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"The comfort of discomfort": reflections on the Master's by Nils Handler '18

Students with ITFD program directors

International Trade, Finance, and Development Program graduate Nils Handler '18 (on the right in the photo above with ITFD directors and his master project group) looks back on his year at the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics. Breaking his arm—right before final exams!—was not the biggest challenge he faced, nor was it the most memorable thing he took away from the experience.


The decision to go back to school was not an easy one for me.

I already had a first Master's degree. My job at the World Bank paid well and I was swiftly growing into more responsibilities. The distinctive benefit of a second Master's were not entirely foreseeable, and investing all my hard-earned savings for tuition and living expenses for almost a year seemed like a risky bet.

The author with Paul Romer

In hindsight I have the say: the bet paid off, because the International Trade, Finance and Development Program thoroughly pushed me outside of my comfort zone.

Intellectual curiosity was the guiding light in my decision for the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics. Still on the fence after the first tuition installments, I sat down one night carefully studying the course content bibliographies. Reading name after name, title after title reignited my burning passion for Development Economics. All doubts vanished.

Being the development geek that I have been ever since reading Jeffrey Sachs' The End of Poverty more than a decade ago, many names sounded familiar. Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, the hottest topic during my first Master's, was still valid currency in the academic debates. Randomista-superstars Esther Duflo and Abhit Banerjee I remembered from interviewing Muhammad Yunus on their critique to Microfinance. But there were also many new names such as Rohini Pande, whom I had heard of but whose work I still wasn't familiar with. Topics like Behavioral Economics, which I was dying to learn more about but never quite had the chance to. Sala-i-Martin who I knew more for his flamboyant blazers and his steadfast support of the FC Barcelona than his opus on economic growth.

Abhit Banerjee and Esther Duflo

Yet it was not only those big names.

There was also an array of statistical tools that I wanted to learn. Difference-in-Differences, regression-discontinuity design, instrumental variables – I had heard all these terms a million times but never worked through their inner mechanics, paramount assumptions, their statistical plumbing. Economic history had skilled me to analyze the past, these skills I knew would allow me to provide empirical solutions for developmental challenges both present and future.

You know that you grow when it hurts. The first stretch of our mathematical muscles was the initial brush up, what followed was never enough rest for them to stop feeling sore. The academic equivalent of the US navy seals training, starting with hell week and then slowly increasing the pace.

“Work in groups and don’t give up, with time it will click” – the words of our director sounded like what they tell a seal in the helicopter before he gets pushed into the freezing cold ocean far behind enemy lines.

One of my biggest concerns in going back to school was that it might be too easy. That I might have to repeat stuff I already knew. Turned out my topical knowledge and professional expertise was invaluable in putting things into perspective, in seeing the big picture that frames all courses’ contents – but it was never explicitly asked in an exam.

Getting back into study mode after years in the working world takes effort. Your mathematical muscles get rusty if you do not use them on a daily basis. Thus it is hardly surprising that I was unable to leave the library during the Catalan declaration of independence. I simply had not yet finished my econometric problem set.

I was truly amazed by my classmates.

Whether they had declined offers from the most prestigious universities in the UK to come to Barcelona, previously worked as economists at the OECD, World Bank research department, central banks, ministries of finance, founded successful startups or travelled the world as trade policy advisors – the list of their achievements was daunting. Everyone was challenged, only in groups we survived.

Having worked in mineral economics I knew: the difference between coal and diamonds is pressure during formation. But when would it click?

Students and directors

Our professors were even more impressive...

Half of mine had Harvard PhDs, almost all had published in the American Economic Review, several were supervised by Nobel Laureates, or had published with the World’s highest-ranked economist. Their command of the cutting edge of economics was authoritative. In fact, they form part of the select few who sharpen it and cut with it.

When unexpectedly both Abhit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, development superstars who I admire, appeared at the Barcelona GSE, they knew our professors by their first names. Our director had shared an office with Acemoglu while at MIT, and described his abilities as “not human – he can write a paper on a weekend.” Poke me, I thought sometimes.

...but they were also humble...

One of my program directors was perfectly fluent and literally accent-free in German, Italian, Spanish, and English, and effortlessly addressed individual classmates in whatever language they were native in. Without making a fuss about it. Hardly ever have I encountered such Renaissance-man-like polymath who inspire you not merely on their academic merits but also as a person. I just wanted to be like him.

...and their research is used out there in the real world.

When interviewing for a job during my year at Barcelona GSE, I was given a brain-teaser based on a survey in the Financial Times. Readers could pick a number between 0 and 100, and had to form 2/3 of the average of everyone’s pick. What was the number? “20” I blurted out without thinking twice. I immediately knew that’s what people had responded – because it had been my professor in Experimental Economics who was behind the survey.

Master project co-authors

I could not have been happier to have chosen Barcelona GSE over my offers in the United States.

First of all: I dare you to find a better bang for the buck! Second of all: no pain no gain – our directors knew exactly what they were doing, their methods paid off - and it did click in the end. And it was virtually impossible to learn more over the course of nine months.

“Hardest year of my life” I heard many people say towards the end. When you had already developed that love-hate relationship with your pain. And that’s exactly what I mean by the comfort of discomfort. #IsurvivedBGSE

The author with fellow graduates

Connect with Nils on LinkedIn

Read a summary of his group's master project on the Barcelona GSE Voice

Learn more about the ITFD Master's Program