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Conversations with the School of Economics

Conversation with Gabriel Ziegler

Why did you choose to study economics?

That’s a very good question. Now I think that maybe I should have prepared for this interview *laughs*. Let me start with my history. I started my undergrad doing business and was interested in finance, but some of the business stuff I wasn’t so interested in and the economics courses were much more interesting to me. Slowly but steadily I moved towards economics. I thought it’s nice to have very interesting and relevant questions about everyday life to answer. But it’s also interesting to be able to look at the bigger picture, asking questions like, ‘what is GDP?’ and ‘why are countries rich?’ I found the combination of having interesting questions and formal tools to analyse them quite nice. That was the main reason I switched from a more business-oriented outlook to an economic one.

What questions do you try to answer in your own research and what fields are you interested in?

For quite a long time–during my undergraduate and master’s, and even a little bit of my PhD–I was interested in more macroeconomic questions like GDP, growth, and inflation. I found that I was interested in trying to understand models: what they are, why we have them, and what we learn from them. I found it very hard to understand macroeconomic models in this way, so I eventually went about trying to understand microeconomic models because I found them easier to understand. Actually, most of my current research is focused on addressing foundational questions about our theoretical models. In particular, game theoretic models. Ultimately, it is more abstract research than addressing direct questions about the economy. My motivation is to understand the foundations of these models to be able to answer the big questions, but I’m not there yet.

I think a lot of students would be sympathetic to your experience with macroeconomic models. Do you think that the process of picking apart models and gaining a deep understanding of them is something that all economists should do? 

I’m not sure actually. For a while I thought that, but I’m actually not sure. I’m spending all my research time doing exactly that. I’m mostly doing it because I think it’s a lot of fun to do. But I also realise that if you want to address something in the real world you need to accept some trade-offs. Economics is all about trade-offs, after all. Understanding the models deeply takes a lot of time. Some of the questions you want to answer in the end may not require you to understand all the details of a model. In some sense it is a bit like engineering: not everything has to be perfect and if you get very close to perfect, that’s already pretty good. I think that you can answer some direct questions without having all the nitty-gritty insights into a model. I don’t think everyone has to go down my road. I actually would suggest that it’s not a good approach, on average, because no one would address the more direct questions related to the economy, and that would be pretty bad *laughs*. I think it’s important to figure out what you’re interested in. In the end, there is always some division of labour. I’m always happy to talk to economists who are interested in understanding the models in detail but who don’t necessarily have the time to explore them in depth. It’s interesting to see what models they need and what they themselves find interesting in the models. It’s a good compromise.

Is there anything that you’ve done so far that you’re most proud of

Finishing my PhD is a big achievement in my life, overall. I’m the first one in my family to get a PhD. In fact, my parents didn’t go to college and the whole academic world was new to my family. It was very daunting in the beginning. I’m lucky that I had good friends who helped me throughout. I think it would have been really difficult without them, so achieving that with them was pretty good. Then, after that, getting a job at a very good university was, in some ways, even more rewarding. I guess in an academic sense that was a very big achievement for me, and probably my biggest so far.

What do you find most difficult about economics?

Working on research alone. I find that very boring. When you are doing your PhD, it’s very common to write one big paper and it’s generally viewed as a good thing if you write that paper alone. It’s been getting better recently but I thought it was the most boring part of my whole PhD. Now, I always try to find some people to work with. That motivates me. I like to just discuss ideas and research with people. I think that research is better that way, and it’s definitely more fun. Naturally, a lot of stuff you’re doing as an academic is done alone. So that’s one downside. Especially with COVID, it was hard to interact with people, but students know that all too well.

Is there anything about doing research in Edinburgh that you find particularly exciting?

One thing I found really cool when I came here for my interview is that it’s unlike many other universities, which very often have groups of economics doing macroeconomics, econometrics, microeconomics and applied economics that are working completely independently of each other–almost like different departments within a big department. Here it feels like everyone is talking to everyone. We have a nice general seminar, which everyone comes to and it’s very interactive. It’s nice to have that kind of interaction between different fields of economics. It’s sometimes very hard for me because we have talks on macroeconomics, which–as I mentioned earlier–is quite difficult for me to follow in seminars. I don’t always know what’s going on, but trying to understand how macroeconomists think about problems is really stimulating.

What have you found to be the most enjoyable aspect of living in Edinburgh?

