PhD, research

Geographical economics insights for your post-grad studies

Last week I wrote about how post-grads can come to think like researchers. It involves thinking, reading, writing and analysis, followed by more of each until your supervisor says you can stop. There are steps in this process. The thinking and reading is especially important for figuring out the paradigm, approach and methodology steps. Applying the method and using the instruments is the analysis part of the process, but will also involve more reading and learning. Of course everything needs to be written up with crystal clarity.
Few people are likely to be complete naturals at all this, which means that there is a demand for mentoring and coaching and a supply of books, blogs and “how to” guides. At last week’s seminar Prof Trafford also proposed some stepping stones to developing episteme:


But how would a university, a supervisor or a student go about creating and participating in an environment in which these things happen? Thinking about all this, I wondered whether there might not be some insights from geographical economics:

Geographical economics
Your post-grad studies
Economic activity occurs in agglomerations.
Your research has to take place in an academic agglomeration of the supervisor, other Profs, post-docs, fellow post-grad students and the friendly staff at the library.
You cannot disappear for six months and expect to come back with answers.
Growth is driven by external economies of scale from four sources:
To do more and better research requires:
Infrastructure – lowers the cost of production.
You will need basic hardware to do the work.
A Department or School can upgrade the PCs and software in the post-grad lab. For students this means using your scholarship money to buy a laptop instead of a PS3.
Diversity of intermediate inputs – there are benefits from scale and specialisation.
The literature that you are reading and data for your analysis are the raw materials. The intermediate inputs are the interactions with and feedback from anyone and everyone.
This means having regular scheduled meetings between supervisor and student, attending workshops and seminars. A post-grad can never be too busy for this and when you attend, you need to participate – remember that a good question is a compliment to the speaker and a complement to agglomeration-driven research!
Matching in the labour market – better matching between employers and employees increases efficiency and lowers cost.
Students and supervisors can be matched by interest and by skills. Diversity or specialization can be beneficial, depending on the agglomeration. Students often have a better idea about who they want to work with than supervisors do!
Matching with peers is also important. Get to know the post-doc who has been there and did it, or make friends with the Stata programming whizz.
Knowledge spillovers – ideas and innovations are in the air and drive growth in agglomerations.
These are the spillovers that occur aside from the intermediate inputs and improved matching. It happens when you go for a coffee or a beer and someone mentions the cool new article in AER that they have been reading. This is about research culture and its spillovers.

So, in research agglomerations you find lots of people busy reading, writing, analyzing, presenting their results and providing inputs for one another. But what if you are the only PhD in the village, whose supervisor is busy teaching or managing, if there are no seminars or anyone to have an AER-related beer with? I believe that there are things you can and should do to get closer to the action:

  • Library resources are great for tracking down the peer-reviewed published work, also sign up for a RSS reader and start following blogs. You may not have been at the seminar but the blogs are where the fresh new work is reported and you can make comments as well.

  • Many researchers and academics also tweet. These are the bits of conversations and references to resources that you might otherwise be missing by sitting out in the sticks. Join the conversation.

  • You should actually blog and tweet about your work. Very few people have speaker’s block, buy many post-grads complain about writer’s block. Writing blogs will provide practice in expressing your ideas. You do not have to share great insights yet – write about and interpret the articles you have been reading, or post the code that you have been struggling to program. If someone ever asks what you have been up to, you will have something to show.

  • If you are tweeting and blogging, following other researchers and sending your comments, make sure that you manage your online profile – put up the privacy settings on those undergrad party photos on Facebook and rather start using LinkedIn and SlideShare to promote yourself and your work.

  • Journals may not publish the work that you have right now, but maybe someone will be interested in a book review or even letting you review an article. You are reading anyway so send an e-mail to a few editors and ask if they would keep you in mind.

  • Finally, keep your ears open for workshops or conferences that are close by and inexpensive. That conference in Istanbul sounds nice, but you are more likely to get good feedback at UCT. When you do get the opportunity, make the most of it: make an excellent presentation, have your business card, v card, QR code to your webpage ready, do not disappear from sessions to explore the town, participate, make comments, ask questions and do not skip the conference dinner, network with the young guns and the legends.


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