The Economics Department

Meet the New Department Chair, Jason Abrevaya

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This September, as students return in force to the forty acres and the hectic pace of the fall semester grips the campus, the Economics Department will welcome its next leader, incoming Chairman Jason Abrevaya.  Dr. Abrevaya adds Chairman to an impressive list of skills: he is a professor with over 15 years of experience, a researcher who has been awarded multiple grants by the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and an editor who is currently Founding Co-Editor to one and Associate Editor to three professional journals.  With gratitude to outgoing Chair Dale Stahl for four years of leadership and a vital infusion of new faculty, the department anticipates the change in focus that comes with welcoming a new leader.  We caught up with Dr. Abrevaya to ask him about his vision for the department, his thoughts on living in Austin, and his take on leading the department in times of uncertainty and tough budget predictions.

Q: How long have you been with the university?  Where were you before moving to Austin?

A: I moved to UT-Austin in 2007 from Purdue University, where I had been for five years. Prior to that, I worked at the University of Chicago GSB for six years.

Q: What keeps you here?  What do you love about Austin, about the university and the department?

A: Eleven years in the Midwest was more than enough for my family and me.  When we had the opportunity to move to Austin, it was a no-brainer for us.  Austin is the perfect city --- vibrant culture, friendly people, warm weather, outdoor activities, great restaurants, and the list goes on.  It has all the urban amenities but also a suburban feel to it.
UT-Austin is one of the top public universities in the country, but what I appreciate most about this university is its insistence on excellence and its continued efforts to improve.  The university has a lot of resources, meaning that we have the ability to attract and retain the best academic talent out there.
I had previously taught in smaller departments at business schools, and I was very excited to be part of a larger economics department that could excel at many different fields.  We have roughly 1500 undergraduate majors and 100 doctoral students, and we have an amazing faculty.  Our faculty is committed to having a rigorous undergraduate and graduate curriculum, the quality of which has steadily risen over the last few years.  We equip our undergraduates with the analytical and practical skills needed for today's workplace and also prepare some of them to continue on to graduate study.  Our graduate-student training is excellent, and our Ph.D. students make a real impact upon graduation, taking jobs at universities, research institutes, government agencies, international economic agencies, and private firms.

Q: Where did you study, and what was your field of specialty?

A: I received my Ph.D. in economics from MIT in 1996, and my dissertation was in the field of econometrics.  (Econometrics is the application of statistical methods to economic data.)

Q: Tell me about your research.  What have you worked on in the past, and what are you working on currently?

A: My main research focus has always been in econometrics, where I have examined methods for analyzing economic data in a variety of different contexts.  Part of this work has focused upon measurement issues.  For instance: how do we utilize survey-response data when people answer questions incorrectly (like lying about smoking or drug use)?  how should we deal with data items that are completely missing?  I've also done a lot of work on models dealing with a type of data known as "panel data" (or "longitudinal data"), where we are able to observe economic agents (individuals, firms, etc) at multiple times.  These data allow economists to more convincingly establish causal connections and answer dynamic questions, but they also pose new problems with estimating the associated models.
In addition to my econometrics work, I have a lot of interest in applied microeconomic topics.  I've done work in labor economics (looking at unemployment duration), health economics (looking at the effects of smoking on birth outcomes), sports economics (looking at incentive effects of tournament structures and rule changes), and demography (looking at gender selection within the United States).
I have ongoing research on a variety of topics.  These include missing-data problems (with Prof. Stephen Donald), the effects of state-mandated vaccinations on health outcomes (with Karen Mulligan), and the effects of beauty on happiness (with Prof. Daniel Hamermesh).

Q: What do you think are the greatest strengths of the department?  Where do we need to improve?

A: The greatest strength of the department is the quality of our faculty, which in turn has allowed us to maintain top-notch undergraduate and graduate programs.  Right now, we are extremely strong in the three foundational areas of economics --- microeconomic theory, macroeconomic theory, and econometrics.  You cannot have a great economics department without being strong in these areas.  We are, however, currently understaffed relative to the size of our programs, meaning that we are not as deep in specialty fields (such as industrial organization and international economics) as we would like to be.  Strengthening these fields is crucial for the department to improve, so that we can offer a breadth of courses to our undergraduates and appropriately train our graduate students.

Q: What is your vision for the department over the next five years?

A: I'm extremely excited about the future of the department.  The top priority, without question, is that we add to our faculty ranks --- but we will not compromise on quality to do so.  That work has already begun.  With the strong support of the College and Dean Diehl and the tireless efforts of my colleagues, we have been able to hire an excellent group of assistant professors that will be joining us in the fall.  This department will be bigger and better over the next five years.  The quality of the faculty feeds directly into the quality of our programs, making it easier to retain and attract professors.
A top priority for me is to maintain the high standards of our doctoral program.  We recently implemented important changes in the program that have begun to pay dividends.  Our graduating Ph.D. students have had great success on the job market this year, arguably our best year ever.  We will maintain that momentum, attracting better graduate students and increasing the quality and vibrancy of the department's research environment.

Q: What drew you to the field of economics?

A: I had always been interested in math in high school and college but I was never quite sure what to do with it --- until I started taking economics classes.  I was instantly drawn to the analytical thinking of economics and the ability to explain real-world interactions, markets, and other phenomena within formal (but often simple) models.  I was really hooked when I took a game theory course from Prof. Eric Maskin (winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize).  I decided at that point that I would study economics in graduate school and haven't looked back.

Q: What advice do you have for students interested in studying economics?

A: Economics represents a different way of thinking for many people.  We can tackle many problems with cost-benefit analysis and models in which people, firms, and countries are only self-interested.  For some students that's a very natural way to view the world, but for others it's not.  For the latter group, I urge them to give it a chance as the economics "way of thinking" can explain a lot not only about the economy but also more generally about the world around them.  Majoring in economics provides a set of skills that is most certainly in demand after college.  For those students who are interested in going onto economics graduate school, my greatest advice is to get as much mathematical training as possible; students are often surprised at how different the level of mathematics used in graduate school is.

Q: In this climate of tightening education budgets and fear of additional cuts coming from the legislature, how does our focus as a department need to change?

A: It's extremely important that we maintain a long-term view, as we know that the economy and budgets go in cycles.  It is true that, in the short-term, all departments need to make (and already have made) difficult decisions in the face of smaller budgets.  We have seen larger class sizes and more limited offerings at both the undergraduate and graduate level.  We cannot, however, compromise on the overall quality of our faculty or the quality of our graduate and undergraduate programs.  If you overreact and cut at the essence of your department, it becomes very difficult to rebuild.  We are all feeling the pinch of the budget situation, but my colleagues have come together and pitched in where necessary --- teaching larger classes, serving on more dissertation committees, etc.  We will come out stronger and more efficient at the end of this budget situation.

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