PREDOC Careers Panel
Wednesday, July 7 at 4:30 p.m. CDT
- Byline July 07, 2021
Pre-doctoral positions are an excellent opportunity to learn more about a research career and decide whether it's right for you. Going on to a research career does not necessarily mean pursuing a PhD, however, and the skills obtained during a pre-doc are often widely applicable. This panel brings together former pre-docs who now work outside the academy in a variety of roles, from consulting to finance. They will share their experience and advice on how to leverage the pre-doc experience into a successful non-academic career.
Stephen Lamb: Good afternoon everyone. My name is Stephen Lamb, and I'm a coordinator with the PREDOC consortium. I'm very happy to welcome you all to this panel on careers outside the academy. This session will be recorded and posted to the PREDOC website, which I invite all of you to visit as we expand our events, materials, and offerings in the months and years to come. We have a lot to get through, so I won't waste any more time. I'll turn it over to this afternoon's moderator, Dr. Peter Chen, to get us started.
Peter Chen: Good evening everyone. Thanks for joining us and joining this wonderful panel of four alums that have gone through the pre-doc program and have had a terrific start to their non-academia careers. So to start things off, we're gonna introduce them one by one, and we're gonna ask them to talk about their undergraduate background, their post-undergraduate experience, and then what they're currently working on. So to kick things off, Molly, could you introduce yourself, please?
Molly Wharton: For sure. Hi everyone, my name is Molly Wharton. Nice to meet you all. So, just quick background on me is I went to Harvard undergrad, where I studied Economics, and I fully loved it. I thought I wanted to do that for the rest of my life, but first, before jumping right into the PhD program, I went over to Morgan Stanley, joined their US economics team. I was there for two years doing macro research, but definitely different type of research than what you see in academia, much more surface level and kind of fast paced. And then before just jumping into a PhD program, I wanted to make sure that that was still the right path for me. So, like many of you, I went over to the pre-doctoral program at Stanford, working for Professors Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro. And I was using that as a test year to make sure that the academic path was right for me, and within a few months, I realized it wasn't. And we're gonna get into why, but I decided that I didn't wanna stay on for a PhD, and so I went through some job applications last year. And this past September, I started over at Farallon Capital, which is a hedge fund based in the Bay Area. I joined their Long-Short Equity Team, so an Investment Analyst role, and I have been over there. So, I guess nine months now, working as an Investment Analyst, that's me.
Peter Chen: Theresa, can you introduce yourself next? Thanks.
Theresa Dihn: Hi everyone. My name is Theresa Dihn, and I was a Research Assistant at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors from August, 2018 to just this past June. Prior to that, I graduated from the University of Florida in 2018 with a BS in Mathematics and BA in Economics and a Minor in Statistics. I decided that I wanted to pursue a PhD in Economics in my freshman year, and proceeded to do absolutely everything that I could to prepare myself for that experience, motivated in part due to my perception of being an underdog coming from a state school. I was an undergrad TA and RA in Economics in the business school, I took the first year of PhD-level micro course at UAV, honors thesis, exchange student, and taking more classes in Economics. I also intern on a Macroeconomics Team at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and I participated in the American Economic Association Summer Program. So that experience was how I came to know about RA position within the Federal Reserve system, and I ultimately landed at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in DC, and specifically in the Division of International Finance. During my first year, I was actually on the Emerging Market Economy section, but my latter two years were spent in Program Direction, which is like the international affairs arm of the Fed that interacts with foreign central banks and coordinates and prepares for meetings that the governors have with international organizations like the G7, G20, obviously IMF, Bank for International Settlements, et cetera. So as an RA, I also started a Master of Science in Applied and Computational Mathematics at Johns Hopkins University and graduated in fall of 2020, which fit in perfectly with the recruitment cycle for industry jobs. In August, I'll start as a Data Scientist, Senior Consultant at one of the major federal consulting companies in the DC area. I'm really grateful to be here to share my story, and I hope that it can be example for others who are considering careers outside of the typical economics and finance PhD path.
Peter Chen: Great. Laura, could you introduce yourself please? Thank you.
Laura Talpey: Yep. Hi, my name is Laura Talpey. I'm glad to be here. I went to Washington University in St. Louis as my undergrad and I studied Math and Cognitive Science there and started getting interested in education policy and education systems. And went on to SIEPR to study Education Economics, and I spent two years at SIEPR thinking about whether or not I wanted to do a PhD. And I was working with a few different professors there, and ultimately decided that I was at least going to take some time off after SIEPR before doing a PhD, and ended up getting an opportunity to come to where I live now, Juneau, Alaska. And I'm running a small school here, a Montessori school. And so I'm basically just, I'm doing applied education work now, and I do a lot of different things here. I manage staff and the school and I help with education policy in Alaska. So that's been my experience and it's a pretty big 180 from what I was doing at SIEPR but everything has really led me to a good place, so I'm glad to share my experiences with you all.
Peter Chen: Great, Stephen, last but not least, would you go ahead and introduce yourself please?
