Planning For Advanced Elective Courses at Princeton

One of the most exciting parts of the academic experience at Princeton is undoubtedly getting to take advanced (3-400 level) elective classes in your concentration. While all classes at Princeton are valuable, elective classes can provide a unique opportunity to have a more personalized learning experience – the classes are often much smaller, with some classes having as few as 5 students – while getting to learn about somewhat more niche disciplines that professors are both specialized in and are more passionate about. However, sometimes the embarrassment of riches can be a problem. The sheer number of truly incredible and interesting advanced courses that are offered at Princeton can make it difficult to choose which courses to take, especially when your course slots are taken up by concentration and certificate requirements as well as either the AB or BSE general requirements. I went through such an exercise myself, and in this post, I hope to offer some insight on how to choose courses based on my experiences at Princeton.

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Essential Packages for Advanced Statistical Analysis in R – A Primer

Students who are interested in research – especially junior- and senior-year students preparing for independent work – are often encouraged to master the use of a fully-featured statistical software like Stata or R in order to help with their statistical analysis. For example, in the Economics program at Princeton, Stata is often the software of choice for classes like ECO 202 (Statistics and Data Analysis for Economics) or ECO 302/312 (Econometrics). Similarly, other departments (for example, for the Undergraduate Certificate Program in Statistics and Machine Learning) offer SML 201 (Introduction to Data Science) or ORF 245 (Fundamentals of Engineering Statistics) to prepare students in the use of R. Usually, students end up developing a preference for one or the other even if they eventually grow proficient in both. While our coursework (rightly!) emphasizes the statistical methods, we, as students, are often left to navigate the intricacies of the statistical tools on our own. This post is a primer of some of the core packages in R that are used for advanced statistical analysis. As you begin to search for tools in R that can help you with your analysis, I hope you will find this information useful.

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A Guide to Using Princeton’s Computing Clusters to Handle Big Data

As I mentioned in my last post, this summer, I assisted in research by Dr. Kalhor at the Princeton’s Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment (C-PREE) in examining the effect of anomalous weather on economic activity as part of an internship funded by the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) at Princeton University. While my previous post focused on my insights in preparing for internships to maximize your experience, in this post, I want to focus on one of the technical challenges that I faced during the internship: (a) handling big data; and (b) one of the powerful tools that we have as students at Princeton students to handle large amounts of data –  Princeton’s large computing clusters.

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Reflecting on my Summer Research Internship

As I mentioned in a previous post, this last summer, I assisted in the research by Dr. Elmira Kalhor at the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment (C-PREE) in examining the effect of anomalous weather on economic activity, as part of an internship funded by the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) at Princeton University. Under Dr. Kalhor’s guidance, it became a fulfilling experience as I had the opportunity to formulate a model of how business activity is affected by extreme weather and thus apply many of the economic tools and theories that I learned to a practical space.

Our work focused on business effects of extreme weather, up to and including hurricanes like Harvey

Now that it has been about three weeks since I gave my final presentation of my work to HMEI, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my time there. While the internship was very enjoyable, it also presented me with many challenges – technical ones related to the statistical analysis and the research itself and practical/logistical issues in terms of having a valuable and fulfilling internship. In this post, I hope to discuss some of the more practical issues and guidelines that you could use to help maximize the efficiency of your internship experience, especially if you are working on a research-intensive project.

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Getting Involved in Research Early

As I near the end of my first two years at Princeton, I thought that it would be useful to reflect on my time here so far, and how I prepared (or often did not prepare) myself to take advantage of research and internship opportunities. As I mentioned in my last post, one of the most useful parts of my internship search this year was talking with the preceptor of one of my classes, as I had the chance to learn from the experience of an older student. Here, I thought I might try and put my own advice into practice by flipping it around: while I cannot claim to have anywhere near the same experience of our graduate counterparts, I thought that my experience might still be useful to current and future first-year students. These are some of the pieces of advice from my time here.

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Tips for Finding Policy-based Internships

Perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of being a college student is looking for  summer internship opportunities. Furthermore, as I discovered this year in my own search for something to do this summer, there can often be unique challenges for students who are primarily interested in public policy. As a (prospective) economics major, it often felt like no matter how hard I searched on Handshake, nearly every internship that I found was in finance or investment banking. While these were undoubtedly interesting opportunities, this was a little disappointing to me as I was hoping that I would be able to use the summer to explore policy and economics research, and maybe even get a better understanding of possible career paths. 

My initially discouraging internship search notwithstanding, be assured that these kinds of internships do exist. I myself was fortunate enough to find and eventually participate in such an opportunity– but only after I began to approach my search in a different way.

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Interview with Tiger Gao, host of Policy Punchline

This week I had the opportunity to interview Tiger Gao, currently a senior in the Economics Department at Princeton and the founder and host of Policy Punchline, a student-run podcast that focuses on conducting interviews with well-known public figures on current policy issues. I am a researcher for the podcast. In this interview, I had the chance to ask him about Policy Punchline and about entering the field of economic research and public policy in general.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tiger interviewing former US Trade Representative Michael Froman for Policy Punchline

M.B.: What inspired you to start Policy Punchline?

