This semester, in our spring series, PCURs will interview a graduate student who either is currently a graduate student at Princeton, or attended Princeton as an undergraduate. In Graduate Student Reflections: Life in Academia, interviews with graduate students shed light on the variety of paths one can take to get to graduate school and beyond, and the many insights gained along the way from research projects and mentors. Here, Shanon shares his interview.
As part of our seasonal series on graduate students, I decided to interview Ole Agersnap, a friend of mine in his first year of the Economics PhD program. Ole and I met at the beginning of this year in the Princeton Chapel Choir, where we both sing as baritones. Over the course of the year, we’ve chatted regularly about economics, school, and life in general. Ole is a dedicated scholar with a clear perspective on his academic journey, so I hope you enjoy reading his reflections!
What did the process of deciding to go to graduate school look like for you? Why did you decide to go?
Before I came here for my Ph.D., I did a master’s degree at the London School of Economics (LSE) which was the first place that I seriously started thinking about doing a Ph.D. A lot of my classmates in the master’s program had that as their ambition, which was unlike my experience when talking to a lot of my undergraduate classmates. Being at the LSE enabled me to imagine myself doing a Ph.D. too. Doing a Ph.D. is a big step, and for a while I still wasn’t sure that it would be the right decision for me, since it was not something I had been imagining myself doing since I started my undergrad, as is the case for some people. I actually got a job in the financial sector after my master’s degree, and even though the job was interesting and intellectually stimulating, it just didn’t excite me as much as the idea of doing my own research. That’s why I ultimately decided to quit my job and pursue a Ph.D. instead.
What was the transition from undergraduate to graduate school like?
As mentioned, it was very gradual. I did a master’s degree, then worked for a year, and now I’m back taking courses as a first-year student. In that sense, I have been quite well-prepared for the first year of the Ph.D., so I more or less knew what to expect.
How did you become interested in your field of research?
My interest in economics probably comes from the fact that from a young age, we often discussed politics in my family, so I had a general interest in society since I was very young. At the same time, I became quite interested in mathematics in high school, and so economics seemed like an interesting field at the intersection of these two topics. That’s why I started studying it at university, and I quickly discovered that I had made the exact right choice. I’m a very detail-oriented person, so I really enjoy the hard work of trying to figure out a proof and the satisfaction when you finally get it right, but I am also fascinated by the idea of using data and theory together to discover things about society that might not be obvious at first glance. Economics offers both of these things, so I’m very happy I made that choice.
What does the research process look like for you?
Being a first-year student, I still spend my time doing the core courses and have yet to transition fully into research. I do try to think of ideas for research topics often and write them down, since it’s always useful to have a list of many potential ideas that you can choose from. That does create the issue of perhaps having to choose between a lot of promising ideas, but I would rather have too many good ideas to choose from than being forced to pick a bad idea.
Luckily, as an economist it’s relatively easy to come up with interesting questions that you can try to answer in your research. It’s all about observing the world around us, the society we live in, and thinking about the aspects that seem counter-intuitive or hard to explain. Is the practice of tipping good or bad for the workers and customers involved, for instance? Why do people put money in a savings account instead of paying off their expensive credit card debt first? Is it better for firms to raise funds by taking a loan, or by selling off shares of the firm to new investors? These are all very interesting questions that economists have thought a lot about and have tried to develop the models and methods to analyze.
What was the most unexpected part of graduate school? The best part?
Actually, I have not been very surprised by the general experience in graduate school so far. I did have a master’s degree before I started here, so I had a pretty good idea of the field and the topics you study in more advanced economic research. My experience in the Ph.D. program so far has been great – it’s hard work, but also really interesting. The best part has probably been to have world-class economists in the faculty, who are interested in you and take the time to meet with you and hear about your ideas. And then living in Princeton is much better than I had expected–I love the town and the beautiful campus.
I hope you enjoyed reading about Ole’s experiences in graduate school! I personally find it reassuring that he tried one career path (finance) before pursuing a Ph.D. I, like many Princeton students, am inclined to worry about the future, but a story like Ole’s reminds me that plans are perpetually subject to change. We don’t know where we’ll be in five years, let alone fifty, so perhaps it’s best to do as Ole did: try things out, and change our plans accordingly!
–Shanon FitzGerald, Social Sciences Correspondent