The Yale Department of Economics does not shy away from producing great talent. As proof, Isaiah Andrews B.A. Math & Econ ‘09, and Professor of Economics at Harvard University, recently received the John Bates Clark Medal, an award given annually to an American economist under age 40. This is just one of many achievements the young scholar has added to his impressive CV.
Last year, he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for developing robust methods of statistical inference to address key challenges in economics and social science. That same year he was elected as a Fellow of the Econometric Society, and won a joint National Science Foundation grant as a co-principal investigator. In 2018 he received a Sloan Research Fellowship.
We contacted Andrews for a question and answer session regarding the prize, his teaching, and his time at Yale. The interview has been lightly edited.
Yale Department of Economics:
Congratulations on receiving the Clark Medal. What was your reaction upon hearing the news?
It was a huge surprise, and I was a bit stunned. They called me the Friday before it was publicly announced, so I was able to tell people in my family, but no one in my professional life.
According to your biography page, you specialize in econometrics, with your research focusing on developing methods for inference that are robust to common problems in empirical work, including insufficiently informative data (weak identification) and model misspecification. Can you explain what that means to the lay person?
My work touches on a variety of different issues, but one theme has been trying to better quantify uncertainty in empirical analyses. The motivation for this work is that many empirical questions of interest to economists and policy makers are challenging to answer, in ways which can render commonly-used statistical methods unreliable.
For example, the models we use usually aren’t totally right as descriptions of the world (i.e. these models are misspecified), and we need to think about how this distorts the answers they deliver. In other cases, the data aren’t very informative about the quantities of interest (i.e. these quantities are weakly identified), which for some technical reasons can lead standard statistical methods to understate our degree of uncertainty. In still other cases the published literature might present a misleading subset of results (i.e. there might be publication bias), or we might find that the results from implementing recommended policies are systematically disappointing (i.e. we might run into a winner’s curse), which are two other issues I’ve worked on.
In each of these cases, my coauthors and I have suggested alternative methods that researchers can use to obtain more reliable results.
How did Yale, primarily the Department of Economics, help prepare you for your career?
I had a great experience at Yale, and felt like the courses I took prepared me really well for graduate school and my subsequent career. I also benefited from the advice of many faculty members, including Truman Bewley in the department and Nick Barberis at SOM, both of whom recommended me for graduate school, as well as Gary Gorton at SOM, who was my senior thesis advisor.
What Economics courses did you enjoy taking during your time at Yale?
I loved many of my courses at Yale, so I’m hesitant to list too many for fear of leaving some out, but two of my favorite undergraduate courses were Truman Bewley’s general equilibrium theory course and Peter Jones’ real analysis course. In my senior year I was also able to take two graduate courses in econometrics, from Don Andrews and Yuichi Kitamura, which were fantastic and really encouraged my interest in the field.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in academia?
I don’t feel well-positioned to speak to academic positions in other fields, but think that a career in economics, in or out of academia, has a lot to recommend it. PhD economists work on a ton of really important and interesting questions, both in academia and in a variety of roles in the government, nonprofit, and private sectors.
One thing which sometimes trips students up is that the math requirements for econ PhD programs often exceed those for an economics major, so folks who are potentially interested in pursuing a PhD should make sure to take the math prerequisites. At Yale, though, the Economics and Math major builds these requirements in, and so is a natural option.
There has been a lot of attention being brought to the field of Economics in the last few years regarding the lack of diversity, particularly when it comes to underrepresented minorities. What do you see being done to improve diversifying the discipline, and what more do you think should be done?
As you note, Economics has long-standing problems when it comes to diversity, certainly in terms of underrepresented minorities, but also in terms of the underrepresentation of women. I do think there’s energy in the field at the moment to try and address these issues, and I am currently serving on the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession, which is co-chaired by Ebonya Washington at Yale.
Given how unrepresentative the field is, though, there remains a lot to do. One key issue is the very small number of folks from underrepresented groups being admitted to and completing Economics PhD programs, and long term that seems like one of the most important issues to address.
You have been a Cowles Foundation visiting faculty member twice since 2015. What did you gain from those experiences?
It was great to have the opportunity to spend time at the department and get the chance to talk with everyone. The first time I visited I was working on a joint project with Tim Armstrong in the department, so it was also a great chance to make progress on that.
Although you are a faculty member at Harvard, do you ever see yourself coming “back home” to roost?
Yale’s Economics Department, and Yale more broadly, are fantastic and would be a wonderful place to be!
More about Andrews’ research can be found on the American Economic Association website.