Stephen Lee: Yeah, absolutely. So my, for my undergrad, I got a physics degree from the University of Memphis, which is a smaller school down in Tennessee. After that, I actually played professional golf for the first year after that. Golf was what initially took me to Memphis. And so then for about a year after that, I went back to get a Master's Degree in Economics, rolled that into a Master's Degree in Computer Science, and while I was finishing that up, I got an opportunity to go to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and work on their finance team. So that was a lot of policy stuff, which I can discuss more if that comes up, but so after the Fed, I was there for about a year, I went into litigation consulting also for about a year. And currently, I just started a job as a Senior Decision Scientist at FedEx Corporation.
Peter Chen: Great, thank you so much panelists. So we're gonna go ahead and jump into our first question, and it relates to closing the loop with your career within the academy or within the research environment. And specifically, we're gonna ask the panelists, what changed your mind about pursuing the PhD and how did you go about approaching your faculty or research supervisors about your plan to leave this PhD path? And we're gonna start with Molly please. So you mentioned that you TAed, or you RAed for Shapiro and Gentzkow, and that's quite an experience. And so if you can elaborate on what that was like and what exactly made you realize, "Hmm, maybe this PhD thing isn't really for me."
Molly Wharton: Yeah, absolutely. I guess I would first say that I do think the pre-doctoral program is a really great way to get a feel of what a PhD is like, much more so than studying economics as an undergrad. It's just much more indicative of the academic life. So, I think it's a really great thing to do before you just jump into a six year PhD program, very glad I did. So I'd say there were two phases to my decision. The first phase was me realizing that I didn't think I wanted to stay in academia for my entire life, but that maybe I should still get a PhD. And I'd say that the major factors there were, I guess, firstly, just realizing that I really missed the pace of working in finance and having much more quick deadlines and turnaround times rather than these projects that take years and years, which I didn't mind to some extent, but the fact that that was all I was ever working on. I think was a little tough adjustment for me after spending two years in Wall Street. So that was part of it; it was just the pace of the work. I'd also say that just the type of research you do, as I'm sure some of you are learning in a pre-doc program, it is quite different than maybe an undergrad thesis you wrote or the economics you're learning in classes, just in terms of the narrowness of the field that you have to pursue as a full-time academic and just the pace and timeline of research projects. They take a really long time rather than a paper that you'd maybe take half a semester to write. So I'd say those two were pretty big differences. And then just, I'd say, realizing how solitary the work environment can be. And that's not always true. There is, I think, increasingly collaboration in the academic world, but it's definitely of a different magnitude than you would get at many private sector jobs where you're constantly working on teams and interacting with people. So I'd say those were the main reasons that I realized maybe I didn't wanna be an academic my whole life and be a full-time professor after getting a PhD. But then I still thought maybe it still makes sense to get a PhD and then do something else with it and go into private sector afterwards. So I spent some time looking into some of those opportunities, whether that be in tech as a data scientist, or back in finance, or in policy. And so I started having a bunch of conversations, I guess last… a year and a half ago with people who had done that, so who had left, had gone from their PhD program into some of those other opportunities. And I do think that can be a really compelling path, but my conclusion from that ended up being that if I already, before even starting a PhD program, knew that I wouldn't want to do this for my whole life, there would maybe be faster ways to get to those other options than spending six years in a program. And that it could maybe just be tough to actually make it through six years if I realized already from the start that that wasn't gonna be my long-term path. So yeah, happy to dive more into any of those. But I'd say that was the thought process that then I realized that if I wasn't planning to stay in academia afterwards, then maybe it's best to not start a six-year program, and just think now about what I might wanna do later on and get there a little bit quicker. So then the next question of how I then approached my advisors about that. Yeah, I was definitely really nervous about it, because they, as a professor, when you have these RAs working for you, you assume that they all wanna certainly go into a PhD program. But yeah, just set up a meeting and had my reasons why, I realized that it wasn't for me, and obviously I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to have worked with them, but just told them that I realized this wasn't the right path for me. And I'd say that they were very understanding. It's not your professor's job to force you to go on to an academic path that's not right for you. And they're also grateful for the work you have already done for them, so I'd say it actually went totally well, and I was able to finish off my year on a really nice note and still get a lot out of the program. So yeah, I'd say it can be a little uncomfortable if you're going to them with a plan that was maybe different than what they had thought you were coming to the program for, but they they'd rather have you make the right decision for yourself. So yeah, I'd say that's those are the major reasons, and happy to answer any follow-up questions on that, thanks.
Peter Chen: Thank you Molly. And Theresa, so you spent a lot of time in pursuing many opportunities to build up a career in research and academia. And can you talk us through why you finally made the decision to go a different path?
