Research Profiles 3: Economics with Dr. Eric Parsons

The world of economics research is vast. The field may be easily divided into macro and microeconomics, but within each group, many unique topics may be found. To help undergraduates navigate the complex and often difficult world of economic research, we sat down with Dr. Eric Parsons, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics, in this OUR Research Profile. 

Econ research is largely observational, analyzing existing data and finding trends. Studies may take years to complete because of their nature observing a group’s financial status through time. Oftentimes the data economic researchers use is collected for purposes other than research as well, adding another layer of challenge to their work. Additionally, most econ research is performed “like silos of one,” with each project being headed by just one individual. This can make placing busy undergraduates into research groups hard. 

“It’s a bit trickier than in other fields, like in biology where there’s specific labs there’s a very robust structure… where there’s beginning level jobs and you work your way up. We don’t really have that setup,” Parsons says. “In general for most undergraduate research assistants, research is part of their honors thesis… or if they’re working as a paid RA [they work] in the range of 10ish hours a week,” says Parsons.  

Undergraduate research in economics is limited by the nature of economic research. The skills required to participate in economic research are often not learned until a student’s junior or senior years. If you plan to do research in econ, it is important to take econometrics and get those skills early.  

The most important skills to have as an econ researcher are all related to statistics. Econometrics is a general prerequisite. Additionally, statistical programming is used in almost every economic research group.  

“In economic research the most common [programming language] is STATA, but I can’t recommend lots of students learn STATA because it’s really used in just academic research in the social sciences, Dr. Parsons says.  “If students are wanting to learn a skill to help them get a job… more and more economists are using R.”  

Statistical programming allows economists to draw conclusions from the data they find. Of course, the best language to learn is what your research advisor recommends, but basic knowledge in any programming language can help you acquire the necessary ones later. Parsons notes many economics alumni have emphasized the importance of learning python as a programming language. 

While the statistics-heavy analyses used in research may be daunting to undergraduates, Dr. Parsons encourages those interested to get involved. Even since Parsons graduated, he notes it is more important than ever for undergrads to research experience. So desirable is research, in fact, that a “pre-doc” position has emerged, where recent college graduates work on a project for 1-3 years to gain experience before applying to graduate school. Parsons notes that the long timeframes necessitated for economic research often make it rare for an undergraduate to have a published paper while they’re still in college, but it’s not impossible.   

Dr. Parsons conducts his research in educational policy. One of the main projects he is working on currently is finding new metrics for student poverty.  

“What happened a few years ago was the federal policy there changed,” Parsons says, “and now the USDA, they’ve set a new policy called the Community Eligibility Provision which says that if you have 40% of the kids in your district or school who receive benefits like SNAP and TANF, everyone in your school can get free lunch if you want them to.  

Consequently, kids from not-low-income families can be marked as low income if they go to a low-income school, making free and reduced-price lunch eligibility less viable as a poverty metric. Another project Parsons is involved in– CALDER, or the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research examines groups of students across long periods of time to study how certain policies and personal attributes affect their learning outcomes.  

If you think about some of the larger issues we’ve been talking about and struggling with in the US over the past five-ten years—really longer than that but it has been even more heavily discussed recently—a lot of it boils down to this educational equity issue,” Parsons says. “I think there’s other important pieces that go along with that as well but until we get that piece under control it’s hard to deal with other pieces as well.” 

Many additional topics are covered in the full podcast of our interview with Dr. Parsons. Parsons goes more in-depth about his experiences in research and how the econ research space has changed since he’s been a part of it, the unlikely ways COVID-19 is benefiting economists, and even talks about avoiding Kansas with Norm Stewart as a basketball manager when he was an undergraduate. Listen to the complete interview on Soundcloud and sign up for the Office of Undergraduate Research’s monthly newsletter Connection for future Research Profiles.