“Tell me what I haven’t seen, and is going to create problems soon.” While I never literally heard these words in my pre-Institute years working at a policy institution, they pretty much summarise what was expected from my fellow economists and me. Being able to meet this expectation is what I keep in mind in my supervision and teaching.
So, what does it take? My view is that two major ingredients are needed. First of all, it is crucial to be well equipped. Analytical tools, be they theoretical or empirical, are not an end in themselves, but without them one cannot go much beyond some gut feeling or simple description of the question at hand. Many insights start with a “well, this looks bizarre” moment when an economic model or a statistical analysis points to an aspect that we would never have guessed on our own.
Second, one needs an inclination towards challenging. Telling others what they haven’t seen requires that we are not merely satisfied with the existing state of knowledge. Handling economic problems means chasing an evolving and moving target, and one needs to be nimble. Policymakers who think they have it all figured out are in for a rude awakening.
An economist equipped with only one of these two ingredients will not meet my former bosses’ expectations. The person will be either locked in yesterday’s knowledge, however sophisticated, or challenge it in disorderly ways that will not lead anywhere. I therefore aim to bring my students a rigorous technical training, while at the same time stressing what the policy story is behind the dry – and often frustrating – math work.
Managing students’ expectations is a central part of our task, so they keep the motivation that brought them to the Institute even when things prove tedious. In my teaching, I focus on having a proper level of challenge to the students (as those who took my exams can surely attest) so they can progress, while also making sure that they don’t get discouraged. It is also important to support students when the long haul of learning and research feels a bit too long. Making a difference is a fine goal, but to reach it we often have to work on specific issues that may look small in the broader context. While this can feel frustrating, it is by solving problems piece by piece that one can steer things the right way. Handling one policy problem may not change the world, but for the people who are affected by that problem it changes everything.
But one can only speak to those willing to listen. One of the major strengths of the Institute is the drive and quality of our students. This makes for fruitful interactions, and the fulfilment of graduates who will see the problems that others haven’t, as well as be receptive to the issues pointed out by others that may have been missed.
This article was published in Globe #29, the Graduate Institute Review.