Theresa Dihn: Yeah, a lot of what Molly mentioned really resonate with me as well about the work environment and the pace. Overall, there was a confluence of factors: internal, external, large and small that led me to change my mind. First, to even be eligible to apply to top PhD programs, I needed three extra letters of recommendation, which I had one from undergrad, so two had to come from my time as an RA. So at around the one- to one-and-a-half-year mark, I wasn't yet confident in securing in that, so I extended my RA contract to a total of almost three years. I also strongly considered doing a second RA position as I'd seen some other RAs do. But then around the two year mark, I started to really question how much additional time that I was willing to invest in this whole pursuit since a second RA position would imply another two years plus the six years of the PhD. So on top of the opportunity cost of work experience, salary and retirement savings, not to mention the uncertainty of graduating into another recession and the likelihood of leaving DC. And so all that aside, while I loved research and working with data on policy relevant questions, I found that even as an introvert, I've been more social in teamwork-based environments with deadlines and shorter project timelines compared to academic environments, which seemed more individualistic and open-ended. I also saw that at least in DC, one can be working on policy-relevant questions in more directly impactful capacities, many of which didn't require a PhD. But ultimately, my personal preferences and professional priorities changed, and the decision came down to what was the best path for my wellbeing and fulfillment. So I started looking at other paths. My immediate supervisor was someone who had work experience outside of academia and had more policy-oriented interests as well, so it was a very natural continuing dialogue for me to first get to know about their background and then ask them for advice. I think that's a pretty low ask when it comes to opening the door to more conversations about other paths. And then that really became natural to the point where they're helping me for some interview questions or just the interview process for one of the positions that was related to something in their background. So yeah, like you never know, just start a dialogue. And your immediate supervisor is also not the only person that you can reach out to; talking to other RAs, or other colleagues, or other people wherever you are, people who might not be your immediate mentors, they can still offer really valuable advice.
Peter Chen: Thank you, Theresa. And Laura, you're next, and I can't help but think that you've probably made the most dramatic U-turn among the panelists here. Can you talk us through the thought process behind going from potentially pursuing a PhD to a much tougher job of running a preschool in Alaska?
Laura Talpey: Yeah, well, the whole time I was at SIEPR, I was actually toying with the idea of teaching and/or going into education policy. And we actually had a presentation at SIEPR from someone from the Department of State who was just talking to us pretty frankly about policy and basically saying academic research doesn't factor into policy that gets created, and if it does, it's, it's pretty tangential. And like people were asking, "What about think tanks? Does research that comes out of think tanks, does that factor in policy?" And he was like, "Not really, no, we're doing it like way faster than academic research can possibly come out." And I think that kind of shifted my perspective 'cause I knew that always to some extent, but hearing him, really hearing him and other policymakers say similar things kind of made me reflect on why I was doing research. And I realized that I thought I was doing research for the hope of impacting policy and not for the sake of just learning or knowledge. And so I think after that, and in like the last year of my pre-doc experience, I started stepping back and thinking about whether I was going to be fulfilled just doing research for the sake of knowledge for the rest of my life. And I think similar to what Molly was saying, I definitely went through a phase where I thought maybe I would get a PhD and then leave academia, and I just started, yeah, really thinking about the opportunity cost of whether that was worth it, and whether the skills that I would gain in a PhD were that much more than what I could gain outside of academia. So that was what kind of led me to, yeah, step back from that. And this experience came out of what I'm doing now. Directing this school came out of left field; it just was an opportunity that came up. But yeah, I think that was sort of what happened for me. And I wouldn't say that my advisors were all that surprised when I told them that I wasn't gonna go on to do a PhD. I was pretty open with them from the beginning, and I think that, yeah, your advisors really want, they only want you to go into research if you're gonna like it. You're not, I don't know, my take is that I don't think you're going to be good at research if you don't like it. The people who I've seen really thrive and succeed in a PhD and in academia are just really, really into it and can really focus on a long-term project for a long time. And the work I do now is just, everything is faster, turnaround is faster, project deadlines are faster. And I'm working with people constantly every day, which was so different from sitting at my workstation at SIEPR all day, every day by myself and having weekly meetings with my advisor. So it's just a totally different work environment, and I think it's really hard to imagine until you do it, but I'm really glad that I did listen to that instinct and take a job that was really different because it definitely is a better fit for me, and I think it's gonna fulfill me much more in the long run.
Peter Chen: Thank you so much Laura, and thank you Molly and Theresa for your responses earlier as well. We're gonna transition to our second question for the panel, and this has to do with now that you've identified that your passion lies outside of the PhD, how do you find the right job for you? And specifically, how do you first discover the spectrum of jobs that are out there that fits your skills and your passion? And then once you have identified those, how do you pursue those opportunities? We're gonna start the discussion with Stephen, so Stephen share your thoughts on this please.
