15 December 2014

What economics PhD graduates wish they knew when they started

Sussex assigned me to a mentoring circle, and our homework from the first meeting was to ask people we know who have recently completed PhDs for what they wish they knew when they started, to share with the group. Here is the really excellent advice I got from a couple of friends, both with recently(ish) finished economics PhDs and now with great jobs in applied policy research. Further tips gratefully received!

From G:
My views are far from standard, but here's two ideas;
First, be McKinsey about it, never forget about what the deliverable is. Project manage yourself. Get 2-3 finished PhDs from the library and work out exactly what you need to do over the next 3-4 years (choose book style or three papers), get a really good feel for the what the end product looks like. Even if your three ideas are only slowly becoming specific enough you could work out the headings and sub-headings of the output, perhaps get the ball park literature review down in final format so something is already delivered. 
Second, be clear on what you want from the PhD. I'd argue it's mostly a signal. But if you can produce useful published work go for it. If not compromise and aim for one stellar output from 3 papers and then a satisficing strategy can reduce what could be enormous opportunity cost. Remember the job route or post-doc route need quite different attributes. Balance delivering the minimum output with earning, teaching, network building (work or academic), and publishing (not necessary but wonderful. A PhD only needs to be potentially publishable with more work/ a post-Doc; it's intended as research training.
And from A:
1) Use BibTex or another bibliography program to keep track of all of your papers as you download them. I did do this, and it has been a life saver. I also started a spreadsheet of all of the papers which I read, but I started that too late. It is really useful to note down things like context of study, data used, main method, key finding etc. I absolutely hate doing literature reviews and answering the question "where does your research fit into the literature", especially after I've assured myself that what I'm doing is worthwhile.
2) Read the abstracts in the top 3 or 4 journals as they come out. And also JDE, EDCC, WBER and a few other field journals, just to get an idea of what people are doing.
3) Don't lose sight of the bigger picture. You may not have this problem at Sussex, but I found X was SOOOOO obsessed with empirical identification of effects and fetishizing causality that I stopped thinking about the bigger picture and started focussing on why my paper was bad and couldn't be identified. Obviously there has to be some balance between the interesting question and the rigorous empirical identification, and in some cases these things are complementary but don't let yourself get pulled too far down that rabbit hole. 
4) Keep perspective and stay confident in your research. Obviously this is easier said than done, but so much of academic work is smoke and mirrors. People bullshit a lot and inflate how important their work. This can lead people to put down other people's work, which I think is totally unconscionable. Anyways, I don't know exactly how I would have done things differently on this point, but I never really got over the confidence thing (you can ask A about how many times he had to pick me up). I think one thing you have to do is develop a thick skin; if people are critiquing your paper, it isn't because they don't think you are a good researcher. Also, never, ever read Econ Job Market rumors. Being accepted to a PhD means you are good enough to do good quality research that people will be interested in. It may not be published in the AER or QJE and you may not get a faculty position and Harvard, but you should remember (and I should have remembered) that this isn't actually the point. 
5) Present your work early and often. This relates to the previous point. I didn't present my work soon enough and you really do get a kick out it. One of the big challenges I found was that I always felt my work was worthless and stupid, but when you present to other people they almost always see the interesting and good parts of it. This helped me a lot to stay motivated and think of new ways to approach my papers. 
6) Do not, whatever you do, lose contact with your supervisor. I had long spells where I just disappeared. As with any bad thing, I was fully aware of what I was doing, but couldn't muster the willpower to break out of it. Most often your supervisor doesn't care that you haven't done what you were going to do, but they will help you get back on track. I fell into the trap of not having done enough, so thinking "If I just spend one more week on this, it will be good enough to take to my supervisor", and then postponing my meetings. Don't do this, because every time you postpone, you build up the pressure to create or do or present something to your supervisor that is even better than what you currently have. Owning up to not having done anything and getting yourself back on track is WAY WAY WAY better than letting things slide. 
7) Check out the sites that give advice for doing PhDs, presenting and writing academic work. I really liked John Cochrane's advice, but there are many others. I found them really helpful in preparing my slides and papers. Also, if you find articles that you like, copy their model for presenting your research. I did this on a few occasions. It works. 
8) If you are doing data work, spend time figuring out the best way to store files, proper etiquette (that isn't the right word) for writing do-files. It will save you lots of time. 
9) Get involved with research projects with other people, either as an RA or as a co-author. I didn't do this enough and I really thrive off of working with other people. Being a RA also helps to get you familiar with data-sets and opens up questions based on other people's work that you might find interesting. I think A benefited a huge amount from being able to work on the Y team; not only did he have a great social group, but he also really got to know the data and develop his own ideas about what to do. 
10) Find yourself a supervisor who you will work well with. Some supervisors are hands-off, some are harsh, some are supportive, some are really anal and organized. I think this is probably a key decision (not sure why it is at the bottom of the page) but it is really important. 
11) Write down, not up. Paul Klemperer gives this advice to people. I think it is really helpful. Basically write down your ideas and models and empirical findings so they are on paper and you've expressed them (or tried to express them). But don't write up into a paper until you have the argument and outline ready to go. 
12) Keep making sure you love to do research. It is amazing to be funded to do research, so make sure you enjoy it. I loved all the other stuff around doing a DPhil: teaching, traveling, running a survey. But in retrospect, I don't think I loved the solitude and focussed effort that goes into polishing and re-polishing and being exactly right about something. Part of me thinks I should have quit early on, but I don't think I had the balls to do it. I don't know that I would have been happier, but there you have it.

