Published on Development Impact

Doing Development Economics at a Liberal Arts College Part Two

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Following on from yesterday’s post on doing development economics at a Liberal Arts college, we have a second post today to get additional perspectives. One point I wanted to note is that I think that while the post is about liberal arts colleges, many of the same issues will arise for people teaching in universities in other countries that don’t have large PhD programs, as well as some of the same issues also face researchers at the World Bank and other development research careers outside of academia. So even if you aren’t interested in liberal arts schools, read along...

Today we hear from Jessica Hoel, the Gerald L. Schlessman Assistant Professor of Economics at Colorado College, and Tahir Andrabi, Stedman-Sumner Professor of Economics at Pomona College (and this year on leave as inaugural Dean of the Lahore University of Management Sciences School of Education).
Thoughts and Advice from Jessica Hoel


  • How I experience the “downsides” of SLACs (small liberal arts colleges), and a few “upsides” as well
I do not teach graduate students, but people who have not taught at top liberal arts colleges may be surprised by the level of rigor I can bring into my undergraduate teaching. I regularly assign journal articles in my electives; I have assigned Econometrica articles to sophomores before and I will again. (Aside: did my students understand the Ecma articles? You be the judge) I also have flexibility in what I teach, which is not usually the case at R1s or R2s. I’m currently working on a paper about the role of ambiguity in technology adoption when product quality is uncertain, so this year I’m teaching an upper level elective on time and uncertainty preferences. One of my senior thesis students is going to force me to learn about machine learning algorithms. I assure you, my undergrads keep me on my toes!
It’s true that my undergrad RAs are not as good as the professional RAs I worked with at IFPRI. However, I remember being a graduate student RA and I required a lot of training my first year. The most efficient strategy is to co-author with people who employ full time professional RAs.
I teach 4-5 classes a year (a 3-2 or 2-2, in the jargon) and also supervise 4-5 senior theses. I certainly spend more time on teaching than do people who work at flagship R1s or the Bank, but is that the relevant counterfactual? Many second tier research university jobs have at least a 2-1 teaching load, their class sizes are larger than mine, and they supervise multi-year dissertations. I have teaching assistants. I have graders. I’m sure I spend more time in office hours than people at R2s, but isn’t that the fun part?
I do find I have less access to outside funding than friends at research universities and think tanks, I suspect because funding agencies believe I don’t do real research. Perhaps this blog post and its readers can help to convince funders that people like me can be serious scholars too.
How do I mitigate the challenges?
  • Co-authors and strong networks are essential
Most liberal arts colleges have one or at most three development economists. While colleagues in other fields are valuable, there is a kind of feedback and access that only other development economists can provide. Co-authors can also provide access to RAs, funding, and more importantly big original data collections. I have found success teaming with co-authors who work at places like IFPRI or the Bank because they often have resources but lack time, especially if they are on soft money. I am very busy when I’m teaching, but that teaching buys out the rest of my year, so I have actually found more time to read, think, model, and write at Colorado College than I did as an Associate Research Fellow at IFPRI. It’s harder for me to rush to the field to fix a problem, but it’s easier for me to find big chunks of time to write. I pitch myself as a valuable member of a team.
  • Be bold.
Working at a small school can be isolating. You will not grow without feedback, so you must learn to be bold in asking for help. I have had to learn how to invite myself for seminars and brown bags, ask econometrics questions via Twitter, ask strangers for modeling help at conferences, invite strangers to co-author with me when I get really stuck, and generally put myself out there in ways that sometimes feel uncomfortable.
But it pays off! This blog post is a perfect example: there is no reason for David McKenzie to know who I am. We work in different sub-fields, I am an early career scholar at a small school, and David is very fancy (Google Scholar says his work has been cited more than 16,000 times; my work has been cited… less often). The reason David does know who I am is because I was bold and tweeted to some very famous people and sometimes I got a response. Sometimes they even retweeted me. David noticed. He’s now asked me to contribute to this blog post, and later this year when I have questions about the subjective beliefs paper I’m working on, I plan to ask David for help. My research is and will be better because I was bold in the past and will be bold in the future.
What are the advantages or unexpected ways that teaching at a liberal arts college has helped you as a development economist?
  • I am close to colleagues in other disciplines.
Good development economists are by nature interdisciplinary. My work on cooperation between spouses requires me to learn about ethnography and history. My work on agricultural input quality requires me to learn about chemistry and botany. At universities and think tanks, you’re often so siloed in your big home department that you don’t know colleagues in other disciplines personally, and that makes it harder to ask them questions. At small liberal arts colleges, you do know the African historian, the aqueous chemist, the botanist, and your kids probably go to school together.
  • More modest research requirements allow me to take bigger risks.
I have more intellectual freedom than my peers. Many research departments and think tanks have strict numerical or qualitative publication requirements: X papers published per year, Y papers in Z level journals for tenure or promotion. My friends at other institutions feel pressure to choose safer projects and send their papers to journals they are reasonably sure will accept them quickly. They don't have time to aim high, risk project failure, go through many rounds of submission. Under the more moderate research expectations at Colorado College, I have chosen to invest in riskier projects and send my papers to tip top journals. My riskiest project did fail*, but my submissions to fancy journals haven’t always been desk rejected! I’ve received valuable comments from top notch editors and referees that have improved my papers and my research agenda.
*We were going to combine an RCT of a program to improve female financial inclusion with games that measured cooperation between and propensity to hide income from spouses, testing for differential treatment effects by household type in a sample of more than 2000 households. I’m still sad that it fell apart. If you have an RCT like that, know that we have games designed, piloted, and ready to go. I would love to partner with you on another high risk/high reward project.
Any advice for development economists on the job market considering liberal arts colleges as a place to apply to/take up a job offer at?
  • Tailor your cover letter, CV, and interview practice for SLACs.
If you have a passion for teaching, tell me so! Look at the course offerings in my department and tell me how your expertise and interests would complement and expand on what we already do. Be creative in how you might combine your teaching with your research. This year my behavioral class is going to run an experiment that complements my research agenda. My chair and dean are happy with my progress as a “teacher-scholar.”
  • We value high quality research.
We will ask questions about your research in the interview and we will care about your answer. Be ready to describe your work to economists in different fields and to undergraduates more broadly, but don’t underestimate us. Some of the hardest questions I got during job talks were from “ignorant” undergraduate students; good undergrads have an uncanny knack for getting right to the heart of the issue, even if they don’t fully understand what they are asking. My colleagues and I do understand what they are asking, and we want to see you not only know the answer, but also be able to explain it to “ignorant” undergraduates.
  • The compensation is better than many people think.
The compensation at top SLACs is competitive with second tier research jobs, especially when you account for cost of living and benefits. I also negotiated a good start-up package and have never had trouble getting funding for conferences, summer RAs, visiting co-authors, and other small research supports.
  • Introduce yourself at NEUDC.
I’ll be at NEUDC this year, as will many other SLAC professors. Job market candidates, be bold and introduce yourself!

