Quantity isn’t quality.

It is a lovely saturday in Canberra. Spring has finally arrived in Canberra. For me, September-November is the most beautiful part of the year in Canberra. The weather is often perfect, even if it rains. The flowers are blooming. The sun is shining on brightly.

Yet, I find myself stuck in the office for the rest of the day. I’ve just realised that I have been working on my PhD in the office on weekends rather diligently since mid last year. Well, of course, I don’t work on the PhD 24/7, since I do spend time on other things outside the PhD. Research is a very independent and lonely task. That also explains why I like spending time outside of the PhD with people not doing a PhD, or working on something else.

Am I working too much? Can I afford to work less?

I have friends outside of the PhD who claim that I need to have better time management skills, and to treat the PhD as a job. I do treat the PhD as a job, except this is one hell of a strenuous job. I may not be the most efficient, smartest or fastest worker around. But, I don’t spend time staring at my screen doing nothing either. I don’t know about the working hours of my other PhD friends. But, from what I observe, seeing them come into their offices during weekends, most of them work similar hours too. Of course, quantity isn’t quality. But, with the PhD, I beg to differ. With the PhD, I take on this view: For quality work to happen, effort and many hours of work needs to be invested.

So, for every minute spent in the office, I am either reading something, understanding some methodology, collecting/sorting data, writing and amending papers, preparing tutorial materials, or working on Matlab codes. All these tasks takes a lot of time. More often than ever, it is common for me to spend the whole day trying to understand a certain methodology yet not quite understanding it. It is also common for me to work on a code for months, yet not quite finishing it. Well, I can’t help it since I am also picking up Matlab skills along the way, coming into the PhD with zero knowledge on programming.

How else would you juggle the PhD and life then?

For me, I can’t imagine entertaining the thought of submitting my thesis sometime before the end of next year if I don’t put in the hours during the weekend.



The culture of Economics

Economists essentially have a sophisticated lack of understanding of economics, especially macroeconomics. I know it sounds ridiculous. But the reason why I tell people they should study economics is not so they’ll know something at the end—because I don’t think we know much—but because we’re good at thinking. Economics teaches you to think things through. What you see a lot of times in economics is disdain for other’s lack of thinking. You have to think about the ramifications of policies in the short run, the medium run, and the long run. Economists think they’re good at doing that, but they’re good at doing that in the sense that they can write down a model that will help them think about it—not in terms of empirically knowing what the answers are. And we have gotten so enamored of thinking things through that the fact that we don’t know anything needs to bother us more. So, yes, it’s true that the average guy on the street doesn’t understand economics, and it’s also true that we don’t understand economics. We just have a more sophisticated lack of understanding than the guy on the street.

– Culture in Economics and the Culture of Economics:  Raquel Fernández in Conversation with The Straddler

Read more here.

It’s true. Economics forces you to think through every single step logically. On a totally different note, let’s just say being trained in Economics makes me slightly too unemotional, because I tend to rationalise my emotional feelings as well.

There are many other things I agree with in this article. Things like this:

Another problem is that methodology frequently trumps the question. Once you have a way to model things, much of the research becomes very self-referential; that is, it becomes more about how the model  behaves and less about the question. I think the question really matters, but a lot of economists believe the methodology matters more than the question. And this leads to very elaborate models of very many things without much of an outside reality check.

That said, after two years at where I am for my graduate studies in Economics, I have to say I am happy to be here. If there is one important thing I have learned this year when it comes to writing your first paper, it would be: Being able to narrow down your topic and come up with the one important question matters. I spent months just figuring that out. That is unbelievable, but the question really does matter.

I know these are rather superfluous thoughts. But, I would like to think that I might look back on these entries at the end of my PhD with a smile.

Economics: Ten years down the road?

In 2010, the National Science Foundation (NSF) invited individuals and groups to contribute white papers that describe grand challenge questions in their sciences that transcend near-term funding cycles and are “likely to drive next generation research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences.” Simply put, which are the areas that would drive the next cutting edge research?

I like to think of the NSF as being similar to the Australian Research Council (ARC) we have in Australia. The ARC grants are given out every year. Correct me if I am wrong. But, I don’t think the ARC has done anything like this before – a call for future research ideas ten years and more down the road.

There are quite a few in the Economics field. These are the ones that I was quite intrigued by:

– David Culter: Why Don’t People and Institutions Do What They Know They Should?

The author lists a few examples, such as: i) When it comes to medical errors, and hospital-acquired infections, there are standards, monitoring, and the ubiquitous checklist that exist in theory, but not yet in practice. Throughout the medical system, people and institutions do not do things that are valuable, inexpensive and relatively straightforward. ; ii) (or even simpler, something we can all relate to) Only 69 percent of Americans always wear a seatbelt when they drive, even though 95 percent of Americans believe that a seat belt would help them in an accident.

So true! To touch on this topic superficially, I can certainly think of some other examples. For example, everyone kind of agrees that some regulatory changes are necessary in the financial system, yet we are not doing so. Similarly, I can think of how companies like Nike and Addidas continue to overwork its sweatshop workers, even though it’s unethical, and they know they should be doing something about it. But, why isn’t something done? A quick conversation with a friend brought up an interesting suggestion. According to said friend, as long as peers around the people who runs these institutions are fine with such behaviours, there is no reason for them to change and do the “right thing”.


– Dani Rodrik: A Research Agenda in Economic diagnostics

Well, this is just excellent, and a short read.

“The shocking thing about economics is that very little research is devoted to what might be called economic diagnostics: figuring out which among multiple plausible models actually applies in a particular setting…. The absence of serious research on “choosing among models” results also in graduate programs in economics producing PhDs who are woefully undertrained when it comes to applying their trade to the real world. A student of industrial organization, say, will be exposed to many different game-theoretic models of imperfect competition. But s/he will not be exposed to a systematic exposition on when it is appropriate to apply one of these models and not another. Over time, of course, good economists develop a knack for performing the needed diagnostics. Even then, the work is done instinctively and rarely becomes codified or expounded at any length….A research program in economic diagnostics would help economists think systematically about how to choose among competing, necessarily simplified representations of reality. It would contribute expertise about which model to apply where. It would make researchers better applied economists and more useful policy advisers.”

I can actually relate to this, not just when it comes to choosing multiple plausible models, but also when it comes to choosing between multiple plausible techniques. There have been occasions when it can be tempting to simply choose a technique over another, just because “everyone else seems to be using this technique in this field.” But, have you really thought about whether there is a need to use that technique? Or, perhaps a simpler technique/model might do an even better job?

– Hal Varian : Clinical trials in Economics

– Edward Glaeser: Bounded Rationality in Markets and Government

– Alesina Alberto: Pushing the boundaries of Economics

A compendium of the white papers is available here.

On another note, I chanced on an intriguing read today: Can beggers be choosers? This certainly isn’t novel or new. But, this is the first time I have read about such an experiment conducted in details and the reactions from each option. Also, if you have the time, read the AER paper on “Matching and Sorting in Online dating“.

Yes, I know I am working on a PhD purely based in the field of macroeconomics. But, I have always had a soft spot for social experiments (having conducted one or two of my own this year just to satisfy my curiosity); behavioural economics that brings in concepts from other fields such as Philosophy, politics, culture; impact of social norms/networking on behaviour and hence economics. Maybe there will be an opportunity to do research in these areas one fine day!