28 November 2014

UK teacher unions as legal insurance

Richard Murphy of the University of Texas confirms something that a teacher told me in person just last year - teachers in the UK only join unions because it provides legal insurance in the event of getting sued. 
This paper identifies the threat of accusation as a new source of demand for union representation and how this has increased union density in specific labour markets. Society has become increasingly litigious and this may have many repercussions on labour markets, especially those where employees have unsupervised interactions with vulnerable groups. A rational response to such changes would be an increase in demand for insurance against these risks. I model union membership as a form of private legal insurance, where the decision to join is partly determined by the perceived threat of having an allegation made against the agent. This is examined by estimating the demand for union membership amongst UK teachers, which has been increasing over the last twenty years. I use media coverage of allegations relating to local teachers as an exogenous shock to the perceived threat. I find that unionisation rates increase with media coverage of relevant litigation at the regional and national levels. Ten relevant news stories in a region increases the probability of union membership by 5 percentage points. Additionally, the size of the effect is dependent on the relevance of the story to the teacher. This paper provides a reason why the demand for union membership in this and related sectors has increased, despite the possibility of freeriding as pay and working conditions are set centrally.
Are insurance companies missing an opportunity here? Or would they face adverse selection issues?

Learning goals

Nic Spaull makes the case for one simple learning goal for South Africa:
“Every child must read and write by the end of grade three.”
I think he is absolutely right. You hear often from international education types that we must resist the simplification of goals, and account for broader objectives such as citizenship etc, but the fact remains that the majority of children in Grade 3 in South Africa, and by implication most other developing countries, can't read (and understand) a simple 30 word story such as this one below.  

I actually heard in a meeting at ODI last year that "it would be a tragedy if the post-2015 education goals were reduced to simply all children being able to read and write and do sums." On the contrary I think it would be a tragedy if we let there be any more distraction from ensuring children have the most basic and fundamental skill of being able to read to learn. 

On the political economy of education systems, Nic also posts an interview with a teacher explaining how unions in South Africa control appointments within schools. 
“When you are selecting a Head of Department (HOD) for the school there are 2 parents from the SGB and 1 teacher, the principal is there but cannot vote. In the rural Eastern Cape many of the parents are not well educated. They know nothing about laws so it is just the principal and the teachers. SADTU can very easily influence the parents through the teacher. If SADTU does not get the person that they want they will say there was an irregularity in the interview process. I once encouraged the parents to appoint a good mathematics teacher for my school and they did, but they were not SADTU’s choice so they had the teacher removed. They re-advertised the post but without subject specification because there was no SADTU member who had maths or science. I am now stuck with someone who is babysitting mathematics and my results are terrible. My ANAs are very low in mathematics. And you cannot challenge it.” [“Why can’t you challenge SADTU?”] They will go for you. They will accuse you of sexual misconduct and there must be an enquiry. They will accuse you of financial mismanagement. They will go for small things to catch you. You know you need 3 quotations if you buy something and you must write it down so that if you only have two or forgot to write it down, they will catch you. Most principals will make a small mistake. But these are honest mistakes. But they will catch you.” “The Department is listening and and the union is managing. SADTU does not want to listen, they want to lead and they want to manage.”

