Amartya Lahiri

HR-Amartya Lahiri-3

Amartya Lahiri is the Director of Graduate Studies here at the Vancouver School of Economics. He received his B.A. and M.A. in economics back in Delhi before making the jump to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. After stints at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and John Hopkins University. Beyond being the Director of Graduate Studies here at UBC he is also Royal Bank Faculty Research Member as well as the Johal Chair of Indian Research with the Institute for Asian Research. 

I have a wide variety of interests, and I work in two or three different fields, in international, development and macroeconomics. Currently I am researching monetary policy in developing countries where people do not have access to financial markets. I investigate how the big changes at the macro level affect the underlying distributions within an economy. So right now, I am investigating, in a series of papers, the different income gaps in India, between castes, between the rural and urban divide, and between genders, during the last 30 years.

As to how I got into these research areas, I was always interested in international and macroeconomics, as I had done my graduate thesis on that topic. I got into developmental economics only recently. In fact, it was on a lark that a friend of mine and I wrote a paper. It was initially only a beer-discussion on the different developmental trajectories two Indian cities, Calcutta and Bombay, have taken, a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ of sorts. But we couldn’t find much data on the city level, so we investigated a ‘Tale of Two States’, Maharashtra and West Bengal, so this was my first foray into developmental economics and India.

I find it the most fun job you could have! Academia in general attracts people who wouldn’t be comfortable in a 9-5 job, simply because they don’t see themselves in that strict hierarchy. So it offers you an amazing amount of flexibility in terms of what you want to do, where you want to work, and your time management. Academia is a very mobile profession, in that it not only allows you to travel, but also brings people from all over the world to you, so you see a huge amount of heterogeneity. Without even realizing it, it benefits you in the diversity of ideas and people that you come across. Very little to complain about!

That actually was by accident. I initially pursued cricket as a possible career, and wanted to play for the national team in India. But I gradually saw that a path into the team was not possible, so I had to make a call on what to do. In fact, a cousin of mine, who is also an economist, encouraged me take up economics as my undergraduate, and I simply went with it… also because it left me free time to pursue cricket!

In my final year, I saw that everyone in my school was applying to graduate schools overseas, so I did too. It was also because I wanted to get away from India, having lived there for much of my life. So when I started doing my PhD, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. A lot of decisions in your life end up being surprisingly dependent on influences, whether good or bad. That was my case, where my first year macroeconomics teacher, who was fantastic, got me really interested in economics. I ended up specializing in macroeconomics, and he became my supervisor, but I may have been doing microeconomics now, if I came across an equally influential micro professor! So I would say my path to being an academic in economics was largely haphazard, I certainly did not plan it all the way ahead.

The problem was that in India, your career choices are very restricted, in that once your chose a particular undergraduate degree, you cannot really move away from that your entire life. And a lot of progress has been made today, in that people can not only move within companies, but also between sectors. There is much more freedom to choose a career path you like, and that improved allocation of manpower resources is what has benefitted India. And that itself is ultimately economics!

Of course, cricket is one of my big passions! I go to games and still play cricket with the people in the department. I do like music a lot; it’s something I find very relaxing, and it’s one of the artistic mediums I understand, much better than visual arts, in fact. I also like reading funny stuff!

Of course, there is the freedom of being an academic, but that is true of any field in general. But with regards to economics, I would say that the fact that it is such a highly subscribed field, with a lot of demand for positions with an economics department, means that universities really take care of their economics departments. This also means that we can be selective in whom to choose for the undergraduate and graduate student body, and a lot of talented, individual people come in. You get to interact with incredibly bright students, and that is fulfilling in its own right, in the dynamism it brings.

But academia in general is not a profession where you can ‘switch off’ after work. There is no downtime, so it can be grating for family members, to see that one person constantly having work on the back of his mind! Of course, for most people in academia, it isn’t ‘work’; they view it as something fun, which makes it easier to thrive. However, there is the fact that it is a very competitive field, and you come face to face with rejection constantly in that your professional peers constantly evaluate your work, whether it is your colleagues, or the people you are submitting papers to. That can be quite hard to handle, especially for those who are a bit more sensitive and haven’t developed that thick skin.

My supervisors were big inspirations to me, as a graduate student. And of course, my cousin, who first got me into economics, would be on that list as well!

Oh that would be easy, I would encourage everyone to find their heart, and where their true passions lie, and the only way to do that is through experimentation. The best time to do it is now, in your four undergraduate years, so I would recommend exploring different areas to find out what you truly love.