I moved here at the end of the first lockdown, so there were definitely a lot of walks happening at the time because there was not much else to do in the first year or so. I like going hiking. I’m from Austria, so going hiking is quite a natural thing. I did my PhD in Chicago, which is completely flat, so it’s been nice to move to Scotland which offers a more diverse landscape. I haven’t been to the Highlands yet, but I would like to do that. Just being around here is great. You can go to the Pentlands, which is very easy, or you can just go up Arthur’s seat for a short walk, which is great to have. The city is also very well connected, through trains and the airport, so let’s see how travel goes in the future. There is a lot of history to this city, which is nice too. I like the bar scene, there are some great pubs in Edinburgh. Sometimes I like to work at coffee shops, but they close quite early in the afternoon, which can be a bit frustrating at times. In general there are good coffee shops but I can’t point to a single one right now. I’m still trying random places to see what’s good and what’s not.

If you would like to share with our readership, what book are you currently reading?

I actually don’t read that many books. I suffer from starting books and not finishing them. I started reading one before Christmas and I should get back to it, now that I think about it. It is a book by Thomas Bernhard who is a famous Austrian writer. It’s strongly based on Austrian culture, so it’s quite funny and interesting for me. Unfortunately, I read a lot of academic papers, which isn’t really that interesting unless you’re an academic *laughs*

Which journal do you read most often?

Econometrica, for sure. But really I like reading anything to do with economic theory, especially game theory.

Finally, what advice would you have for either undergrads interested in academic research or maybe someone considering doing a masters in economics?

One thing I think that would have been good to know is that if you’re considering doing postgraduate studies, it’s good to start planning early…even in the second year of your undergrad. The earlier you start preparing for that, the better. That relates back to what I said before, if you are aware of how the academic system works, you’ll probably plan ahead but I didn’t…at all. I was lucky during my undergrad to talk to professors who recommended that I do a master’s. I did, and it turned out well, so everything worked out very well in the end. But, there was definitely a lot of luck involved. I think you can replace some of this luck just by starting to think early on.

 

Conversation with Dr Jonna Olsson

Why did you choose to study economics?

I didn’t choose to study economics at first. I started studying engineering and I have a Master of Science in engineering. When I started my first year I thought engineering was interesting and I enjoyed it, but there was something lacking. It was the social component. I wanted to learn economics in addition to my engineering studies because I realized that whatever I’d be working on–even if I stayed in engineering–would involve some economic analysis. So, I started studying for a degree in business science and economics. Whilst I was studying, I thought, ‘uh huh…this is what I want to do.’ Everything sort of fell into place for me. For me, economics is about analysing the important questions, like ‘what do we choose to do as societies?’, ‘how can we optimise for good outcomes in society?’, and ‘how can we structure systems so that things work out for the best whilst taking into account what people want to do and are willing to do?’. For me, the decision to study economics was more of a random event but it’s been very interesting so far.

Do you think your experience with engineering has informed how you approach economics?

Actually…yes. I’m happy about having studied engineering because I got some training in tools that I still use, like programming and math. Engineering takes a similar approach to problem solving. Like, ‘OK, let’s divide that into smaller problems and then see where we can go from there.’ I think you become more open minded and a broader thinker generally. I think that it’s good to have a broader background, so I’m super happy to have a background in engineering as well.

What is your research focused on and what questions are you interested in?

This is so broad and so difficult to answer…I’m interested in trying to figure out questions about inequality, like ‘where does inequality come from?’, ‘what can we do about it?’, and ‘what does inequality look like to begin with?’. Inequality has so many dimensions. There’s projects in health inequality and how health inequality is jointly distributed with other types of inequality. For instance, in the US, richer people live longer and black life expectancy is seven years shorter than white life expectancy. There’s different things going on there: we have straightforward health inequality, wealth inequality, and income inequality, but we also have health inequality driving wealth inequality. For instance, if people expect a shorter life why should they save as much? I’m interested in looking at these things and trying to understand the different forces, the drivers and explanations. The facts that are sort of what sparked my interest in inequality. Economic research is a little bit dependent on what kind of methodological school you adhere to. I am totally into looking at microdata and then trying to understand the microdata with macro models that still take general equilibrium effects into account and can capture the big picture. So in essence, micro data combined with macro models.

Is there any piece of research that you are particularly proud of?

*Laughs*

In some sense, it’s very difficult to say. Because you are your own work’s biggest critic. You start a project that you think is super interesting and you find an “answer.” But you know how many caveats there are with this answer! That’s why we as economists can never give a straight answer. It’s always, ‘well it depends,’ ‘assuming this and this and this we can say this…but on the other hand we cannot be sure about that.’ This is why we sometimes get a bad rep for being so annoyingly bad at giving straight answers. In some sense, I am very proud of a paper that is still on the way to be published. In it, we look at female labour force participation in the US, which is a question that many people have looked at before. I’m bringing in a new methodology that we should use to analyse these questions. Every time I present the paper, I feel proud of the results and the methodology. It’s always a great feeling when you present something and you actually want people to ask questions because you want to have the chance to explain even the details. If people are interested, it’s always a great feeling. With that paper, I always feel like, ‘yeah, ask me about the details!’, because I’m happy to talk about it. In that sense, any piece of work you’re willing to discuss the details of is the work that you’re proud of. Because with some certainty you can say that it’s good work and it contributes to our body of knowledge. 

