Student-Organized Conference Delves into Big Data and Builds Community

A conference organized by and for students highlighted research applying empirical and statistical methods creatively to a wide array of issues.

A conference room at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business was nearly full Oct. 1 as 40 students turned out on a rainy weekend to hear presentations by their peers.

Over two days, 20 students presented their research in progress and served as discussants. Poster sessions during lunch breaks allowed others to participate. Matt Notowidigdo of Northwestern and Alessandra Voena of the University of Chicago gave faculty keynote addresses.

“The idea to organize a student conference came from us realizing how few opportunities graduate students have to present their work in a friendlier environment, with other fellow students and faculty attending,” said co-organizer Ricardo Dahis of Northwestern University. “The choice to focus on empirics and methods was motivated by our reading of the directions that economics, and social sciences in general, is taking as a field.”

“Economics is becoming more and more involved with ‘big data’: for example, administrative data on employment spells and income have allowed researchers to document the dramatic increase in income inequality in the US and investigate the sources of this phenomenon,” said Claudia Macaluso, another student organizer. “The availability of large-sized, comprehensive datasets is therefore an unprecedented opportunity to expand the scope and validity of economics research. It is also a challenge, however; as economists, we need to adapt other sciences' methods or develop new ones to deal with this wealth of data.”

Macaluso, a sixth-year doctoral student in Economics at the University of Chicago, has experienced firsthand the difficulty of making sure data analysis is scientifically sound. “In my dissertation, I use data on the skill content of occupations to study how mismatch between the supply and demand for skills affects the costs of job loss for laid-off workers. As I explored this along many different dimensions, I realized that the guidance in the literature on how to use these skills is somewhat scant.

“So that's why we created a student conference in empirics and methods in economics: we felt the need to get together and talk about how to deal with challenging data and empirical questions,” she explained. “We got more than 130 submissions from all over the world, so we think we are not alone!”

Organizers noted that with financial support from Northwestern and the Becker Friedman Institute, they had the resources to invite students from across the country as well as from Paris and London, providing partial travel support. That set the conference apart from other student conferences, they said. 

Participants find many benefits in such conferences. “They are a great opportunity to present papers and discuss ideas with a new group of people that tend to have a different approach and fresh perspective. Attendees get a chance to see what other students are working on and how new methodologies and data are being applied,” noted Brenda Samaniego de la Parra, an organizer from the University of Chicago.

Participant Claudia Allende of Columbia University agreed. “Exposure to methods was helpful, but the most interesting thing was meeting new people.” A key benefit of the conference was the interaction with peers from other schools, ranging from University of California-Berkeley, to Harvard, London School of Economics, and École Polytechnique in Paris.

Attendees were impressed with the diversity of the presentations. Papers explored issues of identification, estimation, inference, regression discontinuity, and random assignments. Two sessions focused on econometrics and another on macroeconomics.

A topical session on public economics looked at tax evasion and hospital demand management; another examined corruptions and misallocation of public sector jobs. Historical work examined Soviet collectivization and the intergenerational consequences of incarceration. Sunday sessions were devoted to research on labor markets and education.

“The simple experience of presenting your research to a diverse audience is invaluable,” noted Nayoung Rim, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. “A conference like this is also a helpful resource for younger students who are just starting their research. Additionally, it allows students to get to know their future colleagues and collaborators. EMCON and other student conferences give us an opportunity to network and establish these important relationships.”

“I also think that organizing was as great an opportunity as attending. It required a lot of coordination and we worked as a team, learning from each other as we went along,” Macaluso added.

A final aim of the conference was building an ongoing collaboration between the economics communities at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, which share a tradition of valuing theory and methods. “We have two incredible departments at each side of the city, but it still seems that not enough peer effects are enjoyed by students and faculty,” Dahis said. Students hope to make the conference an annual tradition, rotating between the two campuses.

“Presenters get a chance to expose their best research to a large audience of graduate students and faculty, and receive constructive feedback in the form of comments and discussant material. Attendees watch a selection of the brightest and most promising students presenting their frontier research in applied economics,” Dahis concluded. “We, organizers, besides the benefits of attending, get a very gratifying feeling of making something concrete and beneficial happen. And everyone is able to meet the next generation of scholars and to start building networks of contacts across the field. In sum, it's beneficial for everyone.”

- Toni Shears