Aspiring PhD students: Should you become a field research assistant for an RCT?

Tuesday I advertised a new research position with me, on a field experiment in Liberia. One reader asks a very good question:

I have a vague recollection of one of your posts a few weeks (months?) ago saying that if you were to pick dev research like stocks you would go short on RCTs. It’s not great news if the PI I’m working for thinks what I’m doing is a suboptimal use of my time.

Astute. And worth answering not because of my position, but because this is something aspiring PhDs should think about. The answer is most relevant for aspiring economists and increasingly important for aspiring political scientists.

And the answer, like every answer in social science, is the same: “It depends”.

Cons

  1. It’s getting harder to distinguish yourself from the herd. JPAL and IPA and other field experiment outfits have exploded in size. Whereas maybe a dozen field RAs applied for economics PhD programs a few years ago, now it is dozens. Maybe dozens upon dozens. This is less true for political science, where the tide is surging but still low. But not for many more years.
  2. Enthusiasm for RCTs is moderating. Enthusiasm is still high, and will remain high. But we’re beginning to see the warts and the limitations.
  3. You might get less interaction with a professor than you think. This varies from academic to academic, and project to project. You might find yourself in daily conversation or you might find that they barely know your name. The latter is seldom the case, but that is the spectrum. If your aim is to get a good letter of recommendation, one side of that spectrum is better than the other.

Pros

  1. 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.
  2. You will learn hugely useful skills. I can’t speak for other professors, but my RAs learn to design questionnaires and behavioral games, do better qualitative work, code Stata, run real-world regressions and deal with real-world statistical challenges, hire and mange a team, manage and budget hundreds of thousands of dollars, work with policymakers, write for a wonkie audience and, most of all, manage harried and absent-minded professors. You will put all of these to work in any dissertation in the field.
  3. You will be given room to excel. You will be more independent than you expect, which will be scary, but probably good for you. Your bosses will throw as much at you as you can handle, and then some. Over two or three years you will usually get the responsibility you deserve, which can be a lot, and take you great places.
  4. You might get more chances to impress than you think. Even if you’re not on the phone every day with the professors on your project, you have many opportunities to shine, and we look out for those and they land in our letters of recommendation.
  5. It will lead to research ideas. It is no coincidence that Michael Kremer’s students are mostly celebrated academics themselves now, and all run projects in Busia. Likewise you will see the same for the Duflos and Karlans of the world. And my cohort all have PhD students who are collaborators and c o-authors who are finding great dissertations in our field sites, RCT or not. It’s a good machine.
  6. It’s tough to get other kinds of positions with development professors. They are there. I am sure the Besleys and Rodriks and Robinsons and Acemoglus of the world hire full time RAs, but I am not sure how many or how often or simply how. that might be telling.

How to maximize the pros and minimize the cons?

  • See if, after a couple of years in the field, there are opportunities to work with your professor as a US-based RA. This is never assured, but it’s worth asking. It gets you more data experience and more interaction. And there will be hot showers.
  • Do things to distinguish yourself from the herd. this is kind of obvious. For economists, it might mean seeking to spend an extra year working, perhaps at the Fed or with a theorist, or taking extra math classes, or something like that. For a political scientist, it might mean carving out time for an original research project, however small, since writing samples are taken much more seriously. Ask your professor.
  • If you have the luxury, favor projects where you’ll have a closer relationship with the academics.
  • On your applications, don’t say, “I want to randomize everything”. Here’s my thoughts on the future of quantitative field work. Also this.
  • Remember that everyone else is playing the same game as you, and might even be seeing this advice. Paradoxically, that might make all the above advice now strategically sub-optimal.

Most of all, don’t get too calculating or too strategic or too anxious. Otherwise you will be miserable and a jerk.

Frankly, admission is pretty idiosyncratic and largely out of your hands, and  you’re going to have a happy and fulfilling career either way. Really. So chill out and enjoy yourself and do the work for the right reasons: if you enjoy it and can learn a lot. that’s good enough.

Current and former field RAs of all stripes, your comments please…