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At SIEPR, the freedom to ask and answer ‘Is economics right for me?’

Aug 9 2021

Gideon Moore was wrapping up his senior year at Bowdoin College when he got a life-changing call. A double major in economics and math with a minor in computer science, he was set to join MIT as a research assistant after graduation. He was even scouting for roommates in Cambridge, Mass.

Then came the call from Heidi Williams, the MIT economist who hired him. Williams was spending a year as a faculty visitor at Stanford, and she needed to tell Moore that she wasn’t returning East. She decided to stay at the Farm as a professor of economics and she gave Moore a choice: Join her as a predoctoral fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) — where she would become a senior fellow — or continue his MIT path.

Without hesitation, Moore changed his course.

“I had heard a lot of positive things about SIEPR and knew it would be something that I would enjoy,” he says.

In June 2019, he became one of 21 participants in SIEPR’s Predoctoral Research Fellows Program — one of several initiatives within the institute to support future generations of scholars and policymakers. In addition to the predoc program, which provides full-time positions to recent college graduates and master’s degree students, SIEPR offers a paid research assistant program for undergraduates as early as their freshman year.

“We want to provide students who are relatively early in their careers and who are considering a future in public service or in academia a taste of life as an economist,” says Mark Duggan, the Trione Director of SIEPR and The Wayne and Jodi Cooperman Professor of Economics. SIEPR has also long championed up-and-coming researchers through its Young Scholars Program for postdoctorates and junior faculty. “SIEPR is committed to giving tomorrow’s experts on economic policy the foundation they need to excel.”

For two years, Moore has worked alongside Williams and become deeply integrated into the broader community of economists at SIEPR and across the university.

“SIEPR predocs are not incidental byproducts of the research process,” Moore says. “Here, we are the product.”

Hands-on, broad exposure

While they differ in key respects, SIEPR programs for undergraduate researchers and predocs share one important trait: Participants don’t have to be committed to a career in economics or even to pursuing a future graduate degree. They just need to be curious and open to learning about the research process and the career opportunities open to them.

For undergrads and predocs, this exploration happens primarily through research projects with SIEPR-affiliated faculty who also serve as mentors. For Arjun Ramani this meant co-authoring, as a 22-year-old research assistant, a study with Nicholas Bloom, a SIEPR senior fellow and expert on working from home, management practices, and uncertainty. The research, published as a  SIEPR policy brief and a working paper through the National Bureau of Economic Policy Research, explores COVID-19’s impact on real estate.

“My time at SIEPR has shown me how much I enjoy research and has given me confidence that I can do this work,” says Ramani, BA ’21 and MS ’22.

Undergraduate research assistants spend a maximum of 15 hours a week as part of their program. They also have the opportunity to participate in a 10-week immersive summer program. For predocs, whose stints typically last one or two years, the program is full-time.

Both research assistants and predocs attend weekly seminars with rotating Stanford faculty speakers. They also have their own weekly working group meetings where they present about their own projects and get feedback from peers. In non-pandemic times, predocs also share office space at SIEPR.

“I’ve gotten a lot of practice thinking rigorously about research questions and, more than anything, I’ve gotten a lot of exposure to how other people think about them,” Moore says. He plans to start his PhD studies later next year.

One-on-one interactions

Leading policymakers and scholars from outside the university also regularly meet with research assistants and predocs to describe their work and answer questions about their career paths or areas of expertise. The goal is to give students an up-close opportunity to talk about substantive policy matters while also learning the practical aspects of a career in public service.

“SIEPR provides a great platform for students interested in public service to ask ‘What is it like? What do I need to do in order to pursue a career in government?’” says Ramin Toloui, the Tad and Dianne Taube Policy Fellow at SIEPR and a longtime civil servant who President Biden will soon nominate to serve as the State Department’s assistant secretary for economic and business affairs. Toloui has been both a mentor to SIEPR’s young researchers and a featured guest at program events.

