Policy Research can unravel many potential solutions to large scale problems though methodical and detail oriented empirical analysis.

Arpita Chakravorty, our next pathbreaker, Empirical Economist, analyzes data from different sources, to determine appropriate methods to answer questions that could inform better policies.

Arpita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always wanting to apply quantitative techniques to analyze developmental and social issues through policy research.

For students, policies are the foundation of economic and social growth. Quantitative research helps frame sound policies based on data analysis and interpretation. Read on..

Arpita, tell us about Your background?

My family is originally from Kolkata, but I was born and brought up in Bangalore. Bangalore, known to have some of the best engineering colleges, also has a set up to drive students to pursue science. But I was not interested in being an engineer or a doctor from the very beginning.

As a kid, I loved mathematics. It’s probably something that’s grown from my dad’s interest and love for math. My dad’s an engineer and mom is an artiste. So I grew up absorbing some of their interests. I was an above average student in school, not a genius, but I worked hard, played sports, participated in the school choir and other activities. But throughout school and college, my love for math was a constant.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did my bachelors’ of science in Economics, Mathematics and Statistics at Mount Carmel College, Bangalore followed by a Master of Science in Financial Economics. I then went on to do my PhD in Economics ( University of Houston) since I was interested in policy related work.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I think I always knew I didn’t want to be an Engineer or a Doctor. So my father, seeing my love for math, introduced me to the combination of Economics and Mathematics. I enjoyed every moment of my Bachelors’, and chose to do a Masters’ in Financial Economics which led me to a career in Analytics. However, while working at Target, my interest in policy-related topics and development economics kept building. I would spend hours and hours trying to understand various topics related to developmental economics – things related to quantitative analysis of social problems, poverty measurement, and the likes. It was during my time at Target that I made the decision to switch from a career in Analytics to research. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Once I made the decision to switch to research, I had to decide on the next steps. I had to make a choice between working in economic research in India, doing a PhD in India, or doing a PhD in a foreign university. I spoke to Professors and reached out to PhD candidates in other universities to learn more about what a PhD entails, if it helps to do a PhD in India or a foreign university, what are the necessary steps for both, etc. After talking to people and exploring the websites of various universities, I decided to take GRE and TOEFL which are required to pursue PhD in the US. 

Once I had my scores, I needed to apply to the universities and gain some research experience. So, I quit my job, and looked for positions where I could work with experienced researchers and learn the lay of the land, while simultaneously shortlisting universities I wanted to apply to and sending out applications. I created a list of universities I was interested in, contacted current and past PhD candidates of those universities, and asked them questions about the courses, faculty, scholarships and funding, living cost and life at the university. Most people got back to me and answered questions very patiently, and that helped me shortlist my final universities. Once I decided on the universities, I reached out to people who knew me well enough and could give me strong recommendation letters. This was the last part of my application process.

While working on the applications to PhD programs in the US, I got the opportunity to work at the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore. I was a research assistant to a Professor in the Agricultural Development and Rural Transformation Center (ADRTC) at ISEC. I was lucky to have the opportunity to work with him on a paper that explored the growth trends of major crops at the district and state level and analyze factors affecting their growth. My role was to explore the data and apply the right method under the supervision of the Professor to complete the analysis.

While doing my PhD, I had to choose between academia, consulting and analytical roles. I was quite sure I did not want to teach, but was strongly interested in policy research, and hence decided to build my profile that was better suited for policy research in the US.

How did you get your first break? 

I received my first job offer after my Masters’ in Chennai through a campus interview. 

Following this, I applied for multiple internships and jobs using Indeed and other job search engines to make the switch from the analytical industry to academia. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

One of the key challenges was to understand the requirements of being an economist. I did not know any economists personally. So, I had to learn more about it from articles on the internet, and by asking people questions – people who were strangers to me, but were in the field I was interested in. 

Where do you work now?  Tell us what you do?

I work as a policy researcher at a consulting firm in Texas and evaluate the impact of a policy, or the outcomes related to a policy. 

As an empirical economist, a lot of my time is spent in analyzing data from different sources and in determining appropriate methods to answer questions that could inform better policies. So, one would need to enjoy number crunching, be detail oriented, be organized in thought and just enjoy what data has to say. 

For example, if you have conducted a survey and collected data on various aspects of a topic, you would need to be able to dig into the data to identify responses that are true, and can be used for analysis. You would also need to process the data enough to identify methods that would suit the survey method used to collect the data, and analyze the same. 

I love to be able to witness the impact of my work, when our recommendations are used by government agencies to improve policies on various topics.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Experience is learning. If there’s one thing I have understood so far, it’s that there’s learning in every thing we do, and learning in each experience we have whether it is good or bad. So we should never stop trying and never stop ourselves from new experiences even when we have doubts. 

Future Plans?

I plan to come back to India and start a policy consulting firm of my own. I think it’s something that’ll help inform policy decisions in our country and support the economic growth.