Are there things you find particularly difficult in economics as a discipline?

The difficulty is in some sense exactly what I mentioned before, you can never get an easy answer and that is somehow difficult especially when teaching. You are always trying to find a balance between giving the short answer that sounds straightforward and is easy to digest and the answer with a bunch of caveats. It’s difficult because some answers are straightforward and trying to complicate the picture doesn’t help anyone and doesn’t really lead to a deeper understanding. Sometimes it’s kind of fun to dive down into details and look into the assumptions we make and assess if we could make some crazy assumptions so that the theory isn’t true anymore. Sometimes this helps, sometimes it doesn’t. I think it’s a challenge to get the balance right in terms of teaching. This is because economics is a discipline that is somewhere between social sciences and STEM. We use the tools from hard sciences but we are analysing social science questions. For me that is what makes it so interesting, but it also makes it more difficult. In math 2 + 2 is four…which is never really the case in economics.

What excites you most about the economics community in Edinburgh?

So, technically, I’ve been here for one and a half years. Mentally it doesn’t feel like that at all! I arrived during COVID and arriving in a new place during a pandemic is, obviously, a bit different. Now both the city and the workplace are opening up, and finally I have colleagues in the corridor. What I’m most excited about in terms of the school economics are the colleagues. It’s a super good group working here and I’m still really only starting to get to know people. I’m looking forward to getting to know more people. There are so many good people here. It’s the same for the city. I’m looking forward to exploring both the city and Scotland. I like hiking and I’ve heard there’s some great spots around here.

What has been your favourite discovery in Edinburgh so far? 

I guess to reveal my preferences…it’s walking up Arthur’s seat. It’s like being immersed in nature within the city. It really feels like being out in nature.

If you would like to reveal more preferences, what book are you currently reading? It doesn’t have to be economics.

That is actually a very interesting question, because I read very few economics books. I think it is good to read a little bit broader. Right now, I’m reading a book about the history of Ukraine. Before that I read some criminal novels which are set in Edinburgh…so they’re interesting for that reason. A good book I read, which was a couple of books ago, is ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong. That one I can definitely recommend.

Finally, do you have any advice for students studying economics or someone who wants to go into academic economics? 

Find what you are excited about. I think that really is the key. Find out what questions make you end up sitting there in a flow state, wanting to figure them out. Those are the questions you should focus on.

 

Conversation with Pawel Gola

Why did you choose to study economics?

I guess I asked myself ‘why economics?’ when I was deciding on my undergraduate degree. The reasons were, at least in part, pragmatic. I was always good at maths, and I enjoyed it. At the same time, I was always very interested in social and political issues. Economics seemed like an obvious choice. It would let me combine these two things. I was also thinking of law, but I thought I really need some maths in my life. I also thought of things like physics, but I felt it was a bit too dry and I wanted to think about current issues. I read lots of Polish weeklies, which were quite focused on economics. Academic economics is a different story. I really enjoyed the research part in my masters. I really enjoyed doing the dissertation but it didn’t quite go as well as I wanted. I made a classical mistake, which I would advise everyone not to do, which is trying to do too much. I felt like there was some unfinished business and I enjoyed it, so I decided to do a PhD. I enjoyed that as well and it went well. I sort of thought, ‘let’s give it a more serious effort’ and that brought me here. Economics has its upsides and downsides. It’s obviously very stimulating. Within academia, academic economics gives you a lot of independence. You don’t really get this independence in proper sciences. Especially as a theorist: you can research what you find interesting. It’s a little bit different for empirical researchers, because they work in bigger teams and they are a little bit more constrained by data, but overall it’s still very independent.

What fields of economics are you interested in and where is your research focused?

Broadly speaking my research is in the intersection of microeconomic theory and labour economics…although the ‘micro’ definition gets stretched at times. It’s mostly theoretical. There are sometimes some data aspects, but they would be more in the sense of calibrating theoretical models rather than running regressions. The theory is pretty much exclusively about labour markets. It started with a particular topic I was interested in and then after that a lot of it is path dependency. Once you start thinking about something for a long time, you just start knowing more about it. You get better ideas and it continues like that. I have had some very exciting ideas not focused on labour economics, but I typically find that I need a co-author who is an expert in that particular topic because it’s hard to know if what I’m doing is really new to people…or whether it’s something that was discussed 50 years ago! I became interested in a particular topic just after the financial crisis, when I was doing my graduate research. I attended a seminar about the reasons for the crisis…it wasn’t very technical, but there were some practitioners there and they were discussing the type of people involved in finance at the time. Things like maybe these people had something to prove because they weren’t the most popular kids at school and other similar ideas. That got me thinking about selection. Things like, ‘who goes in to which occupation?’ and ‘what role does status play in their decision?’. That’s where my interest started.

