Four Research Assistants discuss their time at Princeton

July 1, 2020
Four Research Assistants discuss their time at Princeton

Clockwise (L-R) Jared Grogan, Bailey Palmer, Franco Calle, Victoria Angelova

The role of a research assistant (RA) at Princeton’s Industrial Relations Section is very dynamic.  RAs interested in applied economics work diligently behind the scenes to assist faculty in collecting, cleaning, and analyzing data, and completing other tasks to advance research projects and papers. 

Recently, we sat down with four RAs — Victoria Angelova, Franco Calle, Jared Grogan, and Bailey Palmer — to hear about their experiences in the Section and what contributed to their success.  All of them are heading to graduate school in the fall:  Victoria will be attending Harvard University, Franco will be attending the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Jared will be attending Columbia University, and Bailey will be attending the University of California-Berkeley.

Note: This transcript of our discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

We are committed to helping our RAs acquire practical experience and knowledge that will help them succeed academically, and we are very proud of what Victoria, Franco, Jared, and Bailey have already accomplished. As RAs they have made meaningful contributions to the research mission of the Section, and we celebrate with them as they begin this next stage in their careers.

- Alex Mas, Director

What motivated you to explore the RA position at Princeton?

(Bailey)  A lot of the advice that I was given was to go to the Research Assistantship (RAship) that had the most prestigious faculty, which was the main reason I went to Princeton. That decision was made even easier when I saw how nice and friendly everyone is.  I primarily corresponded with Leah Boustan before the interview and remember being impressed by how friendly and supportive she was.

(Franco)  As an international student, I was attracted to the idea of coming to the US and to work in a career linked to Econ.  There are few opportunities in South America.  Many students would do a Masters in [their] country or abroad or find a path to an RA-ship.  Fortunately, I was working in Peru with Chris Neilson, who encouraged me to apply to Princeton.

What surprised you the most when you started?

(Victoria)  For me, there was a big jump from undergraduate studies to doing applied research work, but all of the professors were so patient with me starting the work, going back and forth, making  a bunch of mistakes, getting my feet wet (adjusting, learning by mistakes).  It was really a great environment for someone to be introduced into applied economic research, and  I am really grateful for that.

(Franco)  For me the infrastructure, resources and research discussions here are exciting.  I had no idea about the level of research and rigor that is required when investigating something on the frontier.  I had some experience because I was an RA in my country, but the level is totally different, it’s like we’re in another dimension, and we are trying to do something that is going to be ground-breaking, so it requires more concentration, more “putting your hands in the mud,” and that’s something that impacted me a lot and what actually makes a difference between research institutions like Princeton’s Econ department and other institutions around the world.

What skills or knowledge were essential to your success?

(Victoria)  The main thing to realize is that however much you know, you’re going to learn so much more in whatever you end up doing. The best way to learn is on the job, and because of the way the cohorts work, there’s always going to be folks who’ve been doing this for a year when you come in.  A lot of my Stata skills were definitely enhanced by the fact that I sat with Nicole who was a 2nd year RA when I started, and by being in the same office as Jared and Bailey who were also figuring things out simultaneously.

(Bailey)  Based on what I’ve heard about interviews at other RA positions, I think the way some people approach hiring their RAs is, “I’m hiring a programmer,” but I get the sense that the way the professors here like to hire people is, “I’m going to hire a future grad student, and they need to have enough skills to do their job well” — They would rather have their RA be a good future researcher.  So, if you don’t know everything about Stata yet that’s not necessarily the end of the world.

(Jared)  I feel that what Bailey said is very true.  I really didn’t have extensive experience in software like Python or R when I came to Princeton either, so I learned a lot more about them on the job. I think as long as you are comfortable with learning things as you go, you can definitely handle the projects.  If you enjoy learning new concepts in software, you’ll definitely enjoy some of the projects the professors are working on.

What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

(Victoria)  A lot of my challenges were programming and coding… Although that was challenging, I had so much support from the older RAs, the current RAs, and even the professors.  Even if you’re there to support their work, it’s not a one-way street.  They want you to succeed in helping them…there’s just a lot of collaboration and support systems so the work never felt overwhelming.

(Bailey)  I never felt like I ever had a task that I couldn’t do or that the timeline someone gave me was infeasible.  Everyone we work with, if they give you something challenging, they know it is challenging.  I never felt like my job was at stake if I took another day to finish the code.  That’s not at all the environment that we work in.  The hardest thing I did here was taking [a] real analysis [class] at the same time as doing my job.  All of the professors realized it was important for me to do well in the class in order to get a good grad school placement, and they were very supportive.  I still completed all my normal work, but they were flexible with my hours, and I think they saw the class as part of their investment in me.  It always felt like they were supporting me.

What experience or contribution are you most proud of?  

(Jared)  There was one project in particular I was working on with Professor David Lee.  His co-authors were advocating for using a certain test statistic in a working paper but the Stata package they were using to calculate the statistic wasn’t providing the correct answers.  I helped figure out exactly where things were going wrong and eventually wrote my own little ‘bare bones’ package to do it correctly.  I learned a lot about making programs in Stata as well as some econometrics, and feel proud because I was largely exploring how to do things myself with only a little guidance here and there.

(Franco)  What makes RAs proud in general about their experience at Princeton’s IR Section is being able to help with research and to have a meaningful impact.  Professors here are trying to understand problems in the social sciences, and we are giving ingredients and input into the final product which helps fill those gaps in the literature while increasing our knowledge about something we did not know before.  So that’s something definitely I felt very proud of — that we are contributing at a very high stakes level, I believe.

What are you looking forward to the most?

(Franco)  I believe there are a lot of people from Latin America who want to do research and have really good ideas and skills, but they don’t know potential paths to reach what they want to do.  I think that I can help--giving this information and forming networks in Latin America to show promising students that there is a path they can follow, and succeed.  That’s very important because research is context dependent, and therefore we need diversity of experience and perspectives in academia. We need people who have experience about how institutions work in different countries and contexts.  I want to be able to tell them that it’s feasible, we can do this, these are the options available, and we need more people like you because there are many things we have to solve right now in our country.

(Jared)  I have a few ideas about papers that I would like to write, and I feel like I can hit the ground running once I start grad school.  I’m really excited about going to NYC, especially because my neighborhood growing up in Tennessee was a stone’s throw away from cow pastures.  So the change of scenery will be very interesting!  Neither of my parents went to college so for me to be the first in the family to pursue a PhD is exciting as well.

As our RAs prepare to take the next step in their academic careers, we would like to thank them for their valuable contributions to the Industrial Relations Section and wish them continued success!