Final reflections on development economics life at a LAC from Tahir Andrabi
  • Students are greatly motivated by big development questions and issues. Genuinely curious and passionate, pushing professors beyond text-bookish type explanations. So teaching can be fun, and one can introduce research ideas pretty easily. 
  • While not graduate students, they are very interested in research. Opportunities for undergraduate research are now being seen as one of the big drawing points for top liberal arts colleges. As development research has become more empirical, I have developed more and more avenues to get students involved. The way to start is for students to start replicating studies. Just last year, a student combined her econometrics project on replicating one of your studies on female entrepreneurship. She then tried to do some heterogeneity analysis. Even if not leading  to real research, it is more instructive for everyone. 
  • Every year, there are a couple of students who are really special and can become part of and contribute to real research projects. I currently have a student coauthor (just graduated and is working as an RA at the New York fed) who worked on a paper on the effects of repeating grades. He is a genuine co-author and we have a paper ready to be submitted. Another one, a current senior with good programming skills is writing code to create checks on cleaning data as it comes from the field from a RCT.  The code creates a daily report sent back to the field. I am finding that we have a lot of students interested in data sciences and they are very excited on working on development projects. But I am quite experienced I this so basically have a system of training and mentorship starting with a summer project at the end of the sophomore or junior year and leading into independent study as an RA.  Many of my student have the gone into work with Jishnu Das and Asim Khwaja as full time RAs and others as RAs in Chicago, Brown and Stanford. 
  • On the faculty side, one can create a virtue out of necessity. There is less pressure for immediate publication  so one can work on issues of genuine interest. This is how I started the Pakistan research project which is now a multinational enterprise. 
  • The real drawback is not having collaborators and colleagues to give  real time comments and feedback on one’s work. The other difficulty is difficulty in getting involved in large scale projects such as field experiments etc. So I think it is really important to configure an external life and be part of some robust research group. This is particularly important for younger faculty so building on relationships with their graduate school mentors and fellow students is really important. 


David McKenzie

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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