5.27.2010

Study Hacks on Esther Duflo

Cal Newport, the guy behind my favorite grad student philosophy / self-help /how-to-be-awesome website, Study Hacks, just posted a pretty interesting article on Esther Duflo, MIT econ professor, vanguard of the randomization movement in development economics, recent Clark medalist, undergrad professor of Sol's, and all around awesome professor. Specifically, he uses her as an example of the do's and don't's of finding one's "Life's Mission" :


This is what complicates the mission to find a mission. On the one hand, to discover them (and recognize them), you need a non-conformist’s confidence and a dedication to exploration. Duflo, for example, was a notorious searcher. Among other acts of defiance, she took time off in the middle of her studies to go work on practical economic problems in Moscow (where she met Jeffery Sachs). When she took Banerjee’s class she was actively seeking an outlet for her intellectual energies.
On the other hand, this sense of exploration has to be backed with competence in the relevant field. And developing this competence has a decidedly unexciting, conformist feel to it — a process replete with hard focus and resistance to distraction.
What I find interesting about this (aside from the various compelling tidbits about Duflo's life) is how much I think it has in common with doing good interdisciplinary work. People love to think about doing work that spans fields, and at the same time a lot of the interdisciplinary work that's done is rightfully lambasted as being unrigorous. I think that's because to do it right one has to go through the drudgery of learning the ins and outs of not one but two fields. There's the flight of inspiration that comes from thinking up great cross-field paper topics ("Can we use monsoon strength as an instrument for trade costs?") but there's also the long stretches of building confidence in relevant areas ("Hm. Guess I better learn about the global climate circulation. And trade.")

Viewed in this light, one can think of Duflo's work as in a lot of ways combining the statistical techniques from epidemiology (or maybe even more rightly, pharmacology) with the concerns of development economics. Economists of my generation I think largely take for granted the progression towards randomized trials and emphasis on identification (though even that's changing fast, see for the example the Spring 2010 JEP), but the progress to incorporate those techniques involved taking the field and broadening its boundaries by mixing it with the techniques and concerns of another. It's nice to hear the back story about how one of the major players decided to head down that route and appreciate just how much skill, drive, and chutzpah it took to do so.

And yes, I just noticed that Study Hacks' byline is "Demystifying Sustainable Success." How apt.

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