+3 votes
asked ago by (170 points)
Thank you to the AEA for establishing the Econspark forum; I've been wanting to pose this question for a while but couldn't find an outlet.

I am a recent graduate with a bachelor's in economics. There is nothing that I want more than to obtain a position doing economics research with a private firm, university department, or government institution.

However, I am facing a dilemma, whereby in order to succeed in the job market, one needs experience doing research; but in order to gain experience one needs to work.

This and the fact that I am competing against MA and sometimes PhD candidates for scarce positions, I find myself to be in an uber-competitive market.

My question is: how can I on my own time gain economics research experience?

I've already gained elementary proficiency in statistical analysis through an internship with a research institute and two econometric classes (nevertheless, this doesn't seem adequate for interviewers)

I've thought about doing the following on my own initiative:
1. Asking authors for data and replicating their studies
2.  Learning code from a statistic-learning textbook, line by line.
3. Performing my own econometric research, however without a mentor.

Could anyone in this wonderful community offer advice? This I would vastly appreciate as I am driven to "become my own RA". Thank you so vary much.

3 Answers

+2 votes
answered ago by (3.5k points)
First thing: You aren't (yet) competing with MA and PhD candidates because they have much more preparation.

Most RA positions require computer skills. Usually Stata is required, sometimes R/Python/Matlab/something is a big boost. Learn to be proficient on the computer.

Sometimes faculty will accept volunteer RAs. Once you have computer skills you might check back with some of the faculty you know to see if they would accept you for X hours a week. (Long shot, but sometimes it works.)

When you're a little further along, keep an eye out on Twitter for the tag @econ_ra.
+4 votes
answered ago by (1.3k points)
I wrote up this advice for an undergraduate student in the DC metro area, so some of it might not be relevant to people in other locations, or to those who have already graduated.  That said, much of it applies to the original question:

It’s great that you want to get started on research as soon as possible.  As an undergraduate (or recent graduate), the two best things you can do are build your skills, especially in applied econometrics, and obtain experience by working as a research assistant or intern.
On the skills side, the classes in your own department are your primary resources.  Take as many econometrics courses as available – especially the hard ones!  Take classes that require data analysis using Stata or another programming package.  And don’t overlook relevant classes in other departments, like ones that teach you to use ArcGIS, or to code in C or Python.
Outside of the university, there are good online resources.  Here are a few of my favorites:
Evaluating Social Programs, taught by the research organization JPAL: https://www.edx.org/course/evaluating-social-programs-mitx-jpal101x-6
Stata tutorial from Princeton:  http://data.princeton.edu/Stata/
Cheat sheets and slide decks for data analysis and visualization in Stata: http://geocenter.github.io/StataTraining/
In the DC area, the Federal Reserve Board and Howard University offer a free course in data analysis using R, with an excellent curriculum.  The course is called “Expository Data Analysis with R.”  Interested students should reach out to the following individuals at Howard:
1:  Professor Emily Blank (emilyblank@gmail.com)
2:  Ms. Porter at miacia.porter@howard.edu
And copy  the instructors at the Federal Reserve:
Professor Andrew Cohen (andrew.cohen@frb.gov ) and William Ampeh (wampeh@frb.gov)
Finally, I highly recommend the book “Mastering Metrics,” by Angrist and Pischke.  It’s available from Amazon if your university library doesn’t have a copy:  https://www.amazon.com/Mastering-Metrics-Path-Cause-Effect/dp/0691152845/
To learn more about specific research topics, a great place to start are the Symposia published by the Journal of Economic Perspectives (these are special issues with several articles on a single topic).  You can find them here:  https://www.aeaweb.org/journals/jep/issues?v=9
It’s very helpful to learn how to do research by working on someone else’s project before you try to begin your own.  Working on someone else’s project gives you the opportunity to learn the process without having to take on one of the most challenging parts of research, which is coming up with a feasible question and strategy for answering it.  Often, students get this initial experience by working as research assistants for professors in their own departments.
Summer research programs
Other opportunities include the summer “undergraduate research opportunities” or UROP programs offered by many universities and open to students from other schools.  Note that these are competitive programs, and typically have application deadlines between November and February for the following summer.  Here are some links:
UMD Summer Research Initiative:  https://bsos.umd.edu/diversity/landingtopic/summer-research-initiative  
Big 10 SROP:  http://www.btaa.org/resources-for/students/srop/introduction
The American Economics Association Summer Training program offers students the opportunity to take classes and write independent research papers.  It’s an outstanding program for students interested in attending graduate school in economics.  The program is located at Michigan State University, and it offers scholarships and stipends.  The application deadline is in January, and more information is available here:  https://www.aeaweb.org/about-aea/committees/aeasp
Five universities offer Junior Summer Institutes for students interested in graduate studies in public policy.  You can learn more about these PPIA summer programs here: https://www.ppiaprogram.org/ppia/partners/junior-summer-institutes/
Research-focused summer internships are available through Innovations for Poverty Action (https://www.poverty-action.org/work-with-ipa/careers), the Federal Reserve Board of Governors (https://www.federalreserve.gov/careers-internships.htm) and the regional Fed banks (here’s a link to the Boston Fed’s program; you can search online for the programs: https://www.bostonfed.org/careers/additional-opportunities/internships.aspx).
In DC, a number of think tanks and policy organizations hire summer interns.  This research is more policy oriented than academic, and internships typically include a mix of research and other tasks.  Places to consider include:
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:  https://www.cbpp.org/careers/intern
Brookings Institution:  https://interns-brookings.icims.com/jobs/
Center for Global Development:  https://www.cgdev.org/page/internship-opportunities-cgd
Another way to add to your own research experience is to replicate an existing paper.  Many economics journals require authors to make data and code available to others to reproduce the results in the published paper.  It’s great experience to go back to the original data (without looking at the author’s code) and see if you can recreate the tables in the paper based on your understanding from reading the paper.  I assign a replication and extension project to my graduate students, and I’m attaching the description here.
0 votes
answered ago by (1.2k points)
Check out these positions, many of which are for predoctoral research fellows:

In addition to the excellent suggestions offered by others, you can look at some of the courses that have been offered in the past by NBER and AEA.  For example, my machine learning course is here: https://www-aeaweb-org.stanford.idm.oclc.org/conference/cont-ed/2018-webcasts

There are videos, lecture notes, instructions for installing R, a data set, and sample scripts to run with comments.  Look for the most recent scripts posted on the Google drive there.  The examples and scripts are always being extended and worked on by RAs, sometimes volunteers from other places.

There are also a small number of open source software projects for applied econometrics.  I have one that people contribute to from all over the world.  People who make a good impression might be good candidates for a summer research assistantship, but also you can point to code you have contributed when applying to other RAships.  https://github.com/grf-labs/grf