Panel Discusses World of Economic Research at Princeton and Beyond

Tuesday, Feb 16, 2021
by Mark Goldstein '20

What defines research? How do ideas become publications? How can undergraduates find research opportunities while at Princeton?

A panel of JRCPPF students, researchers, and alumni offered their insight on these questions and several more during a first-of-its-kind virtual event hosted by the Center, entitled Ideas to Articles: Undergraduate Research in Economics & Finance Forum on Thursday, February 11th.

The panelists included Thomas Kroen G5, Eitan Sapiro-Gheiler ’19, Cindy Song ‘22, Gabriel Swagel ‘20, and Esmée Zwiers, each of whom offered a unique insight into the world of economic research. Moderated by JRCPPF undergraduate associates Leland Domaratzky ‘22 and Emily Philippides ‘22, the 90-minute event offered current undergraduates a roadmap for how to prepare for, enter, and thrive within the world of academic research in economics, finance, and public policy during their Princeton careers and beyond.

Asked to demystify the idea of economic research, Swagel ‘20 offered a succinct definition: “Asking a question about the world and then applying methods of economics to answer that question.” This process, the panel emphasized, is structured and often lengthy. Panelists agreed that researchers who set themselves up for success choose topics of personal interest to them, maintain organization and focus over months and years, and do not get lost in the nitty-gritty. “Don't lose sight of the big picture,” said Sapiro-Gheiler ‘19.

Panelists encouraged students interested in pursuing research to begin identifying opportunities early and recommended some resources to find opportunities (listed below). They also recommended that students identify professors at Princeton and other universities whose work they find interesting, read some of those people’s publications or working papers, and reach out to them directly to inquire about research positions.

Elaborating on the research process for inexperienced students, Kroen likened it to preparing a five-course meal. “There's a lot of different ingredients and different steps, but you don't do everything at once,” he said. The rest of the group echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the need for patience, the value in asking for help from others, and the critical need for attention to detail. Flexibility and adaptability are particularly important, too. “The original idea is not always the idea that gets written up in the end in the paper,” said Kroen.

When it comes to specific skills that students can develop ahead of pursuing research, Song ‘22 encouraged aspiring researchers to learn foundational programming and coding skills, which other panelists underscored as very useful to research, especially within economics and finance. Experiential learning can be particularly effective too. “You learn so much by doing,” said Zwiers. “Don't underestimate your own capabilities if you don't have a background in programming."

As for original ideas for students in their junior and senior years, inspiration can strike anywhere. "Be curious about the world around you,” said Swagel ‘20, who keeps a list of possible research questions in the notes app on his phone.

For students interested in pursuing research during undergraduate summers, panelists recommended the following resources:

A recording of the event is available here.