A Good Research Idea: What It Is and Where to Look for It

Two years ago I was sitting in a cafeteria when a “you’ve got mail” alert arrived to my cell phone. It was a notification of acceptance for the Ph.D. program at CERGE-EI. With a beating heart I opened it… and hurray – I am going to Prague! I knew my life was going to change and become full of new challenges. It was, indeed, so and here comes another challenge: to find not only an idea, but “the idea” for further research, which I will devote the next few years of my life to. How to do this? I have decided to ask in the source. I have talked to one of our professors – Levent Celik, who has recently presented his work at a research seminar at CERGE-EI to find out what his approach is. I also used this opportunity to learn how he had benefited from studying at an American university.

Professor Levent Celik got his BA degree in Turkey, and then he studied in the USA at the University of Virginia, where he got his Ph.D. Now he is an assistant professor at CERGE-EI. His interests are industrial organization (with a focus on information disclosure, advertising, product differentiation and consumer search), international trade, political economy and prediction markets.

Your recent work “Trade Policy-Making in a Model of Legislative Bargaining” is in the areas of international trade and political economy, but your Ph.D. thesis was focused on industrial organization. How did it happen that you work in these seemingly unrelated fields?
My Ph.D. thesis evolved from an empirical term project I had written in one of my second year courses. I later talked with Prof. Simon Anderson about it and he liked the idea a lot. Simon is a prominent name in theoretical industrial organization and I had always been (and still am) more interested in micro theory. That is how I eventually decided to pursue the same topic in a theoretical framework under his supervision. International trade was another field I was interested in during my graduate studies. However, being focused on my thesis, I did not have time to pursue my interest further. It was only after my graduate studies that I came together with Bilgehan Karabay, a class mate from University of Virginia who is now at the University of Auckland, and John Mclaren, who taught both me and Bilgehan international trade, to work on the project you mentioned.

What are the main differences between education systems you have experienced, not only as a student but also as a professor?
When I was in the USA, I benefited a lot from international diversity and competitiveness. I learned that if you want to be successful, you have to read and work a lot. I have full faith in competition and academic freedom. I find a private education system more effective than a public one. Given that we follow western standards at CERGE-EI, I do not see much difference in terms of the content of education. However, there are major differences in terms of cultural background of students and their approach to education. American mentality is to work, work, and work while Europeans appreciate leisure and social interaction more. The main difference, however, is that in Europe, especially in Post Soviet countries, education is treated as a public right, whereas in the USA you have to earn this right. You have to convince the faculty that you are the right person to study in a Ph.D. program.

Then, we should not be surprised that most famous economists are the American economists (even though they might be of different nationalities). Is it the education system which promotes those who are the best?
It is a complicated and endogenous process. Many universities in Europe rely on public funding. If they cannot generate the money and provide the academic environment to attract good professors, then the best students go to the USA to study or to do their research. On the other hand, students may get less attention there due to the competitiveness of the academic environment. At CERGE-EI, we are more flexible. And we encourage students to come and talk to us.

Once a student appears in your office, how do you evaluate his/her ideas? Which idea is a good idea?
Students are always welcome, but they should come with a solid research idea or question that they have already given a lot of thought to. Students sometimes have the wrong expectation that professors will give them a research idea. Students should know what they want to do and should read a lot. Only after they come with a solid research idea, I can be of help. I will challenge them to critically question their ideas and look at them from different perspectives. I will also suggest further readings as much as I can. For me, an idea is good if I see a potential contribution to the field. If it is a part of an ongoing debate, I consider how innovative the approach is. The most important thing is to be creative and to read a lot, to know what has been done in the field. And more importantly what can be done further. I apply these rules to evaluate not only students’ ideas but also my own research ideas.

Once you have a good idea, how to transform it into a successful job market paper/ dissertation chapter?
A good research question has to be, first of all, interesting, but this is not enough. It also needs to be implemented well, which requires a lot of time and work. If you decide to stay in academia, then a successful paper is area-independent; it simply needs to be strong. If you are targeting a consulting job, then specializing in empirical micro may be more helpful as consulting companies mostly work on case studies. If you dream about a position at a national bank, then working on a macro topic may better signal your predisposition for that job. However, a Ph.D. degree itself signals your capital strongly enough and the area of interest is a secondary issue.

And where do you look for inspiration? I remember that once, during the RMS, you mentioned finding research ideas by watching TV, looking through movie reviews, searching for the cheapest flight…
Inspiration comes from things you do or you see every day. Even the simplest observations you make while shopping in a supermarket may later help you motivate or formulate a more complicated problem. Every-day life contains many problems that are potentially interesting for an economist. This is also how I came up with my dissertation topic.

If you were at the place of a second-year CERGE-EI student, how would you proceed in writing a dissertation proposal?
Second year is generally early to come up with a solid research idea. I strongly recommend students to read a lot. That is a must-do for finding a successful research idea. They should choose their field courses very carefully. They should not pick them simply to obtain a pass grade. They should have a strong interest in that topic. They should attend the classes and be active in them. Only after reading a lot and gaining a deep understanding of the topics covered, they will be able to tell in what ways they may make contributions. And finally, they should talk to professors and discuss their ideas. Ph.D. is a self-selection process. You should have a strong desire to make a contribution to economics. You have to feel challenged and excited about your potential contribution to the existing knowledge.

Katarzyna Rzentarzewska, 2nd year CERGE-EI student


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