Tête-à-tête Education

A passion for Economics

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Pariroo Rattan believes that being a young thinker involves learning beyond the regular classroom

Pariroo Rattan is not your average 20-something. A look at her list of achievements and initiatives is enough to assure one that she is anything but average.

After completing BA (Hons) Economics at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi, Rattan went on to pursue MA International and Development Economics at Yale University, the U.S., which she chose over Oxford, London School of Economics, and University College of London.

Following this, she has been living and working in the Economics department at Yale University, University of Oslo (Norway), London School of Economics (the U.K), and College De France (Paris) conducting research with a team of four professors at each of these universities on the structural transformation of India (Agriculture, Manufacturing, Services) since 1980s.

“During my time at Yale, apart from the core courses in Economics I had to take, I also took Ph.D level classes in the Department of History and Political Theory. I took a high-level proof-based class in the Mathematics department on real analysis. I also worked part time for three economists at Yale in conducting research and developing undergraduate and graduate level courses,” says Rattan.

Come August, she will be starting her Ph.D programme at John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, the U.S. What makes this noteworthy is that she also received acceptance offers from most other top schools such as Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, Columbia, Brown, LSE, Northwestern, and University of Chicago, for her Ph.D programme.

“After my doctoral studies I hope to continue doing research work as an academic in a university. The little teaching experience I have had so far has been enjoyable and fulfilling. I am also interested in doing policy work especially in the form of engaging directly with governments. An academic career allows for a significant amount of flexibility which I want to use to do policy work in India.”

EDGE talks to this highly-motivated youngster about her passion for Economics, and why India needs to relook its education infrastructure.

Why did you pick Harvard over other schools?

I realised that the economy is a highly complex, multi-level system that encompasses more than what is taught in a single discipline. The Public Policy Ph.D. at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) provides rigorous training in economic theory with the Harvard Department of Economics while allowing critical insights from other social sciences and humanities. More specifically, during my Doctoral degree, I intend on combining my training in economics with the science, technology and society track at HKS to reflect upon how the normative assumptions of economics and economic methodology shape a distinct understanding of ‘welfare’.

How did you choose to study economics?

My attraction to economics as a high-school student was by how creatively it used math to provide structure to the way our social world works. Math has always been my strength and interest, and to be able to apply it to complex policy-relevant questions was a major draw.

Who are your mentors?

I have found many mentors at various stages in my career. Attending Lady Shri Ram College was crucial for me not only in furthering my training in economics, but meeting people from diverse backgrounds and intellectual interests, who were willing to ask difficult questions. The Department of Economics created a supportive atmosphere for seniors and alumni to be accessible to younger students. At Yale too, I have greatly benefitted from the network of students and alumni who have gone on to pursue PhD programmes. The Director of my Master’s degree has been one of the most brilliant and committed teachers I have had the privilege of knowing, and I am most grateful for his continuous guidance.

Were you greatly pressurised? How did you deal with it?

I wouldn’t see any of the work I have done beyond academics as pushing myself “extra”. I think being a young thinker involves curating learnings beyond regular classroom work.

But, there were many times when I felt like I had taken on too much for myself. My time at Yale (since it was a one-year Master’s degree) was especially intense. My family is unconditionally encouraging in allowing me to pave my own path and their presence has provided crucial moral support. I still struggle to create the right balance but have benefitted by investing in a healthier lifestyle, meditating, being disciplined and taking enough time off to not get burned out.

Academic environments can be very daunting and we should all be open to, and institutionally support seeking professional help for mental health issues. There is a tendency with the current generation to romanticise workaholic lifestyle, being busy/stressed which encourages choices that can often create serious physical and mental health problems. I try to stay away from such narratives.

What are the opportunities for students pursuing an education in economics?

Students interested in a plethora of jobs across the corporate sector or entrepreneurship can find firm grounding here. Many economists go on to do policy formation, implementation and evaluation work with governments, multi-national institutions (like World Bank, United Nations, IMF, ILO), NGOs and local organisations. Those interested in research work and teaching can work as professors, academics, and lecturers in universities. Economics think-tanks occupy a unique space of advocacy between academia and government opening up doors to economists and policy enthusiasts.

What are some of the challenges faced by students pursuing economics education in India?

My experience with students pursuing Economics in India is that there is no dearth of talent and hard work. Unfortunately, the syllabi created for most undergraduate degrees in economics are not rigorous enough. Students have the need and capacity to be exposed to more complex theory early on and be examined in more creative and conceptual ways than what the current methods allow for

There is an absence of conducive research environment in undergraduate social science university spaces. The University of Delhi provides no active encouragement to students to work on a research thesis at the undergraduate or master’s levels. This discourages students from being imaginative, creative and curious in thinking about solutions and alternatives for the world’s pressing problems. Contemporary economics uses advanced software such as STATA, Python, MATLAB, R. Departments of Economics in India are taking far too long to jump on the bandwagon in training students with these software.

Many of the problems highlighted above need greater amounts of government investment in education and research. My experience at the University of Delhi has been that faculty members are spread out too thin which makes delivery of quality training very difficult. Rising levels of employment of contract teachers is not helping the matter, but rather is forcing academics to find positions abroad, or in the private sector.

More broadly, Departments of Economics need to recognise the multitude of factors that produce the economic system that we see around us. There is an increasing trend in Departments of Economics to train their students in mathematics and statistics and drive away from history, ethics, politics, philosophy and sociology. Great economists such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Mayard Keynes, Kenneth Arrow, and Amartya Sen were distinct in that they developed insights from many disciplines.

While applied mathematics has its merits, we must not forget that economics is a social science situated amidst the complexity of humankind. Once we begin to question assumptions of why certain values (like markets, efficiency, objectivity) are privileged over others (like community, morals, sovereignty), we find that the power structures governing the economy are more complicated than standard theory. For example, your idea of “progress” can be very different from mine, so approaches to development need not align with mainstream or acknowledged visions. Amidst all the push to specialise, perhaps it is worth pondering upon what we are losing by not forming broader interconnections and how to creatively mold our country’s future thinkers to be humble, wholesome and imaginative.

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 11:32:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/a-passion-for-economics/article27695787.ece

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