Stephen Lee: Yeah, thanks. Yeah, so I think that this is something that can, especially starting off if you're pretty fresh out of, coming out of undergrad or master's program and going into a pre-doc program, you don't really have a ton of legacy experience to bring where you're into a specific industry or anything like that. And so there's something, I think, to be said for kind of a shotgun approach in seeing where you fit. Essentially reframe the question saying you've got a certain set of skills, you've learned a certain amount of things, but where is there demand for what it is that you can do? And so like in my case, the kind of stuff that so many, at that point I had a master's degree in Econ and Computer Science and was a lot more interested in, I had more fun, I think, with the computer science, but the econ part, I think, is an important way of approaching, solving questions. But that being said, an opportunity in litigation consulting opened up and you still get to do that. That being said, this current role is a much closer fit, but it's sort of like two hops away from where I was. So had I seen this current job title a couple of years ago, I think I would have said for sure that's what I wanna do, but I wouldn't have necessarily had any of the credibility to go into it. And especially coming out of these kinds of pre-doctoral positions, if you're using, for example, STATA a lot, there's not necessarily gonna be a big private sector demand for STATA work or SAS work or something like that, so it may take a couple of hops where you get something that you can get that's private sector, and you'll need just to keep sending out applications and you keep reading applications and seeing what words show up a lot and go work on those skills and work on doing some of it in your spare time. And so, for example, that might look like working on some AWS or Microsoft Cloud certifications and being comfortable in those environments and beefing up on Python skills and stuff like that. But it doesn't have to be zero to one, you can take a couple of job hops to get there.
Peter Chen: Thank you Stephen. Molly, so we know that you ended up at a hedge fund, but what jobs were you considering at the time and how did you end up securing that job with the hedge fund?
Molly Wharton: Yeah, for sure. So I guess, firstly, I would just say that it can be a little scary when you think you have a plan for the next 10 years or even like the rest of your life, and then you realize it's not the right fit. And that was definitely, you know, I went through, at least a few months of like, "Oh gosh, what do I do now? I thought I had this whole plan and now it doesn't feel like the right fit, and I have no idea what to do." And so it's okay that you might have a period of time where you feel a little bit lost. But I also just, that's a huge opportunity to then just take a step back and really take time to think about what is the right path for you rather than just immediately jumping into the first job you can find. So I tried to be really slow and thoughtful about it and really just consider all possibilities, big picture of what was the right fit for me, both in terms of what I enjoy day today and what I'm good at, something that would really exemplify all my skills. And that was also, just to go back to the last question, that was something I thought about a lot too, about why the PhD wasn't right for me, is that I felt like I had some skill sets that just weren't really valued in an academic program, including like communication skills, writing skills. Obviously, that matters to some extent, you have to write papers, but I do think it matters less in academia than it does in some other jobs, and just like the ability to work on a team. So yeah, I really took a step back and thought about a bunch of different industries, and just started by having a lot of conversations, trying to talk to people and in all the industries. So I was looking at tech for a little while and in different parts of the finance world. And I'd say conversations are so helpful to see what those paths are like, but you also always have to remind yourself that everyone has their own bias based on the path they chose. That's certainly true of when you talk to your professors about whether or not to do a PhD. They have their own bias when they talk to you about that because that's the only thing they've ever known most of the time. So you always have to take advice with a grain of salt and then really think about how it applies to your own unique situation. So yeah, did tons of phone calls, coffee chats for a couple months, and then ultimately decided that finance was an area that still emphasized my interest in research and analysis, but was in a bit more of the environment that I think I thrive in, which is a little bit more fast-paced and collaborative. So ended up deciding that a hedge fund was a really good fit for me because it does have that academic bend to it where you're really like studying companies for a long period of time and having to really dig and understand a situation really well, or a company really well and be able to work with data. But it felt to me like it had a little bit more of that practical element that I really enjoy where you're then actually having to put something behind your research and put money on the line based on your research. So I think that's why that appealed to me. And then, I guess, the last thing I'd say is that what I really enjoy about what I do now is that our work is really in the pursuit of finding the right answer. You're doing research to... The full purpose of your research is to be correct, you don't really have any ulterior motives, which I found really cool. So I think I still get to really flex those research and analytical muscles, but it's just in an environment that feels like a better fit to me.
Peter Chen: Thank you Molly. Theresa, can you share your thought process behind how you went about your job search and what opportunities you thought would fit both in terms of training, but also your personal preferences?
Theresa Dihn: Yeah, a lot of what Stephen and Molly have said also resonated with me. One, in terms of getting that external feedback of where you'll fall into, and then also putting in the legwork beforehand to think about what you really want. So for personal and lifestyle reasons, I knew that I wanted to stay in a DC area, which is something of a company town. So my jobs and preferences came out to be jobs in the federal government versus jobs consulting for the federal government, and then jobs in economics versus data science. And since the economy wasn't looking too great, I started my job search almost a year in advance of when my RA contract was up. So in September, 2020, I started my job search and applied for positions on usajobs.gov, LinkedIn, and through Johns Hopkins University's recruiting since I qualified for the recruitment cycle as a fall 2020 master's graduate. So over a two month period, I sent out about a hundred job applications, kind of as an experiment on myself to gain immediate feedback. You know you get those callbacks, or you just get no response, or you get those immediate rejections. And then, so I got interviewed for five positions, one analyst position at a federal agency, another consultant position at a similar major firm, and a couple of data science positions in financial services. But the first offer that I got and ultimately accepted came in early November, and it was a really a no brainer to take it since the opportunity had everything on my wishlist that I thought of beforehand. So my title as a Data Scientist, large well-known company in the DC area, still working in public service, using my math degree since I knew that the time to strike was now as far as quantitative skills, a path for upward mobility, the flexibility to work on different projects and various federal agencies, which also came with a chance to expand my network in DC. So I'm really happy with my choice and how my job search turned out in part due to the introspection beforehand on what my values were and then how that might translate over to specific positions or companies.
