrence effect (people are scared off of committing crimes because of the greater cost). What with our improved notions of behavioral mechanisms and the current well-deserved focus on incarceration levels, policies from the 1990’s (specifically, the 1994 crime bill), and interactions between police and disadvantaged communities, there is no doubt that further studies of the social interactions in crime networks (see the classic Glaeser 1996 paper) as well as environmental factors (think Reyes’ work on lead exposure) are warranted to better inform policy as well as our core human understanding of how peoples’ lives diverge so starkly. Illusions of choice are powerful (as well as enticing to those at the helm of the ship) and are accordingly worth a hefty dose of skepticism from the community at large. (There are many more ideas to develop and papers to cite in these paragraphs, but I’ll let this marinate as it is for the moment.)

On herd behavior in particular: I have no qualms in asserting that I have benefited immensely from herding behaviors that harm others who simply gained consciousness in a different social/economic environment. The same strains of herd behavior, which pulses through networks (those of academics, and those of drug traffickers alike), lead to disparate outcomes based on the starting point and environment in which they occur. 

Beyond behavior and crime, some other developing research interests on my eventual topic wishlist include:

Part IIIb: Things are about to get meta

On a somewhat meta note, I feel strongly about making economics research and, more generally, research that is data-driven replicable and accessible to the public. I believe that open sourcing datasets and code for projects not only facilitates how different projects can build off of one another but also encourages a more diverse group of individuals to explore quantitative methods.[12] By making work publicly accessible, researchers can challenge themselves to defend their ideas and assertions to any interested individuals, rather than limiting themselves to discussion in academic bubbles. I strongly believe that this renders research dynamics fundamentally more efficient, as public-facing projects allow for a faster and smoother exchange of ideas, which can lead to superior projects in the long-run. This sort of openness on the part of researchers often allows for great collaborations—my wonderful friend/public speaking inspiration Sarah Michael Levine and I originally bonded via Twitter (!) and then ended up writing a paper together on the shortcomings of mainstream data science when applied to social good projects (which we got to present at the Bloomberg Data for Good Exchange 2015). In my personal experience, making work and ideas available to a larger audience has led to a number of incredible opportunities to work with talented people on a range of captivating questions that engage the public and illustrate the fundamental creativity that is inherent to but often ignored in quantitative work.

Endnote

In reviewing this writing, I am acutely aware of the fact that I tend to over-narrativize my own experiences, injecting meaning into the twists and turns that may just be segments of a random walk. However, while there might not be some grand meaning in an individual’s path towards the degree that we call a PhD, I do strongly believe in the profound nature of social science research more generally—self-awareness is fundamentally human and our ability to study our own machinations is something that we find irresistible.[13] The letters we desire to have traipse behind our names are trivial in the long run, but the questions we ask in pursuit of them ultimately stem from the core of personhood—consciousness and the curiosity that comes with it.[14][15]

Footnotes

[1] Concretely describing motivations, processes, and goals for research is an element of communication in academia that I believe can be much improved by embracing non-traditional/technologically-driven mediums of discussion. So, why not take the time to try and practice communicating with the transparency and openness that I often crave from other researchers? (Warning: this is going to be long! I am working through caches of thoughts that have managed to build themselves into some pretty hefty structures over the years.)

[2] In thinking about that oft-cited 2 x 2 matrix that contains four quadrants dedicated to simple/complex ideas vs. simple/complex writing, the dream is to eventually make it into that slick complex ideas & simple writing quadrant.

[3] Oh, the trials and tribulations of being an only child… (“Some imaginary friends you never outgrow.”)

[4] Think utility maximization problems. If the application of mathematical concepts to questions of romance is interesting to you: check out the marriage problem.

[5] Go Vixens!/Go Phoenix!/Go Renegades! (The last one was a much needed improvement from the softball team’s previous mascot—the Chipmunks.)

[6] In this vein of personal narrative, see also Claudia Goldin’s “The Economist as Detective.”

[7] In technical terms, I ran paired t-test and signed-rank regressions in order to analyze a survey participant’s level of consistency in terms of his or her risk-taking decisions.

[8] Hopefully, I will soon have some slides that can help in communicating the relevant ideas.

[9] Check out the call for papers!

[10] I originally found out about Prof Donohue through reading Freakonomics (a commonly cited catalyst for people’s realization that economics can be clever and creative!) my sophomore year since the abortion and crime chapter is based on one of his articles “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime” with Steven Levitt of UChicago.

[11] I saw the journal that contained this article (and my name typed within it) in the flesh a few weeks ago at Harvard before some meetings. That experience immediately quashed some hefty feelings of impostor syndrome.

[12] Papers, data, and methods should be available to the public rather than only available to those at institutions of higher education…or, even worse only available through asking nicely via email with shiny credentials. (Once, a professor I emailed once for data responded that he was retiring and moving across the country, so he had thrown out all his papers, and, thus, could not help me. I often feel more like an investigative reporter when tracking down data than an academic!)

[13] Research in this context should not be solely interpreted as academic research! In fact, I would argue that every individual conducts casual research in the day-to-day, while the PhD is an example of an institutionalized and formal medium for research.

[14] Listen to this recent episode of Radiolab for the following relevant quote and much more: “Consciousness—for some reason, for some reason one animal on the planet and only one that we can know seems to string into this very elaborate sense of self-awareness—we don’t know how it happened we don’t know why it happened it just did”

[15] Insightful discussions that stem from that very curiosity should not be limited to only those with a PhD. So, social network, let’s talk.


© Alexandra Albright and The Little Dataset That Could, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, accompanying visuals, and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Alex Albright and The Little Dataset That Could with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.