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Using a PhD in development economics outside of academia: interviews with Alan de Brauw and Bailey Klinger

David McKenzie's picture
This is the second in our occasional series on having an impact in development outside a research university. Today's interviews are with Alan de Brauw, a Senior Research Fellow in the Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute; and Bailey Klinger, the founder and (until recently) CEO of the Entrepreneurial Finance Lab


Alan de Brauw


DI: Describe what your job entails, and what a typical week looks like
In short, I manage a set of research projects largely focused around trying to understand how to make agriculture work better for the poor and to improve diets. I typically start the week trying to figure out what among those projects is most urgent to do to meet deadlines, and start working on them or trying to make sure they are getting done. I might work, therefore, on concept notes, grant proposals, survey forms, reports, or papers for academic audiences.  I also spend some time on broader research programs within IFPRI (e.g. on Food Systems for Healthier Diets) and on administrative work or in meetings related to both.
 
How much of your time do you spend a) doing research; b) reading research done by others; c) travelling in developing countries? 
Almost all the time I spend at work is either thinking about, doing, guiding, supporting, promoting, or trying to fund research. Of that, I would like to think I spend about a third of my time actually “doing” research, and almost all of it is in collaboration with others. The research is sometimes a bit different than what is perhaps done at top research universities, in that it needs to be policy relevant.
 
I read a lot of research done by others, but I squeeze a lot of that reading when traveling (I read six papers recently on the way to Rome, for example). I spend about a quarter of my time traveling; since Rome is important for agriculture and Wageningen UR have become an important partner in the past few years, a portion of my travel is to Europe. Unfortunately I don’t spend a lot of time in the field in developing countries these days; rather, I spend it meeting with officials, in workshops, or negotiating points in projects.
 
Tell us about one accomplishment in this job that you are particularly proud of. 
This question was your hardest, but I guess I have to say playing a small, contributory role in the 2016 World Food Prize won by my colleagues Howdy Bouis, Jan Low, Maria Andrade, and Robert Mwanga for the development of the orange sweet potato for Africa.
 
How did you end up in this job? What do you like most about it, and what are the main downsides compared to being in a research university? 
I started my career post-Ph.D. at Williams College, and as much as I liked it there, I felt like I wanted to do more research. I found out about an opening at IFPRI and applied, and was lucky enough to be hired. One of the things I’ve liked most about this job is being able to take kernels of questions asked of my research groups, and to turn them into creative, interesting research problems to solve, whether they be RCTs or not. On downsides, two jump out at me.  First, we complete a lot more research than we can publish—once the money for a project is gone, it becomes tricky to actually get the papers out. But it’s possible, as my CV demonstrates.  Second, you are more exposed to development fads at a place like IFPRI than an academic department outside the Beltway. To give a not so outlandish example, if somehow the zeitgeist decided that robots were the next big thing in development, I’m quite sure I’d end up spending some time in meetings discussing them.
 
What tools from your Ph.D. do you use most? Are there things you wish you had done more of as a student, or do you have any other advice for budding development economists thinking of jobs outside of a pure research track?
Two things jump out from graduate school that I use all the time—first, I learned a lot about how to design and implement surveys. A lot of my work at IFPRI involves guiding surveys as they go into the field, and the introduction I got in graduate school was invaluable. Second, I began to learn how to think critically about research—I say began to learn because I feel like I am always learning how to be a better critical reader.  My general advice for budding development economists—whether they want to work at a research university or elsewhere—is to both keep an open mind about the types of jobs that are out there, and to realize that your dissertation is not going to be the best piece you ever do, so get it out of the way so you can find additional interesting questions to try to answer.

Bailey Klinger


DI: Describe a typical day or week for you
My job started with an idea of a new methodology for credit risk analysis in emerging markets to solve the problem of information opacity for micro and small businesses applying for loans, which restrains entrepreneurship and productivity growth among MSMEs. The first four years involved marshaling grant resources and launching a research project to test this idea. Based on the positive results, the following six years involved turning it into a scaling private enterprise. So the nature of the job changed significantly over time. A typical day in the earlier years involved applying for grants, supervising field work, and analyzing data. A typical day in the middle years involved direct sales to financial institutions, investor pitches, R&D on the models and product, and closely monitoring data and results. A typical day in the later years was mostly focused on building expert teams for all of these functions, and an organization to make them able to work together effectively.
 
How much of your time do you spend a) doing research; b) reading research done by others; c) travelling in developing countries?
Primary and secondary research made up around 80% of my time when creating the product and launching the enterprise, and around 10-20% of my time as the product matured, the team grew, and the company began to scale. Travel has been intensive, 30% of my time is travelling to other developing countries where we work. I also live in an emerging market (Peru), so spend little time outside of developing countries.
 
Tell us about one accomplishment in this job that you are particularly proud of.
 To date, over $1.5 billion USD has been lent to MSME owners, self- and informally-employed individuals, and low-income consumers across emerging markets using our scoring tool. Over 75% of those loans would not have been made if not for our tool, because of a lack of traditional information to evaluate credit risk.
 
How did you end up in this job? What do you like most about it, and what are the main downsides compared to being in a research university?
 I was personally more interested in a researcher-practitioner route than the academic track (despite what I might have written in my application essay :-), and was pointed towards the DFI & foundation space rather than targeting social entrepreneurship. But I just found this idea too compelling and the potential development impact too promising not to pursue, so I changed plans right before graduating. My doctoral program provided a critically important set of resources to make this possible, including the skills to create the product, a professor who became my co-founder, and support through the University’s Center for International Development.

What I liked most about the job was a combination of intensive research (still getting my hands dirty with data and publishing), but also the wide variety in the day-to-day (regressions in the morning, pitch investors in the afternoon, fly to the field to meet with clients and end users the next day).

The main downside, which was fine for me at that point in my life but could be a deal-breaker depending on one’s risk tolerance and personal/family obligations, is the uncertainty. Entrepreneurship is high-risk, high-return, and certainly does not provide the stability of the academic track (once you get in, that is). I had to make do with very little income for an extended period, significant uncertainty if the enterprise would survive from one year to the next, and the possibility that it could end in failure, with no financial return and no obvious next step in my career.
 
What tools from your Ph.D. do you use most? Are there things you wish you had done more of as a student, or do you have any other advice for budding development economists thinking of jobs outside of a pure research track?
 I’m a big believer of over-weighting technical skills while at school. It’s a lot easier to learn things like organizational design, team building, leadership, etc. through self-study and learning by doing. It’s a lot harder to figure out things like item response theory on your own with a text book. So even if you are pointed to a more of a practitioner career path, my suggestion is to take full advantage of building the technical fundamentals. Also, keep an open mind as to what you’ll end up doing. I expected to be working somewhere like the World Bank after graduation as a research economist, and ended up being an entrepreneur using a completely different set of skills. And then after 10 years of being an entrepreneur, I ended up working as a senior policy adviser for a cabinet member in Peru, using a completely different set of skills. I never would have expected either when I first set out on my studies. So in addition to strengthening technical fundamentals in coursework, it’s valuable to try a number of different things and keep yourself and your plans flexible, so that you can take advantage of all the unexpected new opportunities that come up.

 

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