Peter Chen: Thank you Steve and Molly and Teresa. We're gonna transition to question three, and in the next two questions, so question three and question four, has to do with how do you prepare for the application and interview process? So the third question is for the panel, what were some of the challenges that you encountered in this application and interview process? How did you anticipate them? How did you overcome them? And were there any surprises that you didn't anticipate, that you have to sort of think on your feet or overcome them in a very short period of time? Stephen, please let us know your thoughts on this.
Stephen Lee: Yeah, thanks. So I think that Theresa said it really well, is that it is, at least from my experience and I think probably in many cases, kind of a numbers game, where you do kind of just have to be prepared to throw a lot of applications out there. And I think mileage can vary on that, but certainly it's not abnormal to, I think, have to throw out quite a bit of applications. And so I think that that may be, in some cases, one of the challenges to overcome, is just as a mental shift to sit down and crank out applications and just see it as a factory of pumping them out and be a little bit less concerned about what comes back at the start, because they always will come back. But then I think beyond that, there can be, I think, some challenges with how you sell your experience in a pre-doctoral program compared to, for example, other candidates who may have had that same amount of time working in some other private sector job. And I think that the general theme that's come up a few times is project cycles. And so for example, with my time at the Federal Reserve Bank, I really worked primarily on two major research projects, there was a couple of other little ones in there, one of them was COVID related, but you're talking about a relatively small number of long-term projects that you're just going over and over and going deeper and deeper on. And that would be then contrasted with other people sort of in your comparable position who may have spent a couple years, even coming out of an internship or something like that, but they've spent couple of years in some other job where there may have been five to 10 other projects that they can talk about having worked done and kind of the results for that. And so, yeah, and I think that one of the advantages that I certainly saw about going to one of the Federal Reserve branches is that you did also have the policy win that you could take, and so that was kind of a branch that I really dove down because as you can imagine, a lot of people would rather do the research projects than the policy work, but the whole purpose behind the Federal Reserve System is ultimately these policy decisions. And so those cycles, there's a lot of necessary output and usually a bit of a shortage of people willing to, or wanting to grab some of those. But that can be really a good opportunity to get some of these projects, to get some more speed. And I was in the Finance Division, and so we were chasing things down, and things were a little bit more dynamic. But in my case, I ended up using those talking points a lot in interviews since it added a little bit more dynamic content. So I think just really coming up with how you can spin or set the narrative on what you've worked on, especially if it's primarily been one thing for a couple of years.
Peter Chen: Thank you Stephen. Theresa, do you have more to add on this?
Theresa Dihn: Yes, so when I was on my job search reading through a bunch of job descriptions in data science, all sorts of things, and I don't wanna scare anyone, but I quickly realized that unless one has a formal computer science background like Stephen or extensive programming experience in a production environment, the typical background and skillset of an RA--major in economics, did some math proofs, know your way around STATA or MATLAB, or SAS-- is not really gonna cut it for the most technical and competitive of data science positions and companies, simply because a typical RA is working under one economist, at most two or three, usually individually or sometimes on a small team with other RAs. Whereas in a data science environment, one could be working on a larger team with software developers, data engineers, software engineers, product managers. And the reason why working this way can be problematic is that in very small groups in legacy code, it can lend to a lack of quality control in coding and data management. There might be this odd naming convention that your economist wants you to follow, or this customer ran function that wrangles the data in a certain way, or the RA before you wrote the code in a sort of inefficient way, and it's gonna take way too much time and effort to rewrite the whole thing so you just have to go with it. So these are really kind of small distinctions, but taken all together could amount to bad habits that one has to unlearn if the industry standard is different. And yes, the skillset of learning how to code in incidents where programming languages can be transferable, but these specific competencies in our program are often not. So this was the typical RA looking for an industry job at a step higher than your average business analysts, but not by very much. So how I managed this was I knew that I wasn't going to be a software engineer at Google anytime soon, nor did I have the desire to, so I went for jobs that would appreciate my technical background, but also the other skills like collaboration, communication, project management, and writing that I've grown at the Fed. On a more practical note, I would say really hone in on your interviewing skills and talking about your research projects in an interview setting, so do mock interviews. Like for me, I write up everything I'm gonna say for typical questions that you get. And when answering questions, you might be used to providing all the details, giving all the caveats, all the unanswered questions when you're talking to your economist about research. So I found myself talking the interview questions, really it was rambling, but interviewers just want to know your one, two, three points. So practice being succinct and following a logical order when you are describing a situation. So talk about the situation, the tasks that you're doing, the action that you took, the results, and then your takeaway.
