Enthusiasm for research benefits undergraduates in the Department of Economics
by Mariah Oxford |
Associate Professor of Economics Alexander James has been invited to join the editorial council for the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, one of the top scholarly journals in the field of environmental and resource economics. It’s a huge professional honor for James, who grew up hearing his dad talk about economics at the dinner table and on hikes in the mountains of Northern California. That inspired his eventual career choice as a professor and his research interest in resource-rich economies. He joined the College of Business and Public Policy’s Department of Economics in 2014.
James’ appointment to the editorial council is one recent example that tells a larger story of a department gaining international attention for its work. For example, it is ranked among the top 10% of institutions worldwide based on research output in the area of experimental economics. James is in the top 5% of economists worldwide based on his last 10 years of research, and colleague James Murphy ranks in the top 10% of economists worldwide based on total research output.
This enthusiasm for research benefits students, according to James. Research and discovery helps professors stay excited about what they’re doing and students see that. When instructors are at the forefront of knowledge in their discipline, students learn cutting-edge ideas and methods. They can be research assistants and possible co-authors too. This is rare at larger institutions, where faculty work and publish exclusively with graduate students.
UAA economics students have researched a variety of topics ranging from charitable giving and environmental disasters to racial disparities in the deployment of police body-worn cameras. Two recent graduates, Johanna Richter and Alliana Salanguit, learned that a classroom research assignment could turn into a published article – as long as you have an open mind and are willing to work. Their paper, “The (Uneven) Spatial Distribution of the Bakken Oil Boom,” was co-authored by James and published in Land Economics.
“The editing process helps you learn patience and how to think about your work from different angles,” said Alliana. The entire process took about a year. “It was strenuous and there were a lot of steps, but you see how other people review your work and it opens your mind to new ideas.” After graduating, Alliana has been a research assistant for projects at UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) and a chief of staff in the Alaska State Legislature, where she works currently.
The whole process really begins by identifying a good research question, said James. He tells students a question must be interesting, it must matter and it has to be answerable with the tool set you have.
For UAA economics majors, that tool set is world-class and based in rigorous academics. “In econometrics, students are learning things like how to identify how variation in one variable brings about change in another variable,” said James. “I didn’t do those kinds of things until I was in a Ph.D. program.”
Johanna said she’ll be applying the skills she learned at UAA when she gets involved in research at Cornell University next year and that a background in statistics and econometrics will help her understand complex legal cases when she goes to law school. She is currently a graduate student in Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell and also the assistant director of the Speech and Debate Program there.
Getting an early start
Students who want to publish should start thinking about it early. James sees a lot of seniors with quality projects who don’t have time to complete the publication process before they graduate. Johanna recommends that students become familiar with the work their professors have published to see if their own research interests overlap. “Take classes that will build research skills early on, so you’ll be prepared when opportunities arise.”
Working in the department can also help. During her sophomore year, Alliana was hired as an assistant in UAA's Experimental Economics Lab, which is named in honor of UAA's first Rasmuson Chair of Economics and Nobel laureate Vernon Smith for his pioneering work in the field. The position allowed Alliana to see how experiments work and connect with professors even before she took the experimental economics course. “It piqued my interest in research,” she said.
The undergraduate research experience makes students very competitive when applying to graduate school. Just this semester, economics alumni were accepted to graduate programs at North Carolina State (M.A.), the University of Madrid (M.A.), the University of Wyoming (Ph.D.), the University of Chicago (J.D.) and Harvard (J.D.).
“We really feel like we’re building something here,” said James. “We’re a teaching department and also a nationally and internationally recognized research department, and we’re bringing our students with us in some respects. For students that want to do real research, UAA provides an opportunity to discover something and contribute to the existing body of knowledge in economics, and that’s exciting.”