T.G.: At Policy Punchline, we interview people involved in policy. It’s fully student-run and nonpartisan. What we really care about is to promote long-form dialogues on urgent issues and frontier ideas, whether you are a postdoc who’s doing some interesting research or the NFL’s data chief discussing the response to the Covid-19 crisis.

As a freshman/sophomore at Princeton, I was kind of lost. I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t gotten into any major clubs at Princeton, I didn’t feel like I’d fit in. I had run for class president and lost. But what I’ve always loved is to go to the guest lectures after class – and once the lecture ended, I would ask questions. I soon realized that hardly anyone talks to these fascinating people with such interesting ideas. And the idea of Policy Punchline was born.

So far, it has worked quite well: tomorrow we will drop our 99th interview and I personally have done more than 100 interviews.

M.B.: Quite the milestone.

T.G.: Yes, in the past two years our team has grown to more than 50 students. I’m incredibly proud of the team and its intellectual capacities and I expect great things going forward.

M.B.: You talked about students who are sometimes shy to talk to these guest lecturers – or even to their own professors, and I can relate to that. What would you like to tell them?

T.G.: My very first interview was with Dr. Christopher Marks, the Head of Emerging Markets for Mitsubishi Financial Group. I remember spending three hours with him in a studio in Wilson and I didn’t really know what was going on. I felt nervous. I had to re-record my questions. My question list was very naive but he was very supportive and patient. And he said two things to me afterward that I think are quite profound and which had a lasting impact on me. 

The first thing he said was, “Don’t be afraid to talk to people that are smarter or more experienced at something than you. You’re going to look stupid, but that’s fine. You ask the questions and you improve and that’s what matters.” 

And the second: “You have to feel happy about bad mistakes.” He’s not referring to a getting-a-bad-grade type of mistake, but mistakes that might even point to some fundamental flaws in you. And he said that you have to be happy with them. These two pieces of advice really gave me confidence and laid quite a powerful foundation for Policy Punchline. You are going to run into difficulties. A lot of the people we email don’t get back to us and some others might and subsequently ghost us. Some interviews don’t go well and you wish you had done better. But that’s fine! Just go for it. And when you do, you’ll realize that the people you end up interviewing actually want to talk to you.

M.B.: If anyone reading this was interested in joining Policy Punchline or interested in this type of work in general, how would they go about it?

T.G.: Just send me an email! The way you joined was so incredibly informal. Princeton is already a difficult enough place and I don’t ever want people to feel excluded. I know what it feels like to polish your CV and go through the cover letter and prepare for the interview for a club and then never hear back. We ask people to prepare a research portfolio and based on what they tell us, we decide on how and where they fit in the team. If it’s not a good fit or if they are not passionate about it, they’ll leave soon. But if this is what they’re passionate about, then there are no barriers to how far they can go and how much they can do.

For anyone, who is interested in joining Policy Punchline, Tiger can be reached at miaokuan@princeton.edu.

Joining a podcasting team can be an unconventional, but rewarding, way to try to explore a field, especially at an interview-focused podcast like Policy Punchline, where there are opportunities to engage in dialogue with experts, ask questions and learn further about a subject. As a result, they can be an incredibly rewarding experience for anyone – regardless of their prior level of knowledge. For anyone who is interested to go in-depth about the policy issues, I would recommend reaching out to Tiger about joining Policy Punchline. Every week you get to learn about the many issues that affect us – from reimagining capitalism to the energy sources of the future to the current elections – in different ways.

– Abhimanyu Banerjee, Social Sciences Correspondent

Getting the Most Out of Courses Outside Your Comfort Zone

One of the fascinating aspects of our education at Princeton is how we are encouraged every semester to take courses from a wide variety of disciplines. However, while that is intellectually stimulating, it can also be unnerving in the beginning – especially when you have to step away from analyzing a situation or a problem through the lens of a discipline of study that you are comfortable with and instead approach the issue from a completely different viewpoint. Case in point: last semester, at the recommendation of my academic adviser, I took Anthropology 203 (ANT 203): Economic Life in Cultural Context with Professor Rena Lederman. My adviser believed that the course would be useful for me as a prospective economics concentrator: it would give me the opportunity to examine the field from a different perspective and broaden my horizons. Conceptually, that made a lot of sense. Soon, however, I realized that trying to analyze economic situations without the economic tools and methods that I had grown accustomed to was rather disorienting. Nevertheless, despite the initial difficulty, I found that looking at questions I was familiar with in economics through an anthropological lens ended up being to be especially rewarding. Thankfully, that process became easier as I progressed through the course and learned the tools and methodologies specific to anthropological research.

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A Freshman’s Guide to Writing a Research Policy Memo

The freshman seminars are one of the unique experiences at Princeton. While they may seem intimidating at first, they made me think of the process of research in my very first year in college. Not everyone might become a full-time researcher – I, for example, want to become a policy analyst – but many of our jobs will involve research, and the structure of the freshman seminar is very conducive to the research process. In the Economics of Immigration seminar that I took with Professor Leah Boustan during Fall 2019, we discussed aspects of the economic effects of immigration both on the receiving country and on the migrants themselves. Our final deliverable was a research policy memo – a document that describes a policy intervention by the government, by first arguing the need for it, then describing its advantages, and finally proposing a way by which it might be implemented. In order to write an effective memo, I had to research an issue that necessitated looking at it from diverse points of view. The process made me appreciate several principles of writing a policy memo.

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