Peter Chen: Thank you so much Stephen and Theresa. So we're going to move on to the last question for the panel. Again, this is related to interview and application preparations, and in particular, you've built up all the skills during the PREDOC program (and frankly, even before then, all the training and research). How exactly do you market those skills in this new environment where you're going to be applying for jobs that not only require you to have quantitative skills, but also qualities that are aside from your programming or your typical intelligence or smarts? So I'm gonna start with Laura. Laura, could you share your thoughts on this? How did you market yourself?
Laura Talpey: Yeah, well, we were talking about this before the panel started, how when you're in the academic world, you describe what you're doing with great detail, and every part of the project, and who you were working with, and the methods you were using and everything. And coming out of academia, often that's not what people want to hear in the same way that a resume is a lot shorter than a CV. It's you just, you people, my experience was that interviewing for jobs, people want much more broad strokes. But I do think that the pre-doc experience really improved, yeah, I gained a lot of skills in the pre-doc experience, namely managing a research project, and organizing my time, and being able to self-direct, I think, was a really big thing because I had never had a job. I never had a full-time job before and in the work I do now, I am my own boss, I have to manage my own time, I have to manage projects, I'm setting the budget for the school and all of this. So I think that pointing to not only technical skills, but just this, it sounds really big, but yeah, time management, I think, and organization, and logical thinking really applies to basically any job that you would have outside of academia. So I think that in that way, it's a little hard to transfer, I think, to explain how you might transfer those skills to someone outside of academia, but I do think that the skills that you gain are highly transferable. And yeah, I think I would recommend talking it through with people with other people outside of academia before you do interviews, because if you're just talking about these things with academics, you might get a slightly different answer and it's a pretty different world.
Peter Chen: Thank you Laura. Molly, do you have more to add on this?
Molly Wharton: Yeah, sure. So I'd say, first and foremost, the most important thing, if you do decide to interview for non-academic jobs, it's just having a very clear pitch for why you decided not to do a PhD and why you decided to do whatever you're interviewing for. That, at least in my own experience, was like the most important thing that I had to get right, is just given that like you will not be coming from a traditional background most likely for whatever job you're applying for, being able to say, "This is why I thought I wanted to do a PhD, this is why I didn't, and this is why I ended up deciding that I wanted this job." You need to be able to express that very, very clearly, just so you're not seen as someone who's hopping around and doesn't know exactly what they wanna do. I'd say that's number one. Number two is that, depending on what kind of pivot you end up making, for my own job that I was applying for, they weren't really that interested in the specifics of my research projects or analysis I did here and there. They really cared about just kinda my raw intellectual horsepower and quantitative skills, but that wasn't really something I was gonna be able to explain by running through a full research project. So the ability to demonstrate that you do have like strong quantitative strengths and analytical skills, but you should be able to explain that without walking through a whole project. They're probably not, depending on what you end up applying for, they might not be interested in that. I'd say, and then, yeah, just lastly, kind of echoing Theresa and Laura's comments, you don't want to play into the stereotypes of academics, of people who talk nonstop and will not be able to work well on a team if you are applying to a non-academic job. So you want to make sure you can show that you can be professional and in this new environment, in whatever that environment demands. So whether that be being able to be just really short and to the point, proving that even though you're working in a research environment, that you do know how to work on a team and work with people. I think that's something you will want to be able to show, just given that you'll be coming from an arena where that's not usually the reputation. So yeah, I'd say like making sure you really understand the demands of the job you're applying for and the types of skills that they value. And I think it's, yeah, great advice to practice for people who aren't academics, because they'll probably have some good feedback that will help you in your interviews.
Peter Chen: Thank you Molly. And I wanna open up the panel, if Stephen or Teresa, you have additional thoughts on this particular question, because I do think that the audience here would benefit greatly from any tip on how to market yourself to be more attractive to a path that you didn't necessarily plan for yourself.
Theresa Dinh: I'll add on to what Molly said about your background and talking about your story. I would encourage everyone to think about what specific advantages that they already have, and then find what specific niche that you have an advantage in. So for me, my Federal Reserve experience was a huge plus in finding consulting positions for the federal government. Also having a master's degree from a local university and already being in the area gave me a home term advantage when it came to recruiting too. It was really no surprise that when I was going through the recruitment cycle and the interviews, all of my interviewers were alumnus of the same university. So just really think about what are some other aspects of your profile and really hone in on that advantage and niche that you already have.
