MIT economics to launch new predoctoral fellowship program

By Michael Brindley | School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
April 2nd, 2024


Department News
A new program in the MIT Department of Economics will support predoctoral research fellows working with the department’s junior faculty. Thanks to the new program, predoc Wonjoon Choi (right) will be able to extend his contract with Tobias Salz (left), the Castle Krob Career Development Associate Professor of Economics.

The MIT Department of Economics is launching a new program this year that will pair faculty with predoctoral fellows.

“MIT economics right now is historically strong,” says Jon Gruber, the Ford Professor of Economics and department head of MIT economics. “To remain in that position involves having the resources to stay on the cutting edge of the research frontier, and that requires the use of predocs.”

The nature of economic research has changed enormously, adds Gruber, due to factors like the use of large datasets, innovations in experiment design, and comprehensive data analysis, all of which require the support of predocs. This new research model empowers economists to address national and global challenges in profound and much more effective ways.

The new predoc program is made possible by an ongoing major fundraising initiative in the department. 

Gruber gave credit to Glenn Ellison, the Gregory K. Palm (1970) Professor of Economics and former department chair, for working closely with Roger Altman, MIT Corporation member and the former head and current member of the visiting committee, to craft a vision for the future of the department that will ultimately include up to 24 predocs that would work for economics faculty at MIT. 

“It’s a great vision. They put a lot of work into it,” Gruber says.

With significant support from the Altman Family Fund, Gruber explains, the predoc program will be able to ramp up, providing predocs to the department’s junior faculty. He expects six predocs to start in the department this fall.

“We’ll have a wide range of junior faculty who will be using these predocs for a bunch of really interesting and important questions that are very data- and research-intensive,” Gruber says.

Tobias Salz, the Castle Krob Career Development Associate Professor of Economics, is one of the faculty members already benefiting from a pilot of the new program. He’s working on a large project on the search engine market.

“I am working with a predoctoral research fellow who has been instrumental in many parts of the project, including the design of an experiment and data analysis,” says Salz. “Initially, I was only able to hire him for one year, but with the new funding I am able to extend his contract. The predoctoral program has therefore helped ensure continuity on this project, which has made a big difference.”

Nina Roussille, assistant professor of economics, says her work will greatly benefit from collaborating with a predoc. Several of her projects either require the analysis of large, administrative datasets or the implementation of large-scale experiments.

“This kind of work will be greatly enhanced and streamlined with the help of a predoc to construct, clean, and analyze the data, as well as to set up the experiments and study their effects. This will free up some of my time to participate in more projects and allow me to focus my efforts on high-yield tasks, such as data analysis and paper writing,” says Roussille.

Roussille adds that she’s excited about the opportunity to mentor a young economist on the path to a PhD.

“They’ll greatly benefit from the vibrant research environment of the MIT economics department,” she said.

Gruber sees the program as mutually beneficial for both the predocs and the faculty.

“The advantage for the predoc is they get research experience and they get to know a faculty member,” adds Gruber. “The advantage for the faculty is they get to work with someone who wants to excel and make an impression with the person they research for.”

Beyond establishing the predoc program, this current fundraising initiative prioritizes building resources for faculty research in the Department of Economics. In addition to the gift from the Altman Family Fund to establish the predoctoral fellowship program, this fundraising initiative has secured several other significant contributions, including:  

  • the creation of the Daniel (1972) and Gail Rubinfeld Professorship Fund, through the support of Dan Rubinfeld, PhD ’72;
  • the Thapanee Sirivadhanabhakdi Techajareonvikul (1999) Professorship Fund, established by economics undergraduate alumna and her husband, Aswin Techajareonvkul MBA ’02;
  • another endowed professorship in the department, through the support of an anonymous donor;
  • the creation of the Locher Economics Fund, which will provide discretionary resources to support faculty research for the department, through the support of Kurt ’88, SM ’89, and Anne Stark Locher; and
  • a gift to create the Dr. James A. Berkovec (1977) Memorial Faculty Research Fund in Economics, established by Ben Golub, ’78, SM ’82, PhD ’84.

To date, almost $30 million has been secured for these purposes, and efforts are ongoing.