Monday, October 23, 2006

National Blog Thingie

Apparently it's national blog week or day or something around now, where people are encouraged to write blogs about their every day existence, to wow and amaze people in years to come - did they really use computers that big (but with such small hard drives), and drink coffee with caffiene still in it?

Well, my entry promises to be long and rambly, but it's Ph.D student thinks about his future, and prepares for interview with consultancy firm. No, not McKinsey type consultancy firm (thankfully), but economics consultancy. I've done a bit of this kind of work before, for a fantastic company in Cambridge which does exactly what it says on the tin: it's called Cambridge Econometrics, and is a company based in Cambridge, that does econometrics.

Pretty much since then I've been working on my Ph.D, and now I'm nearing completion, it's time for me to think about a job. Oxera is an economics consultancy based in Oxford, and thus is an attractive option. They do economics research, but it's strongly geared towards the real world in the sense that they are a private company, and hence their research has to satisfy this criterion, whether or not it's directly for a client.

So, I'm imagining (await the post later today with post-interview reflections!), with some help from my housemate who conveniently happens to work for Oxera and has just gained promotion, that the interview will take the following shape. Firstly, some small talk, then the usual standard interview questions, for which I'm going to try to construct an answer now, with the use of cut and paste and delete.

Why do you want a job with Oxera?

I get the impression I would like a job at Oxera, because it would afford me the chance to continue carrying out research into why the world goes round, something I love doing, but would harness some of the disadvantages of staying in academia, without necessarily affecting the advantages hugely. For Oxera, it appears I would be able to continue to investigate particular aspects of the economy that fascinate me, and would be able to consider what method of investigation best fits the problem at hand. I would be more guided by the client at Oxera, but this would not be a particularly bad thing - ideas for work to do have to come from somewhere, and if that somewhere is what the markets are calling for, and hence is at the cutting edge of economic activity, all the better. It is likely that the areas of work I investigate fascinate me due to choice of company to work for, and having considered the wide range of areas Oxera appears to work in, I feel it is more that likely that I will be very interested in the work I would do at Oxera.

Furthermore, working at Oxera would provide something I have greatly missed while working on my Ph.D compared to working in Cambridge - the office environment, the close teamwork, and the refreshing update of projects to do. The office environment, and the sense of community fostered within it, is something I don't want to try to describe (hey, I'm an economist not a sociologist), but I wouldn't class myself as a lone-ranger, and it's immensely useful on so many levels to have colleagues working around you: to discipline you to work, to help you when you can't do a particular piece of work, to share joys and frustrations with.

The close teamwork is something else that attracts me. I get a semblance of this in my Ph.D, but our work is only so closely aligned. However, to work with a group on the same project, with the same goal, all contributing various parts to the final goal, is again attractive - to share the joy of a great output is appealing. Of course, this isn't to say that only shared results are worth emphasising. A fundamental part, if not the fundamental part, of any piece of research output is to be able to communicate it to those who want to know about it (presumably the client in Oxera's case - the wider academic community in a Ph.D case). Here I may well have to get some practice in, given my need has been to explain to those with some prior knowledge of econometrics. However, I've generally attempted to justify to myself the point in what I'm doing, given that for over four years now I've remained in academia, when I could be progressing along the career ladder, and this has helped me to be able to firstly shape my research, and secondly think about explaining it to my friends around me who might wonder why I'm still doing this in my mid-twenties. However, I am sure there is still much to learn on this front.

Next, the refeshment of new projects. Not being a creature of habit (on the whole), I do like change, I like to have different things to await me on different days. This has been a challenge of the Ph.D, to go back to old, partially complete (e.g. for conference presentations) projects, and carry them on, particularly if they are not particularly exciting projects. While it is great to be able to churn out a massive output, such as a 60,000 word essay on one particular aspect of economics, I feel I thrive on having many different, and inter-connected bits of work to be doing. Clearly there's a limit to how many at any given time, but to be able to chip away little by little, and see that the project end is in sight, is very motivating.

If one is to discuss potential "disadvantages", there would possibly be the lack of academic freedom in terms of area of work pursued, courses to take, etc., but from what I read and hear, this is unlikely to be constrained in any way that mattered, as Oxera appears to support its colleagues in achieving qualifications, studying for additional degress etc. Another might be the freedom to work as one pleases: this may be true, had I not decided at the start of my Ph.D to work as much as possible alongside work hours, so I could socialise with my friends when they socialise. Of course I am not perfect in doing this, and I would lose the flexibility to do particular things during a workday - but then I imagine again Oxera is not completely inflexible to particular things that happen in any given day.

So in sum, I am attracted to carrying out research into what's going on in the economy, and research into the best way to accurately, given the data, find out what's going on (and learning much in this area given my macroeconometrics Ph.D focus), in an office environment with a strong need for teamwork, with the refreshing update of new projects to work on.

What do I feel I could offer Oxera?

I feel I could offer many things both from my Ph.D experience, and from my time working in Cambridge. I have the motivation to carry out a piece of work that doesn't have an obvious immediate gain, having worked for a number of years now on my Ph.D. I have the ability to carry out large projects, as well as the small ones (I have recently put together a piece of work, still preliminary, on attendance determination and forecasting at football matches for the football team I support) that contribute to that large target.