Stephen Lee: Yeah, I'll tag on that. I think that that's all great advice. And I think one thing that can get missed sometimes being around academia is that because of familiarity with authors and certain papers, it's very easy to know something fairly well, but then just not be an expert in it, and know that so-and-so who writes those papers, that's an expert in it and to sort of, in some sense, undersell in what it is that you do bring to the table, especially for somebody who's not been around a research environment. Because I think that exactly that attitude can be very valuable to know, even if your turnaround cycle is much shorter and you're putting together a report in a couple of weeks and you either, and these things a lot of times can have real, like somebody's oftentimes looking to make a real business decision and move money in a particular way based on some results of your analysis, and you may not have had three years to do that analysis. So being very aware of what potential pitfalls might be in it, and if you've used methodology that lets you get an answer out the door, but that may bias you in a certain way, that kind of exposure and familiarity can be very, very valuable. And to, I think, play that up, because my experience has been that people who have been near econ research training, often, you bring in a little bit of that seminar culture where you become very good at being skeptical, and so now you get sort of a balance there between, you wanna keep some of that skepticism and use that to your advantage while getting something out the door.
Peter Chen: Thank you so much Stephen, and thank you Teresa as well for your additional thoughts. So we, for the rest of this afternoon, we're going to listen to final remarks from each of the panelists, and then we're gonna open up for Q and A. And so Laura, and then Molly, and then Theresa, and then Stephen, if you can go in order and share your final words of wisdom for the audience here tonight, I'm sure everybody would appreciate that.
Laura Talpey: Yeah, I think my words of wisdom would be if you're on the fence about doing a PhD, my recommendation would be to try something else, just because I didn't know. Yeah, like I said, it's just really hard to imagine what a non-academic job would be like until you're doing it, and I think I didn't really know for sure that I didn't wanna do a PhD until I was about a year into my next job. And it was at that point that I was like, "Wow, I am doing better at this and I like it more." And that was what really sealed the deal for me. It took some time away from academia to decide whether or not it was the right choice to leave. And so I think if you're having like question about that, my, I don't know, for me it worked really well to step away. Although I think, probably, I was more leaning away from doing a PhD at that point already than doing one. And yeah, also just to be open about it, because I think when you're in a highly academic setting and you're all of your peers are academics and everyone else is on this certain path, it can be hard to differentiate yourself, and it can be hard to listen to your feelings of, "Maybe this isn't what I wanna be doing." And so yeah, but once you step out of academia, it's a different world. And so I think my recommendation would be to be open-minded about that and about the possibilities, because there are many outside of academia, and it's a really amazing path for some people, and it's also not the only one.
Molly Wharton: Yeah, I totally agree with all of that. I think it's really important as part of stepping outside of the academic bubble. It's you wanna make sure you're having conversations with people from a range of experiences because limiting yourself to just getting advice from economic professors is gonna give you a very skewed perspective, which is extremely useful to hear but it's just one perspective. And yeah, as part of that, I always thought it was funny when I was having the same questions, that some of the advice I got was, "If you do something else for a year or two, it's gonna be really hard to come back." If it's gonna be really that hard to come back, then maybe I shouldn't come back if I'm enjoying what I'm doing now way more. So yeah, I think it's, if you are not sure, definitely worth trying something else, even if it's for a short period of time, and just thinking about not only valuing what you think you're good at but also what you enjoy and trying to kind of keep those both in balance, because I think if you're a really good student, you're gonna be told by your professors that you should be an academic because you're a good student, and that could be totally true that you have strong academic skills. But I think, as Laura said earlier, if it's not something that you enjoy every day, then you might not end up being as good at it in the long run. So just worth taking a step back and being really thoughtful about it and making sure you are hearing both sides.
Theresa Dihn: So my younger RA self would have been so determined, so tunnel visioned to listen to anything of what I'm about to say, but for everyone here, my final takeaway is to stay open minded and to talk to as many people as possible to get their advice and their perspective, even if their career path is really different. Even something as simple as, "Hey, can you look over my resume?" And, "What's your first impression?" You may have also come into your pre-doc or RA position with preconceived notions of what the economics field or academia are like, or you may have had a very specific vision of the kind of impact that you want to make through economics. And then through your predoc experience, you may have discovered capabilities that you didn't know that you had before, and then those skills may even be more valued in different environments. So your interests and your preferences may have changed, and then you might realize that an economics PhD isn't the straightest path to those ends. And that's okay, it doesn't mean that you're a failure or a quitter, or you weren't good enough. It simply means that you've grown and are now closer to finding what actually is best for you.
Stephen Lee: Yeah, I think just to kind of echo, I agree with all that stuff that was added. I think it's important to keep in mind what the output is of a PhD, is that it is in some sense more an apprenticeship than additional training. And so more or less, the goal of a PhD is to produce a new batch of professors. And so if you're set on getting a tenure track position, that's the way to go, that's the thing to do, and you go get it done. Increasingly, there's industry jobs, and Amazon is the most prominent that's hiring PhD economists where there's a lot of positions now, I think, at Amazon and primarily them, but I'm sure are those where if you do want that job, you need a PhD. But beyond that, the additional skills that you get, most of it is set up to be a tenure track professor. That's the nature of what that program is. If you're out and you want more skills, and it's that you wanna have a better framework to solve problems with, then there's other options. There's master's programs, there's online courses if it's something that lends itself to that. And so I think being very honest with yourself about what it is that you want, do you want a tenure track career or do you want more skills? And if it's only about skills, I think that's a bad reason to go to a PhD. But if it's for a PhD, if it's to become tenure tracked, and you wanna be a professor and all of the other things that come with that, then you know, certainly, that is a no brainer, go get a PhD.