Is there anything in your research or in your academic career so far that you’re particularly proud of?

In a way, that’s very easy. I’m still trying to promote the insights of it…but I have one publication I’m very proud of which has been published as well as it can be published in economics. It was extremely hard work, it took eight years to get it there, three major revisions, and probably 100 pages of responses to referees. I’m proud of that one, definitely.

Are there things you find particularly difficult about economics as a discipline?

There are two things that come to mind. One is about doing research–probably not just in economics, but I think it might be worse in economics because of the independence I mentioned earlier–it’s very hard to separate work and free time. It’s actually easier during the teaching semester because then you have a structure: you do your slides, your prep, your lectures, and then you’re free for the day. When you do research, you feel guilty during your free time because that’s time that could be spent thinking about your research. I remember thinking this whilst playing computer games during my PhD, ‘if I have time to relax, I also have the time to think.’ That’s definitely difficult. In terms of research, difficulties are countless. Starting with the fact that we cannot really do any experiments. Even when we can, there are always problems with them because there are always issues with external validity, etc…We can’t do experiments the way that, say, physicists can. We end up relying on observational data to test the theory, and there it’s really hard work to determine causality. Research in any field that is not experimental becomes more difficult in a way.

That really resonates. When I think about my future and I think about an academic career, there is no divide between work and relaxing. It’s just not for me, I’m very bad at that.

I think it actually gets better with time, much better. What helped me was getting married and having other “constraints”…then again, my wife is also an academic, so sometimes that doesn’t help. But it just takes time. Sometimes, it takes achieving just a little bit of your goals to feel better about this. Generally, it’s the biggest challenge. It has gotten better, but I wouldn’t say it’s ever disappeared.

What excites you most about being at the University of Edinburgh, whether that’s being in the Econ school or just Edinburgh as a city?

When I was deciding whether to take the job or not, the biggest pull factor for me was actually the department. It’s a pretty great fit for my research interests. There is a very strong theory group in the department, there is a very strong labour and macro group in the department, which is very rare. There are two people other than me working on some sort of social status, relative concern space. Overall it’s a great fit. I knew Edinburgh was a great city but I don’t think I ever fully appreciated just how beautiful it is. By now, the city is equally high on my list of things that excite me about this job. I was also a bit tired of living in a country (Norway) where I didn’t know the main language.

 Are there any parts of Edinburgh that you’ve discovered or any places that you really enjoy visiting that you would like to share with our readership?

The completely obvious ones are just Old Town and New Town. Maybe the less obvious choice is the path just below Dean Bridge, next to the river in Stockbridge. That is quite stunning. I was looking for somewhere my wife and I could go for a run and randomly picked this path. We started running, and it is easily the prettiest place I’ve ever been on a run. I really like that path and love the view of Dean Bridge.

Would you like to share with our readership what book you’re currently reading?

*Laughs* I wish I hadn’t started this very embarrassing book…

You can also just share your favourite book!

It’s not really embarrassing…just somewhat embarrassing…anyway, I really enjoy reading in my free time. I especially like fantasy and science fiction novels. I usually try to read good science fiction, but just a few days ago I was just looking for something easy to read so I picked something not very good…so won’t talk about that. My favourite book is a book by Roger Zelazny called ‘Lord of Light’. I’ve read it 10 times I think.

Finally, do you have any advice for either undergraduate students thinking about an academic career or just people interested in economics?

I have too much advice. *laughs* Maybe the obvious thing–although it wasn’t obvious to me when I was an undergrad–is that to get into top US PhD programs it really helps to have a very strong background in math. In Edinburgh, I think you could do this by taking maths courses like Advanced Mathematical Economics. In In Poland it would have been best to take a double degree in economics and mathematics, which is something…I maybe don’t exactly regret…but if I could take what I know now and rerun things, I would have done that. Learning more maths at a time when your job is to just learn things is a good thing. Yes, when doing research, you will pick-up the lacking maths quite quickly. But learning new maths always comes at the cost of time spent researching. Another thing is to keep in mind that a lot of the reward of the job is simply enjoyment of the work. If you do your dissertation and find you don’t actually enjoy it, there are certainly jobs that will pay as well or much better than academia. You might end up doing things that you don’t enjoy, but at least you will be rewarded more for it. The best parts of this career are the enjoyment, the flexibility, and the freedom. If those are things that you don’t really care about, you should think about the opportunity costs. Otherwise, it’s an amazing job!

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