I have learnt a lot of econometrics and economics over the 4 years of postgraduate study I've carried out; my focus has undoubtedly been econometrics, but if one is to use econometrics to investigate anything, one needs to have some understanding of the economics of the object of interest. I've learnt not just how to carry out an econometric analysis, but how to assess it, and how to ensure the results are as accurate as one can hope for, and as specific as one might wish, and not a distortion (whether intentional or not) of the truth. This learning has been helped hugely by my teaching roles during my Ph.D - only when teaching (and writing papers for submission) it seems, does one really need to understand something!

Thus I feel I would be able to offer econometric knowledge, knowledge not just that I already have, but the ability to quickly get to grips with other areas of econometrics necessary for any given piece of work. Not least because delving into any particular subject areas only ever reveals just how much there is to learn, and hence I am aware that at any point I wouldn't be able to instinctively come up with the right answer. But I know that, with time to study the relevant papers and texts, I could assess the methodology or the results based on their ability to accurately portray reality.

Further though, I think I could offer an assessment of the limits of econometrics. Any data analysis, let alone any economic theory, is contingent on a vast number of assumptions, many of which are implausible, most of which won't hold. There has to be a tension however - some of these assumptions have to be made in order that any economic analysis can ever been carried out, but on the other hand, their influence cannot be ignored or left unchecked.

Moreover, I hope I could offer someone able to present their results both to colleagues, and to clients. To some extent I have had to do this, both in my time in Cambridge, and in Oxford. In Cambridge I have had the regular meetings, providing feedback on progress made, and taking on additional responsibility conditional on how much is already on one's plate. In Oxford, regular supervisor meetings alongside fellow supervisees has forced me to work on my presentational skills week by week, in the most mundane parts of my work. More so during my Ph.D I have had to present at a number of conferences, where the emphasis has been presenting the results not using the jargon and common knowledge shared between myself, my supervisor and his other students, but presenting results to the academic community at large, endeavouring to explain why they matter, and why they should be taken on board and not mistrusted.

I feel also I could offer a team member and an office member. Expanding on this point however is difficult. I really value other people, and while I know there will be times of difficulty in many ways, it is much better to face these difficulties and move on, building and learning from them. One doesn't live one's life in solitary confinement, and neither should one work as such, I imagine, as we are a social creature. In my church I have provided many things socially, and being a Christian has made me realise that the value is in serving, and not waiting to be served. At church I organise a regular 5-a-side football slot on a Tuesday evening, I help in the running of a weekly Wednesday evening bible study event, often leading discussion groups studying the bible, where the emphasis is on the group working out what the passage says, not you telling them - hence I am reasonably familiar with group dynamics, and working out what it takes to enable a group to reach a particular goal.

Ok, getting near to interview time:

Particular events/things I do/have done that I should try to think about:

Work at CE: learning quickly a programming language, contributing to a number of projects, some long-standing and vague, some short-horizon, well-defined, some exciting, some not.

M.Phil/D.Phil: working on big and small projects, with ultimate aim of completion of Ph.D. Presented at various conferences, attended course/summer schools in relevant areas to help progress my Ph.D, presented at weekly supervisor meetings, worked alongside fellow students. Taught at undergraduate level, and postgrad level, provided additional classes for help, set up website to help students where possible. M.Phil learnt macro, micro and econometrics to a very high level, since then been able to apply this. Motivation and time-management skills in terms of making myself work, setting targets for self, etc.

Stuff at church: led bible study discussion groups, put in necessary amounts of preparation, let meetings, organised regular social events, organised regular football event.

What can I offer Oxera (again)?

Am keen to learn what Oxera's requirements might be for a recently completed Ph.D student in econometrics. Having learnt this, I'm willing to consider the possibility of part-time work between now and submission, though taking into account my teaching committments, which will eat substantially into my time after Christmas, and my submission timetable (by next summer absolute latest). Longer term, full-time work is certainly a big possibility, but I am also considering other economics consultancies, and the possibility of continuing in academia. Continuing in academia in Oxford would provide the possibility again of some kind of part-time consultancy work, and I would be more than willing to think seriously about this. Consultancy work if working outside of Oxford in academia? Again a possibility.

The time now is 11:22. I need to iron my shirt, and get into my suit, and work out just exactly where Oxera is on Park End Street. Getting there will take about 5 minutes, I plan to leave here at 11:45, as that means I'll probably leave about 11:50, meaning I should get to the offices almost exactly on time. I've spent my time since around 8:30am this morning preparing in one way or another for this interview. Whether or not this has been enough time, I shall soon find out. I'm feeling slightly off colour, that's for sure - I wouldn't normally be as tired as I've felt all morning so far, but thankfully my throat's not too bad. I'm not sure what would be better in the interview, to sound a bit hoarse so they know I'm a bit ill hence have a bit of sympathy, or to sound fine.

I need to go now and prepare myself I think, not just physically in terms of shirt and tie and suit, but mentally, in terms of before God, since if He has His rightful place, this will all take place before Him. God's existence is not contingent on whether or not we might think He is there; unless God reveals himself, we cannot know Him. Which is why I'm so thankful that Jesus came into the world and revealed God to us, and so we can know God. Helps me put things in perspective when tempted to stress about things like interview, and career etc.

Right, time to go!


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