Ashok Kotwal is an economics professor and director of the Bachelor of International Economics (BIE) program here at VSE. His current diversity of research interests include but are not limited to: analysis of organizational structures in less developed countries, the interaction between agriculture and industry, economic reforms in India and their impact on poverty, political economy of developmental policy-making, social capital and rural economy, efficiency of government delivery systems, delivery of food subsidy in India, and determinants of educational quality. He cites maintaining an enthusiastic and curious outlook as the key to successful teaching and learning.
I grew up in Bombay, from a middle-class background, so like most others; I pursued engineering because of its job prospects. I worked in India for a while, with IBM, and then moved to the United States for my postgraduate studies in engineering. Then I realized that I had a much higher standard of living than most of my friends back in India, even though some were much smarter than me. This really intrigued, as to why some countries are richer than others. So I started reading some economics in my spare time, but of course, economists have their own jargon, so I had to take some classes at the Boston University, during the evenings, to really understand the material. I really got into the subject, and there were some professors who really inspired me, so I went ahead, quit my job, and did a PhD in economics! So most of my interest in economics stems from development economics, which of course informs much of the research I do right now, as an academic.
My colleagues, Patrick Francois and Siwan Anderson, and I recently concluded a research paper on government structures in rural Maharashtra, a state in Western India. Often, policies are formulated, but how they are implemented leads to different outcomes in different places. So we wanted to investigate why even some well-intentioned and well-designed policies backfire, especially in rural areas. Another project we are working on is investigating whether technology, such as the Internet, or mobile phones, can reduce corruption. For example, there is a rural employment guarantee scheme currently in place in India, but the system is leaky and corrupt. So we are investigating whether a direct cash transfer, to bank accounts in the name of these employees that is authenticated by their biometric information, can reduce the incidence of corruption.
Most people who become academics have this curiosity, this need to get some questions answered, and research really allows you to do that. For most people, pursuing your interests is usually a hobby, but for us, that is our livelihood! Another important part of being an academic is maintaining your curiosity, because unless you maintain your enthusiasm and curiosity for the subject you cannot successfully teach students. So being a researcher is about keeping your own curiosity alive, and communicating this curiosity to students.
My advice would be to really use these undergraduate years to carve out your niche. We all have different interests and passions, so I would encourage students to really search for and find what clicks with them. Most of your waking hours are going to be spent on doing some sort of job, to earn your livelihood, and unless you enjoy doing it, you’re going to be miserable! Try different things and learn a wide variety of skills.
Today’s world is rapidly changing, and the high paying jobs we have right now may disappear a few years down the line. You cannot really put all your eggs in one basket, so it’s better to develop skills, whether it may be writing skills, or analytical skills, or mathematical skills. This will allow you to develop a basic skillset that you can apply to any profession, and which will really allow you to excel. Always keep your mind open, let your curiosity roam. I think concentrating on majoring in something just because it has good job prospects, at least at the undergraduate level, is not a good idea!