by N. Meltem Daysal
Gordon B. Dahl is a Professor of Economics at the University of California, San Diego. He is also a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a Research Fellow of the Institute for the Study of Labor, and a Fellow of the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1998 and his B.A. from Brigham Young University in 1993. His research interests include Labor Economics and Applied Microeconomics. His articles have appeared in the American Economic Review, Econometrica, the Journal of the American Statistical Association, the Review of Economics and Statistics, the Review of Economic Studies, and the Quarterly Journal of Economics.
Gordon kindly agreed to meet with us and answer a few questions ranging from career advice to his fantasy dinner party guest list. We hope you enjoy the interview as much as we did!
- Why did you decide to have a PhD in economics?
Power to mentors! I did not have any economics or calculus during my high school studies. Then one day, Michael Ransom (BYU) asked me to be his research assistant for a project. It would not be wrong to say that this experience changed my life.
- How did you decide which field to specialize in?
Again, thanks to the positive experiences I had working with my mentors. When I was accepted to Princeton’s graduate program and ended up moving there at the beginning of the summer (because my wife’s studies began before mine), I called up David Card to see if there was any work I could do during the summer. I had very little experience with research and so much to learn but David told me “as long as it takes me marginally less time to teach something than to do it myself, it’s still OK.” That was a great experience and combined with my undergraduate mentoring is what convinced me to choose Labor Economics as a specialty.
- How did you decide to pursue a career in academia?
I thought academia was a no-brainer because it gave me flexibility both in terms of time and in terms of the topics to work on. At the time I thought it was a relatively risk-averse career choice (though with experience I now actually think it is fairly risky).
- How long did it take to complete your longest project?
I have one paper that took 6 years from the initial idea to the eventual publication in the journal (4.5 years for the acceptance decision).
- What was the best piece of advice you were given when you were starting off your career?
I was given lots of great advice and I can’t pick one off the top of my head right now so let me give you some advice instead: you need to do what you love and have a passion for what you do. I know it sounds cliché but it really is true. If you don’t love what you do, you cannot produce a good paper and people can tell if you really are not interested in your own topic.
- What was the most difficult thing you encountered during the initial years of your career?
I aimed at writing fewer papers that were of high quality. Given the time it takes to produce a paper, I considered doing papers with higher turnover but I decided my passion did not lie there and listened to my own advice and it turned out OK.
- Can you name the most important lesson you’ve learned that helped you as a researcher?
Persistence! When doing research, you have to learn to run up to a brick wall, hit it but then bounce back and try again.
- Can you name a moment of failure in your experience as a researcher and the lesson you learnt from it?
Not a specific moment but I learnt a lot from rejections in top journals. When you get rejected, you turn around and try again. However, it’s not true that sunk costs count double. Sometimes you work on a project for six months and it doesn’t really go anywhere. At that point one needs to learn to drop the idea. So through the publication process (as well as feedback from colleagues) I learnt to pick more promising project ideas and eliminate those with potentially little return.
- Can you name your greatest success in your experience as a professor?
My greatest happiness is my family. I would rather have a great family than a great career.
- In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before choosing a career in academia?
Do I like research and not view it solely as a job? Do I like independence and the stress of coming up with ideas on my own? How much do I value flexibility in hours?
- Can you tell us three regression results/models that changed your life forever?
I will mention the project I worked on as an RA for Michael Ransom. During the course of my research assistance, I worked on models of female labor supply with sample selection. This process really motivated me to think about the difference between correlation and causation.
- Can you name three people who would be on your fantasy dinner party guest list (it doesn’t have to be economists)?
Albert Einstein, Bono from U2 and the president of my church. That would be an interesting crowd and we would have lots of different things to talk about.
- If you were on a deserted island and you could only take three economics books or articles with you, which ones would you take?
If I were on a deserted island, I would want an ice-cold lemonade, not economics books or articles.
- If you could give one advice to your 14-year-old self, what would it be?
Wow you have really thought these questions through! I would say: “it is OK to be a geek. It will all pay off some day.”