For Maya Bedge, BA ‘23, it was the prospect of engaging with Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England and a United Nations special envoy, in a virtual meeting with SIEPR research assistants and predocs that prompted her to pull over at a Starbucks outside Salt Lake City on her way to Portland, Ore. to start a summer internship. Interested in a career in public service, Bedge asked Carney to reflect on whether the civic or private sectors do a better job of combating societal issues like wealth inequality or hunger.

“SIEPR does a great job fostering a small community that allows you to make close connections with policymakers and faculty that you otherwise couldn’t at larger university speaker events,” says Bedge, who spent the last year as a research assistant for Thomas Dee, a SIEPR senior fellow and professor in the Graduate School of Education. She credits her SIEPR experience with helping her land her highly competitive internship at Girls Who Invest, a non-profit that aims to draw more women into asset management.

“My time at SIEPR has influenced my career path in that, before, I didn’t think that I could combine finance with social good,” Bedge says. She also says that her SIEPR-supported research into the education technology landscape has helped her other campus activities. This includes designing a personal finance curriculum for low-income high school students as part of her work with the campus club Stanford Women in Finance.

For faculty, a two-way street

SIEPR research assistants and predocs interviewed for this story credit their faculty mentorships with inspiring and challenging them.

Ramani, for instance, built close relationships not only with Bloom, the co-author of his paper, but also Toloui and Peter Klenow, an economics professor and the Gordon and Betty Moore Senior Fellow at SIEPR. Ramani established a rapport with Toloui after taking the latter’s course on navigating financial crises. Toloui later recruited Ramani to help him design a course on the economic impact of artificial intelligence. Klenow, along with Bloom, served as Ramani’s thesis adviser.

For faculty, the benefits of working with research assistants and predocs goes both ways.

“Engaging students with interests in public policy is extraordinarily rewarding,” Toloui says. “It’s inspiring to think that their energy and curiosity will be channeled into grappling with pressing problems facing our world.”

No two experiences alike

The stories of Eva Lestant and Sheah Deilami, both of whom are interested in development economics and recently completed two-year stints as predocs, highlight another remarkable feature of SIEPR’s pipeline programs: They are tailored to students’ interests and goals.

For Lestant, this meant spending several months working in the field as part of the Stanford King Center on Global Development’s African Urban Development Research Initiative (when the pandemic hit, she returned to her native France to complete her fellowship). Lestant, who holds a master’s in engineering, says her experience living in the community she was studying and building contacts with local government officials was invaluable. So, too, was learning from King Center Director Pascaline Dupas and Marcel Fafchamps — both SIEPR senior fellows who have spent extensive time conducting research in developing countries.

Lestant says her SIEPR experience taught her to put a policy relevance lens on research questions and to appreciate the importance of rigorous, top-quality analyses. It also reaffirmed for her the importance of taking a bottom-up approach to understanding the challenges faced by people living in extreme poverty.

“Personifying the data helps make sense of it,” says Lestant, who is about to begin working toward her PhD in economics at Stanford.

Deilami, meanwhile, had different hopes when she started as a predoc in 2019. After earning her master’s in applied economics and finance from UC-Santa Cruz, Deilami spent nearly a year in Tanzania as a research assistant. Having experienced life on the ground, she came to SIEPR to hone her technical skills as a researcher.

Aside from one month in Ethiopia, Deilami spent her fellowship focused on data collection, analysis, and visualization. She got insights into how to craft research questions, re-evaluate projects based on survey results, and project manage.

What’s more, working with other predocs, taking classes, and attending speaker events opened her eyes to all that a career in economics has to offer.

“Normally, as a research assistant or predoc, you get to see only what your principal investigator is doing,” says Deilami, who is now enrolled in the PhD program in agriculture and resource economics at UC-Berkeley. “Because of SIEPR, I have tasted other aspects of the field and have realized there’s so much that intrigues me.”

Find out more about SIEPR undergraduate research assistant positions here and predoc fellowships here.

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