Peter Chen: Thank you so much all panelists. So in the remaining four minutes, we're gonna open up for Q and A, and we're gonna let our organizer, Mr. Stephen Lamb, shoot questions at the panel. And we're gonna have a five second rule here, so if you have something to say, please unmute yourself and go ahead. If in five seconds, we don't have anything to say collectively, then we will have to pass onto the next question. Please go ahead Stephen. Thanks.
Stephen Lamb: Yeah, so if any of you have questions, please go ahead and put them into the Q and A box and I'll be able to see them there. For our panelists, one question that has come up is a lot of our attendees today are current pre-docs they're at universities or institutions like the Fed. They are surrounded by all sorts of resources and opportunities that exist at those environments. And people are wondering, you looking back on your experience now having been a non-academic careers for a while, if you could go back and be in that resource-rich environment, how would you use those resources to prepare yourself for the track that you've taken.
Stephen Lee: I'll hop on that real quick. Is that I think that anything that you can do to improve your programming resume is gonna be really helpful out there for certainly in the data science end, but these days, everybody wants somebody who can make nice graphs, do analysis quickly, and get it out the door. So if you get an opportunity to work, some of the points that Theresa made earlier, rewrite some old code, do it in a different language, just look for opportunities to beef up your programming ability.
Theresa Dihn: I'll also hop on pretty quickly. So this is particular to RAs at the Federal Reserve and the system, but I started a professional development organization internally for RAs at the Board to host these types of panels actually, but internally, so I'm talking to RAs who are now analysts at the Board, seeing what their experience was like getting those jobs, having panelists for RAs that are going on to master's programs, or ones that are going on to different types of PhD programs. So I found that the people around you, your coworkers, your colleagues, are actually your best resources. Maybe they're going through the same types of questions that you are, and they're also applying, or they're in that questioning phase as well. And it helps to ease the worries that someone else is also having these same questions and challenges.
Stephen Lamb: Thank you both. Another question that's come up is that one of the main attractions to an academic career is the freedom that it brings, the freedom to pursue your own interests and do the things that motivate you the most. Some of the people in the Q and A would like to know what is that balance like in a non-academic job when you have to suborn some of your own interests to your employer? Sort of what is the degree to which you get to follow your own interests? To what degree are you just doing what somebody else tells you to do? What is that balance like?
Molly Wharton: I can start quickly. I think this is really career track dependent, but in my own job for what it's worth, I'd say you know, first couple of years, especially given that I don't have that traditional background and training, I am definitely following the lead of whoever I'm working for. And it's not like I'm choosing my own projects to work on, but that will come with time. So I'd say within, hopefully, a couple of years, I'll be able to start leading my own ideas and projects. And it's kind of similar in an apprenticeship role where at this point, I wouldn't wanna have the freedom to do what I want 'cause I just like don't have the skills and experience at this point. So I actually really value being able to just follow someone's lead and learn from them, and then later on, once I become more senior in my industry, I'll be able to kind of have that same freedom. It's not the same that you get in academia, I still, in the end, I'm reporting to someone, but it's that kind of, yeah, just grows with time.
Laura Talpey: Yeah I think I found it, I had the same worry when I left academia, that I was gonna be bored because I wasn't gonna be following my own interests. But in some ways I think I also find it rewarding to, like it was a little daunting to just have to create my own research project and execute it. And there is something to be said for being in a work environment, where there are certain expectations that you have to meet, and then finding creativity and being able to follow your own interests within those expectations. So, yeah, I think like Molly said, it's really dependent on the job that you have. I have a lot of freedom in my job to do things as I please, but I don't think academia is the only place where you can follow your own interests.
Stephen Lee: Yeah, and I also wanna add that to avoid... Maybe have some very good conversations with your faculty advisors or any of the economists you work with closely, because I think that it's many times the case where in order to get something out the door, I'm borrowing this from a friend who kind of quoted it this way, that at least when you're working more private sector, you know who your boss is compared to anonymous referees. So at the end of the day, trying to get things out the door, the whole publish or perish mindset, yes you do have freedom to work on what you want, but you're still having to get things past somebody.
Stephen Lamb: Well, thank you all for your responses. That's us at time, so I wanna say a final thank you to all of our panelists, to Stephen, Molly, Laura, and Theresa, and to our panelist, Peter, for sharing all your wisdom, talking about this topic with all of our pre-docs. We're very grateful for your time. And to all of our attendees. Please do log in to predoc.org to see future events that we're planning; we hope to see you there. Thank you everyone.