Washington — The University of Chicago, consistently ranked as one of the best American institutions of higher learning by the magazine U.S. News & World Report, is a magnet for gifted students from around the globe. Today, international students comprise almost 19 percent of the school’s student body.
UChicago, as it is popularly known, also boasts the number one U.S. graduate program in economics, according to the 2012 U.S. News rankings. The university’s economics department is chaired by John List, a pioneering figure in experimental economics. Experimental economists conduct field or classroom experiments to analyze and explain economic activity.
In a recent UChicago News interview, List revealed that his career path began to take shape when he started buying and selling sports cards to help finance his undergraduate studies. At the time, he recalled, he noticed that mothers accompanied by young children were more likely than other customers to offer high prices for cards, typically because they were reluctant to barter with dealers when they had their children in tow.
Such decisions, he realized, offered a window into the nation’s larger economic picture.
“It was a chance to apply what I was learning in college about economics to a real-life situation,” List said.
Ever since his earliest discoveries about consumer behavior, List has been testing economic theories using a creative and rigorous approach that has put him at the forefront of his field. Among other things, he has studied motivations behind charitable giving, the reasons why women are paid less in the workplace than men, and the origins of discrimination.
List’s reputation as an innovator has attracted many students to the University of Chicago, including Yang Xu, a doctoral student from China. Xu and two other students were interviewed October 25 via email by the U.S. Department of State.
Xu said he enrolled in UChicago’s graduate program in economics “because it was ranked one of the best economics Ph.D. programs in the world,” and besides, “Professor List, one of my favorite professors, was at the University of Chicago.”
“Professor List has always been quite helpful to his students,” Xu said. “He gave me great suggestions on how to improve my second-year research paper.” Also, UChicago’s core and field courses “have provided me with powerful tools to conduct research in experimental economics and related fields.”
Daniel Hedblom, a doctoral student from Sweden, was drawn to the UChicago economics program for the same reason as Xu. At first, though, “I actually did not know that much about experimental economics,” he said.
Experimental economics “forces you to think differently” because “you are essentially creating your own data,” unlike traditional economics, which relies on existing data, he explained. “You need creativity in all kinds of economic research, but the creativity you need for experimental economics is of a slightly different flavor.”
Not long ago, Hedblom conducted an experiment that examined whether people are more willing to take away money that others earn through financial work rather than through manual labor. “Casual observation suggests that people are willing to support higher taxes for rich individuals working in finance,” he said. “Is this because people believe there is something immoral [about finance]? Or is it because their income is perceived as mostly a result of luck? People seem to approve some inequalities, but not others.”
Doctoral candidate Anushree Subramaniam, of Malaysia, said she came to the University of Chicago because of the “unparalleled faculty expertise” of its economics department.
Subramaniam took List’s experimental economics class in 2011. By explaining the thought process behind experiments, List “trains you to be a better researcher,” she said. “Experimental economics is a really fun field and demonstrates how humans sometimes behave quite differently from what we would expect.”
All three students said they would recommend UChicago’s economics program. “The Ph.D. program here is very rigorous and you need to be prepared to work very hard,” Subramaniam said. “However, the learning opportunities are incredible.”
“Many faculty members are famous, high-profile economists,” but “they remain accessible to students,” she said.
While pursuing degrees, UChicago students can also experience Chicago’s cultural amenities and sporting traditions. “I am a hockey fan, so I really appreciate the [opportunity] to go and see the [Chicago] Blackhawks play once in a while,” Hedblom said.
For her part, Subramaniam described Chicago as “a very vibrant city” with “lots of great architecture, museums, live concerts, comedy clubs [and] shopping.”
“Graduate school in economics is like an endurance test,” Hedblom added. “You either need to be in a department that you really like or in a city that you really like. Here, I actually have both.”
More information on international education opportunities is available on the website of the Institute of International Education.