Interview Insights: Prof David Berger

Prof. David Berger is an associate professor of economics at the Duke University’s Department of Economics. His research interests are empirical macro/monetary economics, the influence of housing on the macroeconomy, and labor and finance. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University and graduated from Swarthmore College with a B.A. in economics and history.

What are your primary research interests? What drew you to those areas?

I consider myself an empirical macroeconomist. I primarily do empirical work but as a macroeconomist, it means that I typically believe in having certain structural models as well. In particular, I like to work with more granular data than what you would think a macroeconomist works with. Broadly speaking, I am interested in a number of topics but the things I have been working on the most recently are sort of the interactions between household finance and monetary policy. We are thinking about trying to really understand the monetary transmission mechanism or how monetary policy in the US works and then also exploring more granular ways of wondering what the macroeconomic effects of that might be. In terms of what drew me to it – I have always been kind of a ‘big picture’ person, but I found the conventional methods of answering macro questions almost unsatisfying, so this is a sort of a nice marriage of the two – some applied micro techniques but really geared towards thinking about macro questions!

In all your years of providing education, what can you say your students have taught you in return?

A lot! The thing about being a professor is that you are quite busy. It’s hard to do research these days – you’ve to solve a complicated model, or probably do some data work. I learn from my students all the time! I really enjoy collaborating, and my students are much better programmers at newer languages than I am, so they often teach me clever tricks about that. They ask insightful questions about data in ways that I don’t think about. I really think of research as a two way street and honestly, that’s what I like about it! Writing a paper with someone is kind of like a marriage and so it’s fun to try different things, and to meet new people. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work out, and you move on but it can be a great learning regardless!

What is something you don’t particularly like about your profession?

Personally, I am a kind of social person. So, sometimes I don’t like how long it takes for papers to be published. The papers I was describing to you – I started them many years ago, and they took many years to be finished and ultimately, to be published. Part of that is I work on too many projects, so that would be my fault, but it is also that it is sometimes very difficult to get published. A lot of the times, the most exciting part is the first 50% of the project – figuring out the idea, coming up with how you are going to test it, seeing the way it works, etc. After that, it is mostly just verifying, refining, packaging, and rewriting. I feel that students don’t realize the amount of effort and time academic research takes. Other than this, I wish economics was more diverse, but that is a very difficult question in the pipeline. Economics should be more accessible and personally, I am a real advocate in the power of economics. I think that oftentimes, students don’t realize how much economics pervades almost everything. You could be thinking about the economics of crime, or monetary policy, and everything in between – it is a big framework that we have!

How would you advise high school students who are passionate about Economics and wish to delve into academic research in the future?

There are some things that you can control – you can be sophisticated enough mathematically; but that doesn’t mean taking a lot of math classes. You do need to know some calculus as some rigorous proofs can be helpful to doing research at the higher level. But you don’t have to do it everyday – I don’t write proofs everyday – but just learning to think systematically about anything can help. Other than this, it is important to have some programming skills and organizational abilities but most of all, diligence. A large part of research is just believing in your idea, trying different things, and not giving up.

The world is a beautiful messy place. I always tell my students that it is, indeed, hard to come up with ideas. If I could generate ideas, I wouldn’t tell you – I would just write the paper. So you should always be willing to try new things. You have to write a bad paper to be able to write a good paper. Sometimes I see students getting discouraged when they write a paper and it isn’t great. My first paper was terrible! Students also get discouraged when they come up with an idea and someone has already written it. You know, that means you had a good idea that someone else had, but just a little bit earlier. I think it is important to persevere on these things, and in terms of idea generation – I don’t think you just want to read academic papers. Reading the newspaper, using your eyes, and just asking yourself when you read something – what is missing? What is this person implicitly assuming that doesn’t quite match with how I think about the real world. Those cracks, those ideas, create papers. Just engaging with the real world and always thinking, having an idea notebook, asking does that make sense, how can I explain that, can go a long way in helping you become a successful academic economist.

What is the best book you would recommend for high-school readers?

I read this recently and thought it was great – The Race Between Education and Technology, by Claudia Goldin. It’s not a very difficult read – and it is about the evolution of income inequalities in the US. It is just basic demand and supply principles!

How would you describe your teaching style in one word?

Accessible! I try to demystify the process a little bit. The truth of the matter is, a lot of work is just experiential. I can’t make you the best researcher in the world. A lot of stuff is just effort, and trying and learning; and I feel that way about school too! Currently, I am just trying to make Economics more accessible because I am really bullish on how powerful economics is and I don’t think students realize it. So I just try to be an ‘evangelist’ for that.

If you had the ability to go back in time, what advice would you give to your high school self?

Probably to just work hard and to just be available for opportunities. You need to be ready to take advantage of opportunities when they are there! I tell this to my students all the time – you don’t need to understand who you are at the age of 22, or even 28! I thought I knew everything at 22, and I know nothing! So just be prepared, be willing to try lots of things, and know that this process is both exciting and will help you find what your real calling is!

Is there anything you want to add on?

Don’t take yourself seriously! Make sure you take time to enjoy things.

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