15 November 2014

Why be a consultant (with Mokoro)?

"Martin Adams never set out to be a consultant, but found himself stuck in an office job and so decided to go freelance ‘in places where I wanted to be and with people I liked.’ For him, this is the most rewarding part of being a consultant. For Liz Daley, ‘consultancy enables you to be your own boss and work flexibly and independently. This is a great asset if you have other responsibilities that you are very committed to – like being a parent in my case. It gives you variety of assignments and clients, which is good for intellectual stimulation. But, the big downside, it can be very isolating. And there is constant uncertainty financially, worrying about where the next piece of work will come from.’ Catherine Dom likes the flexibility and independence that the consultancy life offers and has been fortunate to have developed long-term relationships with a number of countries and people in them. For Chris Tanner, initially ‘consultancy allowed me to get a vast depth of experience in several places far more quickly than a ‘proper job’ would have done. The strong point of being a consultant is on the technical side for sure.’ Now returning to consultancy after a long stint with FAO in Mozambique, it ‘allows me to use my experience and to work in a way that is flexible and still keep my feet under the table in Wales.’ Stephen Turner drifted into consultancy, finds it ‘stimulating and stressful, perhaps especially for a generalist like me’, but also depressing because you can work hard on a project and yet get zero feedback."
From Robin Palmer's reflections on his career. One part of my lack of blogging steam has been the takeover of twitter as a quicker way of sharing interesting snippets, but twitter is much less useful for me as a way of quickly finding the interesting clippings that I remember reading months ago and want to find again, so maybe expect more of this cutting and pasting. 

10 November 2014

We can be (British) heroes

A reminder, whilst we are celebrating the 'British Schindler' Sir Nicolas Winton, who saved 669 mainly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in 1939, that actually saving so many lives is entirely achievable for the average person in the modern world. Toby Ord, founder of Giving What We Can, has estimated that you can save a life for around $250. So to save 669 lives would cost you a little over £100,000, or spread over a 45 year career, £2,300 a year. Nicolas Winton has a knighthood, a statue at Prague railway station, Czechoslovakia’s highest honour (the Order of the White Lion), and a small planet named after him. 

17 October 2014

Let them drown

3,000 people have drowned already this year trying to cross the Mediterranean to the EU, in pursuit of a better life. It is official UK government policy to not try and rescue such people, because that would only encourage others. I somehow find it hard to believe that even staunch opponents of immigration really think we should just stand by and watch people drown. 

