Federico Gonzalez

Federico Gonzalez

Federico Gonzalez is a second-year PhD student. He sat dow with PREDOC to chart his journey from undergrad to PhD student, and how a pre-doc at Opportunity Insights helped.

Federico Gonzalez

Name: Federico Gonzalez

Undergraduate institution: Universidad de Los Andes (Bogota, Colombia)

Undergraduate major: Economics (followed by a MA in Economics)

What in your undergraduate career was the most useful preparation for a pre-doc role? Probably the most useful preparation was taking an advanced econometrics course and subsequently working as RA towards the end of my undergrad with Professor Raquel Bernal. By taking her course and working with her, I realized that economics could be quite useful to address questions that are very “grounded”, in the sense of informing actual policy for social issues that I cared about. It was a wonder to me that after all that undergraduate math, in the end, economic tools could inform policy regarding early childhood education programs for low-income populations (as Professor Bernal does in her research). This sparked a motivation that has been a key propeller in my academic career.

Moreover, having a part-time RAship towards the end of undergrad allowed me to start developing coding and research skills early. This was helpful because I think many of those skills are learned while doing research much more naturally than in the classroom.

Pre-doc institution: Opportunity Insights at Harvard University

Faculty supervisors: Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Nathan Hendren

Research interests: In terms of fields: Public Economics, Labor Economics and Development Economics. In terms of topics: inequality, social mobility, networks, aspirations, altruism, and education.

What did a typical day in the office look like for you? It would usually start by opening a Word file with a long list of to-dos for one or two papers I was working on at the time. The list of tasks came from a weekly meeting where the PIs (Principal Investigators) had given us (the two or three pre-docs working on the same project) feedback on last week’s results. Getting through those to-dos, which usually involved cleaning a new dataset, trying different statistical specifications as robustness checks of a result, or preparing a slide deck with a set of figures showing new patterns in the data, would take up most of the day. This mostly meant time spent coding, in my case usually on Stata and occasionally on ArcGIS, Python, or SQL, while every once in a while turning around to talk with other pre-docs about our work or to just chit-chat and laugh a bit.   I would also have around one meeting, either to present project results to PIs, to attend a seminar where an external researcher would present their work, or to learn what other members of the lab were doing. Some days, I would also devote a good amount of time to replying to e-mails from people asking about technical details in published papers or to helping out with pre-doc hiring. 

Schedules were flexible and workload varied quite a bit depending on the stage of the paper. On a typical day, I would start around 7:30 am (I was a bit of an early bird at the time), and finish around 5 pm. In a few cases, when the paper I was working on was close to being published in some media outlet or sent to a journal, I would start at around 10 am and finish at around 11 pm. 

What did you go on to do following your pre-doc experience?
I am currently finishing my first year of Ph.D. in Economics at Harvard University.  

How did your pre-doc experience help advance your research/career? I learned in many ways during my two-year pre-doc experience. One important and basic thing I learned was to better manage my time, not only because I gained a better sense of what tasks to prioritize when, but especially because I learned to be more communicative with the people I was working with (PIs and peers) and to better set boundaries between my research work and my personal life.

I also learned a ton about how a big-scale research project in economics works (e.g. the stages it involves, and what to focus on in each stage), something that I hope will help streamline my research a bit in the future. I think I acquired better coding practices, better data visualization skills, and better communications skills. Oh, yes, I slowly but substantially improved my English (I am from Colombia and hadn’t lived in an English-speaking country before). Finally, I learned about social mobility, low-income housing programs, and social capital in ways that have spurred and probably will keep spurring research questions. 

What advice do you have for anyone currently applying to pre-doc positions?

I think, firstly, I would advise them not to be discouraged if they don’t get into the pre-doc (or Ph.D.) program that they first wanted. In my opinion, whichever motivates them to apply to a specific pre-doc program is something they will likely be able to carry out in a different but still valuable way in either another program or even in other settings. For this reason, expanding and diversifying the set of programs they apply to is probably a good idea.

Second, I would advise them to try to acquire a bit of research experience before applying, ideally somewhat related to the research done by the lab(s) they are applying to. This could be a small project/thesis of their own that touches on some of the topics studied by the lab. This will hopefully give them a sense of if those topics really motivate them and also give them a bit more relevant experience to strengthen their application. 

Federico Gonzalez

Both pre-doc and Ph.D. programs are important settings for cultural exchange and community building. I think this has several consequences, but the most basic one to me is that I find it quite important to respect and honor all coworkers’ backgrounds while also honoring and not being ashamed of one’s own. These are settings where a community is built in a way that hopefully goes a bit beyond research and career purposes.

— Federico Gonzalez

What advice do you have for current pre-docs?

I guess I have three main pieces of advice for current pre-docs:Similar to the first advice above, perhaps not putting too much weight on the Ph.D. program they are aiming for, but rather enjoying the research they are currently doing because that’s likely already a way of contributing to social issues that they care about. This also translates into expanding and diversifying the set of programs they apply to (there are many great programs out there). Secondly, don’t forget to take care of yourself by maintaining a healthy work and personal life balance, even if the work that you do is cool and particularly if it is demanding. Thirdly, to really be willing to work as a teammate, i.e. to be willing to learn and receive support from others and vice versa. I think this favors the research process while giving you more slack. 

Is there anything you would have done differently while a pre-doc?

Yes, related to my third advice to current pre-docs, I think I would have maintained a slightly better balance between work and my personal life, especially during my first year in the program. Without being too much aware of it at the time (I think mostly because it was a high-paced environment and I much liked the type of work we were doing) I ended up working a bit more than I would have liked to and that took a toll on me during the second year of my pre-doc.

Anything else you’d like to share about the pre-doc experience? 

Perhaps acknowledging that both pre-doc and Ph.D. programs are important settings for cultural exchange and community building. I think this has several consequences, but the most basic one to me is that I find it quite important to respect and honor all coworkers’ backgrounds while also honoring and not being ashamed of one’s own. These are settings where a community is built in a way that hopefully goes a bit beyond research and career purposes.

What’s next for you?

I’m starting the second year of my Ph.D. in the fall of 2021, which mostly means nurturing some of the research questions that came up when I was a pre-doc by reading related literature, while perhaps exploring a new subfield in economics. I also want to keep working in becoming a better cook.

When you’re not researching, what are you doing?

House chores (laughs). Spending time with my family (I’m happily married, and I talk a lot on the phone with my family back in Colombia). Walking or biking ideally where there’s lots of nature. I’ve also been swimming quite often these days. I watch series on Netflix occasionally.