Explore Econ Student feature: Shivam Gujral
20 April 2021
Explore Econ 2020 winner, Shivam Gujral gives an insight into the Department annual student research conference, and his winning poster titled “Direct Benefit Transfers: a way forward to transform the Indian Education system?”
Why did you decide to apply for Explore Econ in 2020?
Multidisciplinary research has been one of my key interests, and a primary reason for me to pursue a BSc in Economics. In my first year, I was already working as a research correspondent with the Department of Economics magazine, ‘The Economic Tribune’, developing skills in conducting research and writing papers. When speaking with senior students, previous conference presenters, and professors, I gathered that Explore Econ was a platform where I could experience what ‘academic research’ actually is. It was also an opportunity to understand the entire research process, from coming up with a question, building hypothesis, finding relevant data, overcoming challenges by building empirical models, and presenting the findings to a diverse audience. I would strongly recommend students to participate in it as it is a great way to gain insight into practicing academia as an undergraduate Economics student.
Tell us about your submission.
Last year, I presented my work in the poster segment of the competition. I chose to explore the intersection between Public Policy and Development Economics, more specifically how Direct Benefit Transfers like School Vouchers can be used to improve student learning and educational outcomes in developing countries like India. I first reviewed the literature on the Indian Education System by presenting a conversation between an Economist and a Policymaker, titled the ‘Modelling Economist and Reforming Policymaker.’ Here, I showed how a Policymaker consults an Economist to draft a Direct Benefit Transfer theoretical framework to improve the education system in India, while also highlighting the broad message of increased interaction among Economists and Policymakers to execute policy decisions.
The motivation behind my research stemmed from the stark differences in Public and Private Education sectors in India. There are also Supply-Side issues revolving around the availability and quality of schools. I hypothesized that School Vouchers would induce school choice among parents of the student participants, which will help solving the supply side issues prevalent in the Indian education system mentioned before. To test this empirically, I built a regression model estimating the impact of school vouchers on test scores of individuals and controlled for factors like household characteristics and baseline scores. I found that over time in the experimental data from Indian Randomised Control Trials, test scores for language subjects increased and this was mostly prevalent where there is huge gap between public and private school quality. These results were reiterated with increased enrolment rates when I included some evidence from other global experimental settings to establish external validity. To conclude, my research shows how, using experimental data, school vouchers would be beneficial for student development and the way forward for its national implementation.
What was your experience like working on your research and then presenting at the conference?
Explore Econ has been one of the most academically interesting and enjoyable experiences for me, both in terms of conducting the research and then presenting it at the conference.
Research Experience: As my topic heavily revolved around Development issues and the Economics of Education, I reached out to Professors who were specialists in these fields. It was interesting to speak to them and discuss my idea even though I hadn’t been taught by them in any of my core modules before. They were also very helpful in guiding me to the relevant sources and alerting me to some issues I may encounter during my research. I also attended the Explore Econ Skills Labs and Office Hours, taking advice from the core committee on my research, poster presentation, and challenges I faced along the way. I then undertook the main aspect of my research: empirical analysis. Some of the challenges I faced here were finding relevant datasets as many have a restricted usage. Secondly, I had to read ahead of my Applied Economics module to incorporate the factors I wanted to include in my model, which even though was difficult but gave me the confidence of using resources to understand complex information. Lastly, I understood the importance of skimming through big chunks of research papers and finding the relevant details, which I think is a great skill to have. Overall, I found the research to be a great learning experience, allowing me to not just learn about my research topic, but developing the entire skillset of conducting economic research.
Presentation Experience: This was the first time I had designed a poster and presented at a research conference, which of course seemed to be daunting initially. However, by watching YouTube tutorials, taking inspiration from previous posters, to also learning from my fellow classmates who were good at design, I got a ‘crash course’ in poster designing by the end of the process. On the day of the conference, I enjoyed communicating my research to the professors, students, and judges. A key highlight was that I had to constantly tailor my explanation depending upon who I was presenting it to. I gave more emphasis on the economics and modelling aspect while communicating it to the Professors and Economics students. On the other hand, I tried maintaining a balance between economic methodology used and the policy application while presenting it to the judges and students studying other degrees. This useful skill of tailoring adapting my presentation depending upon the audience, was later on tested during internship interviews with economic consultancies and corporate firms. Researching and presenting at the conference opened doors to many opportunities at UCL, such as working as a Research Assistant with Professors and gave me invaluable skills which will help me in university life and beyond.
How has participating in Explore Econ helped your studies this year?
Alongside personal development, Explore Econ helped me in 3 key aspects of term time study at University:
- Relating Economics to real life applications: Participating in Explore Econ opened doors to an academic community where we discussed a bunch of issues along with policy or any real-life applications. Whether it was my poster on Education policies or other presentations on Cryptocurrencies, or Game Theory in musical choirs, to name a few, all honed my ability to ‘visualise’ economic concepts.
- Going Beyond Compulsory readings: Researching for Explore Econ exposed me to refer to academic papers and make connections with the course material. This worked really well for modules like Macroeconomics and Economics of Development where we are already given a number of additional readings and with the research mindset, it is always interesting to read them and gain diverse perspectives on topics.
- Essays and Research Papers: For modules like Economics of Development, we are expected to write a research paper as part of our coursework. Participating in Explore Econ helped me to identify relevant resources for data and literature search and be comfortable with the process of writing a research paper. The poster got us used to the constraint of presenting extensive research in a short and concise form, which is reflected in Macroeconomics module assessments while writing answers with a 100-word limit.
Any tips for fellow students thinking about applying this year?
- Approach Professors for advice and Explore Econ office hours: Some of the innovative presentation ideas I got were a result of multiple discussions during office hours. Professors can guide you in the right direction and provide useful resources.
- Make use of UCL offered research engines: You’ll be able to find engines like ‘EconLit’ through the Library services which is very useful for literature search. Even ‘Skills Guides and Other Resources’ and datasets on ‘Econ Further Study Advising’ pages were useful as a starting point.
- Research a topic you’re interested in: Start early and spend time on coming up with a research question. This has many ‘spill over effects’ too! For example: one of the modules I took this year (Economics of Development) is a result of my research interests due to Explore Econ.
- Treat it as a process: Cut down the research preparation into different steps. For example, I did literature, modelling, policy application as separate bits and then combined them together.
- Maintain a balance between ‘math-sy formulae’ and theoretical content: Ensure you are able to communicate your research to a diverse audience.
- Think outside the box (you can be innovative in posters!): Presenting in the form of a conversation or making use of cartoons/charts are a few examples of this.
- Practice your presentation: Make sure you practice and have the key points which you definitely want to highlight while presenting. Do remember that this doesn’t mean writing a script!
- Enjoy the diversity in topics: Don’t forget to engage with other presenters and go through their research (it’s a great learning opportunity)
- Don’t be too scared while presenting to the judges: Be confident about your research and go for it!
Good luck to all those presenting and hope you all enjoy and get to take away good memories and experiences from the conference!