via Duncan Stott and Phil Davis

27 September 2014

Good news from South Sudan

Charlie Goldsmith emails with updates on the Girl's Education South Sudan project:
"Our majority-South Sudanese team are proud that South Sudan, which has been so beset by trouble in the last year, has the chance to show positive ways in which it is a world-leader. 
Charlie Goldsmith Associates have been particularly involved on design, technology for, and delivery of: 
  • The South Sudan Schools Attendance Management System, through which enrolment and attendance of individual pupils – almost 900,000 of them by now – from top to bottom of the education system is recorded, with schools asked to report daily to a freephone number through SMSs from teachers’ own phones.
  • Cash Transfers to individual girls in P5-S4 and their families: more than 50,000 will be made in 2014, and around half a million, to 200,000 individual girls, by 2018. In 2015, we expect payment of the majority of these to be by M-Money. 
  • School capitation grants to fund investments in quality: almost 3000 schools have been approved to receive these grants, having passed hurdles including opening a bank account, and making a school development plan and budget, and there have been outstanding examples of value delivered, notably in terms of economical construction. GRSS is now looking at rolling this model of funding direct to service delivery units across to the health sector. 
  • A multi-year programme of investment in knowledge, evidence and research, much of it delivered by our specialist partners Forcier Consulting and, earlier on, Education for Change, including detailed school and household surveys, learning assessments, and a major subnational PFM performance survey.
The Government of the Republic of South Sudan (GRSS) budgets to spend 60m SSP of its own money a year (roughly £12m GBP) on school capitation grants, as part of the wider Local Services Support programme, supported by among others, the ODI Budget Strengthening Initiative. It's worth highlighting that this £12m a year spent by the government of South Sudan is slightly more than the DFID project itself (£60m over five and half years - a great example of leverage and sustainability where aid money can help to increase the effectiveness of potentially much larger government spending. 
You can find some examples of practical good news that has resulted – girls with the resources to be in school, teachers paid, classrooms and latrines quickly and cost-effectively constructed - and scans of how each school has budgeted to spend its capitation grant, including detail down to the cost of a latrine in a given school, and the accountability now being returned by schools.
In addition to the CGA work, other members of the consortium are delivering really exciting things too, particularly interesting are the BBC "Our School" programmes in local languages. Since they have one programme per State per topic, and have done about 14 topics this year, it is really quite a significant library of decent resources of people saying sensible things about education, including the practicalities, not just the slogans, in their own language. In due course, the project is going to do important things on in classroom education quality too. 
Using innovative technology elsewhere

We think some of these approaches and tools are broadly applicable:
  • Monitoring enrolment and attendance at an individual level, in near-real time, on a public website (data on individuals can only be accessed by permissioned login), is a step of assurance and usefulness of data that goes beyond what some EMISs offer.
  • Getting funds direct into the hands of individuals and down to bank accounts of service delivery units like schools and primary health care units, gives country governments and their partners assurance that funds have reached their destination, and sets good incentives for funds to be used correctly, and the leverage and information to follow up if there is a problem. Putting funds to individuals and schools and clinics at local level stimulates the local economy, and, in particular, financial inclusion – in South Sudan, Eden Commercial Bank are opening five new branches in County towns during 2014, driven partly by the additional transaction volume provided by capitation grants and cash transfers, and other banks have set up travelling account opening services. 
  • The technology approach is designed for a low-connectivity/not-always-on environment, and for users using their own mobile phones/devices.
These approaches are operationally effective, and showing promising signs of effect on retention and enrolment, in South Sudan: how much more might they achieve in an environment where there were fewer barriers to accessing public services?"

15 July 2014

This is why I don't care about climate change

Well, not "don't care at all", but, you know, not as much as about poverty and development. Stefan Dercon puts it better than I ever have:
Poverty reduction tends to be strongly linked to economic growth, but growth impacts the environment and increases CO2 emissions. So can greener growth that is more climate-resilient and less environmentally damaging deliver large scale poverty reduction? ... We argue that there are bound to be trade-offs between emissions reductions and a greener growth on the one hand, and growth that is most effective in poverty reduction. We argue that development aid, earmarked for the poorest countries, should only selectively pay attention to climate change, and remain focused on fighting current poverty reduction, including via economic growth, not least as future resilience of these countries and their population will depend on their ability to create wealth and build up human capital now. The only use for development aid within the poorest countries for explicit climate-related investment ought to be when the investments also contribute to poverty reduction now

Value for money in technical assistance to governments

The DFID project completion report is out (here) for the South Sudan ODI fellows from 2009-2012. It's pretty good. (this doesn't include my cohort).
the fellows delivered – and exceeded - the desired outputs and the programme has achieved – and exceeded – the desired outcome, at slightly under budget. Given the minimal oversight given to this programme by DFID South Sudan, a large part of the credit must go to the project partner, ODI, at least in respect of its selection and briefing of the fellows, who were very well suited to the tasks in hand. The majority of credit must, however, go to the fellows themselves, for undertaking their work professionally and working to sustainably build colleagues’ skills and capacity. 
Taking into account all of the evidence gathered in this review it seems clear that the ODI Fellowship for the Government of Southern Sudan programme delivered very strong VFM over the review period 2009 – 2012. It is an impressively performing programme, particularly given the difficult context to deliver results in South Sudan that it managed to overcome - if anything performing better in value for money terms than the global ODI programme did in more benign environments. 
This review found that the programme was implemented to expected timelines and budgets, with strong performance by the fellows translating into very strong performance on value for money metrics. The programme over-achieved in relation to the desired outputs and outcome, while making a small cost saving.

