«I have never worked so hard in my entire life» — Tianwang Liu о получении PhD по экономике в Гарварде

Редакция NBJ поговорила со студенткой третьего года PhD по экономике в Гарварде Tianwang Liu о том, как поступить туда после бакалавриата Корнелльского университета. Вы узнаете, как отличается поступление в бакалавриат и на PhD, как использовать своё образование в российском университете по максимуму и почему даже в таком конкурентном университете студентам удаётся создавать дружелюбную атмосферу.

Why did you choose Harvard?

First, it is a top university. I wanted to study Industrial Organization and the Harvard professors in the field are at the frontier, so there was no reason not to come. Also, my undergrad university took place in a very small city. Harvard is situated in a large one, so it’s convenient location gives you a different experience in terms of daily life.

Harvard university building, photo taken by Tianwang


How did you get into Harvard? Have you done this right after getting a bachelor degree?

The deadline for my year was December 15th. Actually, I had prepared my statement of purpose during the summer after my junior year. English is not my native language, so in September and October I tried to find as many people as possible to read my draft and to see what I should have added there. You should also ask about the recommendation letters early since the professors are busy. I think that recommendation letters, statement of purpose and transcript are the three main components of any econ application.

What did you write in the purpose of statement?

It depends on your own experience because you want to distinguish yourself from others. Be special but strong at the same time. First, you should say why you want to do econ and, specifically, the field you want to do inside of it. I believe I did not talk about a particular project I want to do during PhD explicitly, but I mentioned my thesis and other top projects and possible ways I could extend them in the future. Since I did not work too much before except for being a Research Assistant, my only experience is from the time in school. I went through the transcript: which classes I took, what I learnt in these classes; how it inspired me to pursue the PhD and what kind of skills they equipped me with.

You want to give the admissions committee two main signals: first is about your desire to do this and the second is about your capability of doing this.

How did your experience in Cornell affect your application?

First, as an undergrad I took specific courses that were related to the field that I mentioned in my statement of purpose. It shows that I had a clear direction to pursue. And I was employed as an RA, did one-semester independent study and an undergraduate thesis which was a large project. Besides, we have a career service office for application-related questions, and you can ask them to read your essay and resume. You can also reach a lot of professors on how to choose a school.

Did you apply only to Harvard or to any other universities?

To a few others as well, but I applied specifically to Ivy League universities in the North-Eastern area. For undergrads what matters is the general rating or the location, but once we get to PhD it becomes all about the professors and whether this university is strong in your specific field. Concerning the number of schools you apply to, it depends on how much you really want to do this. Before my application some of my professors told me:

‘If you don’t get to the top-10 or top-5 universities, do you really want to spend 5 or 6 years there?’

So I decided that I would only apply to a few.

Did you have some backup plan in case you didn’t get in?

If I had not gotten in, maybe I would have found an RA job or some other place to work and apply again then. I also applied for an RA through National Bureau of Economic Research. Actually, 80 or 90% of students in my PhD cohort worked before coming to the program either as RAs or in consulting. I feel that they know more about what they really want to do. I only know economics from the textbook, while they may know the data better or have better intuition. If you spend two years or so in industry you will have a clearer understanding on what is going on.

Can you give some advice to current undergrads?

First, I think you should take advantage of your own university. Try to take some core mathematical courses. It is not about the number, it is about how well you perform. I took only four math classes in my undergrad but I got A+ in all of them. Try to talk with professors if you want a PhD, try to enroll as a research assistant and get some experience. And enjoy life.

Harvard university building, photo taken by Tianwang


How is you PhD organized? Now you are in the 3rd year, right?

In the first year we take core classes like micro and macro. And in the second year we can choose classes depending on your research interests. For example, I took IO and labor. Starting from the third year, we do our own research that we present in the lunch presentations. Overall, we need three articles in the dissertation to graduate. One of them is ought to be so good that you will go to the Job Market with it.

What is your research about?

I do empirical IO. It is all about what you can learn from the data. We are allowed to have a co-author for the 3rdyear paper, so I am working together with someone from my cohort. We look at lawsuits and try to see what is going on between the judge and the lawyer and how that determines the settlement’s outcome. For example, whether it is related to the gender of an attorney. Bargaining is an important topic in IO, and the cases we are mostly focused on the medical malpractice cases.

Do you think the relationship with your advisor differs in the undergrad and on PhD?

The fundamental relationship between students and advisors in the PhD is still that between mentees and mentors. For example, professors teach classes and students seek advice and ask questions, as we are still learning the tools. However, once you enter a PhD program, more and more people start to treat you as colleagues and your own ideas matter a lot. That is, you need to decide in which direction you would like to pursue and develop real projects accordingly.

You had IO course in undergrad and you had IO in PhD, right? Do you feel some difference?

Undergrad IO is giving you a big picture of the discipline with some theory and models published in 1970s, but this math is not very complicated compared to that of the PhD. I think other universities could have more math-intensive IO class but in my undergrad it was more about introducing us to this field, to see whether you are interested in this topic. Then in a grad IO we were to study what technics were used in specific papers, how they identified facts from the data. After these classes one could really apply specific tools to your own research. So, an undergrad IO is about whether you like this field, and grad IO gives you an ability to do your own research.

So, have you already known that you’re going to do IO in PhD in your undergrads?

Yes, I do not know why, but all the classes I took in undergrad were pretty much related to the IO, and my undergrad thesis was also in labor IO. Guess, I am just lucky, though it is possible for people to switch their field during second or third year of PhD, even to switch from micro to macro.

Harvard university building, photo taken by Tianwang

Are you working as a teaching assistant?

I am teaching undergrad metrics, so I am responsible for 24 students this year. You go to the lectures twice a week, hold a section on the lecture material, and also hold office hours. Coming to the sections is not compulsory but is highly recommended. Especially, if you see concepts for the first time. At the section we reduce the main concept professor covered in lecture, and then try to go through some exercises to see how we can apply definitions and theorems. But this is a learning process for me as well. You may think you took this class once and that you now know how to do one thing or another. But once you teach them, you need to find a clear way to explain it, which helps you to understand it deeper.

How do you manage stress? Do you do any outside of curriculum activities?

Now I am in a boxing club. Also, lots of people in my cohort do squash. We even have a squash ladder: everyone can challenge someone above you. Some people also do Frisbee and there are lots of people who are good at violin or guitar. Every semester we have a department-wide holiday party to celebrate the end of the semester. Each cohort prepares some scene; professors also perform in something: singing or dancing. The whole environment is friendly but everyone is working really hard.

Is the atmosphere more competitive or friendly and supportive?

I think it is the second one because we work together to push the frontier. Even if we have six people in the office and we all study different fields, it helps. If I have some idea, I can talk to them and try to get their advice. Also, we have some peer-support network. When you feel stressed or sad, you talk to them. There are also peer-mentor relationships. The idea is as follows: I am the third-year student and now I am connected with one first-year student. Every month we go out to eat and to check what is going on and whether they need help.

So, you can say that the environment help with your studies?

Very much. Sometimes I do not want to work but when I go to the office and all my classmates are working and talking about their research it pushes me to work hard. It’s like a positive peer effect. I think, the atmosphere is really important.

I have never worked so hard in my entire life.

Над интервью работали: Виталия Елисеева, Ксения Ерёмина, Святослав Тюпин.

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