I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Pascaline Dupas at the end of the 2016 Development Workshop organised at TSE about the relationship between academia and policymakers. I asked her for some advice about the PhD career track and, more specifically, working in the developing countries context.
Pascaline Dupas is one of the youngest and more outstanding French economics professors.
She completed her Bachelor’s degree at the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1999, she earned a MSc in Economic Analysis and Policy in Paris, and a PhD from the Paris School of Economics in 2006 after three different visiting periods to Harvard, MIT, and NYU. After gaining experience, she became an assistant professor at Stanford in 2011, and became an associate professor in 2014. In 2015 she won the award for best young French economist.
During her stays in the US, Dupas met Esther Duflo, another accomplished economist with whom she quickly started to use Randomized Control Trials (RCT) and other experimental approaches. RCT is a technique initially designed to test drugs in medical science. Applying this technique to test policy interventions such as cash transfer, education or health programs is certainly more complicated, but has been surprisingly successful in recent years.
Is development economics a new field of economics?
In my view, it has never been clear where the field of Development Economics is. Within developing countries all the same topics are studied: Public Finance, Industrial Organisation, Labour, Education, Health, etc. All these topics are also studied in developed countries, so the only reason for Development Economics to exist as a field is that so few people were using developing countries’ data to do research that all of them became friends. It would be great if, in a way, Development Economics as field would disappear by the virtue of studies of developing countries becoming main stream. Then, we would consider ourselves as experts in Public Finance, Industrial Organisation, and so on. This would make the discipline more mature and more appealing to new students who have not yet decided whether they want to be a “development” person or not. In my opinion, there has always been a judgement that Development Economics is a second grade field and people do not really want to study that.
Do you have any advice for graduate students who would like to follow your path and become PhD students?
In my own experience, spending a lot of time in the field was really helpful to come up with research questions that were at the same time important and policy relevant. But it may be because I don’t have much imagination or creativity, and I need to get first-hand experience and talk to people to do that. It is really hard to think what is the true reality on the ground by only reading the literature.
So, for example, the idea for the paper I presented today comes from the direct observation of how the subsidies were delivered and whether the people were pleased about the allocation or not.
Do you think it is useful to work as a Research Assistant before doing the PhD?
I spent a year in Kenya working as a RA for Michael Kremer and Esther Duflo and, during my PhD, I worked with them in the US at MIT. The experience as a RA on the field was really helpful for what I said before, but the experience in the US was also really useful to see how the research is done, how researchers think and how they connect theory and real facts back and forward. These experiences were amazing and helped me learn how to conduct research by myself.
Would you like to advise any particular topic of study to future PhD candidates, or is there a topic that you believe could revolutionise the field, as RCT did fifteen years ago?
By working in the academia we are permanent students. We can learn everything when we need, so I believe people should not be stressed about not learning the right technique. It is helpful to know what we do not know and to know what to learn. I encourage students to try and to do enough of each subfields in economics, to know what is there, even if you cannot fully understand how to do everything. If you never get to do calibration in macro, but you know about its existence, then whenever you need to use that tool to answer a question you can invest time in learning the technique. Differently, if you do not know about it, the likelihood that you think at it as a possible solution for the problem you are working on is way lower. So, in a way, scout for what is there, keep updated reading Econometrica, and go to seminars and workshops.
by Matteo Santangelo