27 June 2014

How not to improve education in India

Some great analysis from MINT who highlight a new Government of India report, which ranks state education "outcomes".

What is odd is that the government rank has a negative correlation with the rankings of the Pratham report which directly measures learning outcomes.

So what goes into the government "outcomes" index?

- Number of teaching days
- Teacher working hours
- Enrolment rates
- Drop-out rates
- Primary-to-secondary transition rates

These are all basically inputs, with the exception of drop-outs and transition rates, which maybe say something about quality. But none of them are actually directly measuring learning at all. Yet more evidence for the Lant Pritchett case that focusing on inputs or "EMIS-visible" metrics won't get us quality learning outcomes, and measuring learning directly is critical to focusing policy attention on how to improve learning.

HT: Abhijeet Singh

12 June 2014

Don't shit on your own doorstep

I was talking to a water and sanitation programme manager a few weeks ago, who seemed frustrated that these stupid people kept crapping everywhere. Why would you shit on your own doorstep? The programme had several "behaviour change" interventions (horrible phrase, slightly Orwellian no?), but really, how hard should it be to not shit in the open?

One of the great things about economics is that it does not assume that people are just being dumb. It treats people with respect, and assumes first that there is probably a good reason why they are doing something which might seem irrational. I don't really know enough about water and sanitation, but I was suspicious of the idea that these recalcitrant natives just couldn't figure out what was good for them.

Does this paper prove me right?
"latrine use constitutes an externality rather than a pure private gain: It is the open defecation of one’s neighbors, rather than the household’s own practice, that matters most for child survival. The gradient and mechanism we uncover have important implications for child health and mortality worldwide, since 15% of the world’s population defecates in the open. To put the results in context, we find that moving from a locality where everybody defecates in the open to a locality where nobody defecates in the open is associated with a larger difference in child mortality than moving from the bottom quintile of asset wealth to the top quintile of asset wealth."
The problem then is a "simple" collective action problem (simple in the sense of understanding the nature of the problem, not at all simple to solve). This isn't that complicated stuff.

HT: kim yi dionne

03 June 2014

Important Research Funding Opportunities: Quantifying the economic impact of Shakira (for UNICEF)

"Shakira Mebarak, world-famous singer and songwriter, is a devoted advocate for children. The singer, known professionally as Shakira, was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador on 24 October 2003."

Which is all very well and everything, but surely what we all really care about is exactly how valuable is she to the UNICEF marketing team? And what is it about her that makes her valuable? Are singers more or less valuable than actresses? Blondes or brunettes? Men or women? Does fundraising value depreciate over time with age? If you've always been fascinated by important research questions like these, well do UNICEF have the RFP for you (sadly I think the quantitative celebrity fundraising research and analytics team at my office is busy right now, so I'm generously passing this on. You're welcome). Thank god UNICEF is taking evidence-based decision-making seriously where it really matters.

"Quantitative Research: Identifying the Right Celebrities for UNICEF Partnerships & Public Attitudes towards Celebrity Partnerships 
The purpose of this Request for Proposal (RFP) is to seek proposals from qualified agencies to provide quantitative research (using System 1 approach) for identifying the right celebrities for UNICEF partnerships & Public Attitudes towards Celebrity Partnerships."

Why governments don't like private schools?

Here are a few excerpts from the new textbook delivered to millions of primary school children in Venezuela:
1. The first page of each [book] starts with the words “Hugo Chavez: Supreme Commander of the Bolivarian Revolution.”  
2. They describe Chavez as the man who liberated Venezuela from tyranny, at times making him appear more important than 19th century founding father Simon Bolivar.  
3. The books present a 2002 coup that briefly toppled Chavez as an insurrection planned by Washington while playing down the role of massive opposition protests in this deeply divided country.