This article aims to share my (academic) experiences at University of Washington, Seattle during the autumn quarter 2014. For 1st year PhD students in the Economics department, it is typical that almost all our efforts are invested in taking core courses and preparing for the qualifying exams. In other words, it’s good to have a research agenda, but students are encouraged to fully concentrate on core courses and exams. Therefore, I will take this opportunity to share my personal experiences and reflections, and will not discuss my research in this article.
The first thing that required a period of adjustment was food. Unlike Taiwan, the cost of living in Seattle is high, giving funded students such as myself, who typically try to make the best use of their stipends, greater incentives to cook by ourselves instead of eating outside. However, cooking for oneself also takes a lot of time and, for a Ph.D. student, time constraints are an important issue. To avoid cooking every meal, thus crowding out my time to study and spending an unreasonable amount of money, I finally decided to cook about once or twice a week and portion out the food into many microwave-safe boxes. Although this means that I have to eat almost the same thing for every meal during a week, this has proven a successful solution to the dilemma mentioned above.
It is very easy to access various kinds of food around the UW campus; however, my observation is that although many people are open-minded toward different kinds of food, it’s not easy for people to actually step into particular restaurants. For example, I have noticed that many Americans are willing to have rice and noodles in burger restaurants but I see no Americans sitting in those Chinese ones unless their Asian friends or colleagues invite them to go together. I have asked one of my Italian classmates about his opinion over this phenomenon, and he answered that somebody like him would feel a little uncomfortable when eating alone at those restaurants. I think his opinion somehow makes sense because there is little more important than feeling comfortable and relaxed when eating at a restaurant. Hence, the best way to introduce different kinds of food to people is not to recommend popular restaurants but to invite friends to try them out together.
There is another cultural difference that I noticed this quarter. In my cohort, there are a relatively large number of Chinese students and hence it’s natural they often interact with each other. I remembered one day one of them tried to mimic the intonation, the way of teaching, and even the gestures of some professors of our department. This guy mimicked these details so well that other Chinese students all burst into a laughter. But for the non-Chinese students presented, this kind of behavior seemed impolite and they concluded that these Chinese students did not respect their teachers. As a Taiwanese person, I can understand that this kind of behavior is purely for fun and is not intended to mock anybody. After all, throughout my student life, there have always been some classmates who are good at mimicking teachers and everyone enjoyed these impressions. The purpose of the impression is to amuse the other classmates, without any negative intentions. This was my first authentic experience for me that we cannot expect people of different cultures to interpret the same event or behavior in the same way. What I learned is that proper respect for teacher, while certainly not lacking in Taiwan or China, might have different boundaries and expression.
One difficulty I face in my program is to find research topics that match my interest. Some professors who have obtained tenure positions have become less active in doing research, which means being their doctoral student is not a good idea in terms of the chance of finding academic positions on the job market few years later. Based on this, (ambitious) students have very limited options, and this is where competition comes in. Students need to perform exceptionally in order to impress professors, so that they have a good chance of having an ideal PhD supervisor. Fortunately, my grades and performance in microeconomic theory and econometrics are strong and competitive enough to make the giants of these fields willing to advise me. However, one practical issue is that the econometrics in our department is too theoretical, which does not match my desire to focus on methodology that can be intensively applied to topics from other fields of economics. My tentative solution is to be open-minded to other strong fields in economics and explore my connections in other departments at UW. Specifically, I have already start to take courses in statistics department whose PhD program is top 5 in the U.S. That is, my strategy is to make my interest more flexible so that I can choose a strong specialization in my department and make transferring to statistics PhD program my plan B if it turns out that I feel no interest in the fields in which department is strongest. It is good news for me that next year we will be having a new (junior) econometrician, and I hope that his/her research fields have a greater theoretical and applied balance.
My roommate did his master’s degree at Vanderbilt University and he often shares his stories about “Vandy” with me. The Economics PhD programs at Vandy and UW have similar ranks but since the former is a private school while the latter is a public one, there are some differences. Vandy’s Economics department is relatively well-funded, implying that it is able to hire more lecturers than UW Economics, which means Vandy does not need lots of graduate students working as TAs or even independent instructors. This difference in the number of faculty and hence the size of entering class of PhD students has important implications. First, the small work load as TAs for graduate students means that they can concentrate more on their research without teaching distractions. Second, a smaller entering class means there is less intensive competition in finding advisors and the relationships and atmosphere among graduate students are more positive. Third, the small entering class also reflects that the department does not intend to kick out students through the qualifying exams, suggesting that students can start their research earlier without paying too much attention on preparing qualified exams, whose contents and topics are generally not closely related to specialized research fields. In my opinion, this subtle difference for the lecturers creates a huge difference in research environment and atmosphere, and this may partly explain why Vandy’s Economics PhD program is ranked higher and has better placements than ours. Some senior students work overly hard not because they really enjoy the research or they are ambitious but because they worry about losing funding if their performance in the department is not strong enough. But I think this is not a problem particularly for UW Economics but for many other Economics PhD programs at public schools. I think the environment that many senior students have to find part-time teaching positions in other universities is one reason for poor performance in placement statistics. After all, having to teach outside one’s school creates huge distractions. A prospective economics PhD student should consider all these questions when s/he make decisions on which admission offer to take.
The final experience I want to share is my good fortune in having another Fulbrighter, a Korean, as my classmate. Unlike my situation—I intend to find a research position internationally, partly because the average income of Taiwan has not increased for the past five to ten years—he already has a promising career in the Korean public sector, and will definitely return to this position after obtaining his PhD. This key difference has made our PhD lives totally distinct. He has a relatively balanced life between study and his family (he has brought his wife and daughter to the U.S.), but I spend nearly all my time on study and am even trying to waive some basic courses so that I can take much more advanced courses as early as possible. For me, I am open-minded to working at prestigious universities or research institutions in Korea, so it is exciting to have a Korean classmate with whom I can build relationships and consult. By the way, when I share the information regarding the extremely low income for an assistant professor and extremely high housing price in Taiwan, those Korean classmates really express their astonishment and are curious about the possible reasons. I believe this topic will continue to be of interest to us and may evolve into a research question someday during our PhD careers.