Sad sentences

If some day you plan to do a PhD, should you take that job as a field assistant on an RCT? Chris Blattman discusses some pros and cons, and one pro leapt out at me:

You may never have a chance to live in a developing country again. In your PhD, you’ll be confined to a trip of a few months maximum, here and there. As a professor, you’ll reach the absurd level of visiting four African countries in 14 days. This is your only chance. And it will make a difference about the kind and quality of questions you will ask and care about.

I hope Blattman is exaggerating a little bit. Or maybe he’s not. Since beginning my PhD, my time `in the field’ has been limited to a few months at a time – but I hope to spend more time living in developing countries after I finish.

I think academic development economics is in a sorry state when:

  1. We get no more long term exposure after the age of 2_, and so priors are *not* being appropriately updated, just reinforced by taxi-cab conversations.
  2. There’s not enough internal demand to push for a system where academics get to spent more time living in developing countries.

Maybe it is naive to assume that academic interest should be correlated with a deep desire to spend more time living in the place we study. I once had a professor (in undergrad) tell me that he wouldn’t visit a country under a given level of per capita GDP, because the hotels wouldn’t be nice enough (I would consider this an extreme case).

If you do desire to get back out there, I suppose there’s always the sabbatical – although once you have a spouse and children, it might just be easier to hop to the other side of the Atlantic  (or even southern-Europe if you’re feeling adventurous) rather than inflict fickle power supplies, political instability and malaria on your loved ones. I know of at least one admirable bloke who recently bucked the trend and shipped out to Dar es Salaam for a year.

Or here’s another piece of advice if you dislike the prospect of being confined to high income countries the rest of your life: don’t go into traditional academia.

Disclaimer: I am still a naive PhD student, so no hard feelings if you follow my advice, only to find out that I got cold feet and went after a tenure-track position somewhere.

Update: After chatting with a friend, a couple more thoughts:

  • Just in case it comes across that way, I wasn’t suggesting that those that don’t spend more time in developing countries are inherently less legitimate, but that we should be worried about a system that doesn’t really allow for it.
  • My friend also pointed out that for some, the decision about whether or not to spend lots of time abroad might happen jointly with the decision to be come an academic (as opposed to a policy person in a country office).

3 thoughts on “Sad sentences

  1. Stephen Jones

    July 15, 2011 at 6:27pm

    Good point, that comment from Chris struck me too. Even if staying in academia, would it not be possible to work as an academic in a developing country later? I wouldn’t say the challenge is confined to economics either – I’m doing a PhD in a geography department and for staff it seems like short trips only (a bit better for us PhDs – most people seem to do one stay of about a year plus one or two shorter ones).

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    July 16, 2011 at 1:48am

    Very good points. But as the standards and pay scales of African universities improve, this will become less and less of an issue.

  3. David Paul

    July 20, 2011 at 7:55am

    If you are a kind of person who is adventurous then surely you will go for it. Also an African country isn’t that boring. I don’t know but I found being a field assistant is not that hard IF you really enjoy what you are doing. Working for a long time with a super hectic schedule will be expected for this kind of work. If you are not kind of person who doesn’t use to travel, doing adventures in your life, exploring new places and helping people then you should stop from the start or else you can’t manage stress well. And I super agree with taking a job as a field assistant on an RCT then You may never have a chance to live in a developing country again.

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