Econ alum Martin Aragoneses talks about becoming a research assistant at MIT and provides advice for students who want to follow a similar career path.
Tell us about your career since graduating from the Barcelona GSE
I have been working as a research assistant for MIT professor Amy Finkelstein since September 2015. I am part of her three-person “RCTeam” working on her papers using Randomized Controlled Trials. We spend most of the time at the National Bureau of Economic Research, working in an office space with other research assistants who are working for MIT or Harvard professors. On various occasions, we also have the opportunity to work at the new office of J-PAL North America. The majority of my work involves data analysis for two of Prof. Finkelstein’s papers. The papers I am currently working on for her involve promoting the take-up of food stamps and the other is on health care assistance, both for underserved communities in the US. The detail of my work involves cleaning and exploring the data, as well as coding and running the econometric analysis that will appear in the papers. Apart from this “Stata-work”, the rest of my time involves background research for the papers, such as reviewing literature, looking for new data sources, writing memos or paragraphs for the paper/analysis plan, as well as coordinating with our partners conducting the RCT, such as NGOs and other institutions.
Sounds really interesting, what has been the most memorable part of the project so far?
A month after I started working for Prof. Finkelstein, she sent me to the field to get a better understanding of the interventions we are studying. It was the first time of being on the field for any research project and seeing the people we were helping out with our program and hearing their testimonials was really touching. It reassured me why I want to do empirical research for a living!
How did your time at the Barcelona GSE prepare you for this step in your career?
As part of my course at the Barcelona GSE, I made sure that I took only Advanced (1st year PhD-level) courses and MRes (2nd year PhD-level) courses in order to get the best preparation possible.
How did you find out about this position? Was it challenging to apply for the position whilst you were still studying?
This was a really crazy time, we were having exams while I was applying, so I barely slept for 2 weeks. We received a Barcelona GSE email from a Harvard professor looking for RAs. I applied, and went through the standard interview and “data task”, but they were not able to offer me a position. Instead, they referred me to Prof. Finkelstein at MIT and after going through the same process, she offered me the job.
How important was previous work experience for this position and what experience did you have?
It was crucial. Previous research experience is a necessary condition for getting this type of job. I had worked as a summer research assistant for Ted Miguel, at UC Berkeley, working on the data and code for several of his published papers. This helped to teach me about Stata as part of the job was to clean and reorganize the code to make it publishable and the results replicable. Ted Miguel was also nice enough to recommend me for the position Prof. Finkelstein had available, which I think was one of the key factors why she hired me.
What hints or advice would you give to current students who want to follow this career path?
In order to get an RA like this one, you have to: 1) Take as many courses in econometrics as you can, both the theory-intensive Advanced Econometrics 1 & 2 and some applied courses from the MRes. 2) Work as a research assistant for a professor in order to learn Stata well. Having a strong letter of recommendation is crucial, so look for a professor that did his/her PhD at a top institution and try to get a short-term part time research assistant position before applying for the post-Master job.
That’s great advice. Is there anything else you would like to share about your work which could help current students who are interested in something similar?
This job is intensive, so make sure you like doing research before signing up for this. The RAs usually work late most days and it's not rare to see people working over the weekend. However, the best part of working here is the people you meet and the new friends you make. They are smart and hardworking, but also extremely curious and driven towards doing something good for the world. Working here, or in something similar, you are going to learn a lot of skills that would definitely help you perform well and get into a top PhD program, which include collaborating with people in a research team. In this respect, I couldn’t have found a better person to work for than Prof. Finkelstein.
You need to make sure you have other interests beyond work. An example of this would be to develop some of your own research ideas or projects, or learn new skills and take cool classes. Use some of your free time for that, even though it is scarce. For example, last December I went to UC Berkeley to film Economics Professor Edward Miguel talking about how to end poverty and this semester I’m taking Josh Angrist’s second year class in Applied Econometrics.
Would you recommend the Barcelona GSE Master Program to other students who are interested in macroeconomics?
Barcelona GSE improved their program a great deal right before I entered my masters: they started offering an advanced track in addition to their normal track, with courses that are equivalent to what you'd cover in the first year of a top PhD program in the US. The quality of the advanced track is extremely high and enrollment into advanced courses is very competitive. For example, as an undergrad I had taken the 1st year PhD macro sequence at U.C. Berkeley, but I remember Barcelona GSE's Advanced Macro sequence being several orders of magnitude harder (and more theory-intensive) than the classes at Berkeley. The pace was faster, more models were covered and you were required to know each in more detail. If you are interested in (business cycle) macro, as I am, there is really no better master's program in the world than Barcelona GSE's, especially if you take advantage of Jordi Gali/Vladimir Asyrian's excellent 2nd year course in the last term. In addition, their Advanced Econometrics sequence is extremely well designed and challenging, but very enjoyable. It really gave us a very solid understanding of some of the harder concepts in graduate econometrics, while requiring you to code up weekly Monte Carlo's in Matlab to help materials make better sense. It was a very intense year, but worth it. Again if macro is your thing, and theory doesn't scare you, there's no better place to go for a masters.