Sunday, October 28, 2007

Raj Chetty


Rediff features an interview with Raj Chetty, a hot shot economist at Berkeley. The interviewer -- Arthur Pais -- actually allows Chetty to explain his research projects and its policy implications, and they are all very interesting. Sometime ago, there was a profile of Chetty in the AEI magazine, The American, covering much the same ground. But the interview is far better, simply because Chetty is a gifted communicator, and because Pais lets him talk.

You became a professor at Berkeley when you were 23...

Many people wondered if I was a student or a professor, but one of the things that is great about academics is that it is almost purely merit-based. It does not matter how you look, how you dress, or how you act. Once you establish that you are an expert in your subject and have good ideas, you immediately earn people's respect. Youth is to some extent viewed favorably (unlike in other professions that have a strict ladder system) since breakthrough discoveries are often made when people are young. My colleagues treated me like anyone else in the department as soon as I arrived at Berkeley, even though most of the graduate students in the department were older than me.

With the students, I tried to take advantage of the fact that I was roughly the same age as them to make it easier to approach the professor. In one of my classes, my teaching assistant (a graduate student) and I started the class with a practical joke. She began the first lecture and pretended to be the professor. I sat in the back, dressed informally like the other students. I started raising several questions once she started the lecture, eventually asking whether she was really qualified to teach the class. I then suggested that perhaps I should teach the class myself. The students were quite surprised that one of their peers would be so brash. She said, "Sure, why don't you give it a try?" I got up and began teaching. The students figured it out and enjoyed the joke. It was particularly funny because one of the students asked me while I was sitting in the back if I knew whether this professor was supposed to be hard!

Thanks to Swarup for the pointer.

5 Comments:

  1. Daze said...

    You're a prof here (in India). Do you think that the things Chetty mentions about the academic environment in your excerpt hold true in India?

  2. gaddeswarup said...

    I have seen similar things in TIFR and ISI. People like C.P. Ramanujam, M.S. Raghnathan, V.K. Patodi were promoted to professorships when they were in their twenties and as far as I remember, they were well respected for their calibre from very early on. There was also the tradition of encouraging promising students to take up new topics even if there was no expertise. K. R. Parthasarathy's ISI thesis was in 'Information Theory' and his advisor was C.R.Rao. People like K. Chandrasekharan ( in TIFR) rarely wrote papers with students and encouraged them to work in modern topics and quite often sent them abroad to complete their work.
    However, I think that often these promotions brought administrative responsibilities for which the youngsters might not have been ready. Perhaps, some careful training is needed there.
    I think this tradition continues, at least to some extent, in TIFR and ISI and perhaps in some other insitutions.

  3. gaddeswarup said...

    Sorry; the question was probably meant for Abi. I too look forward to his comments.

  4. Abi said...

    Daze: The stuff Chetty talks about ("...It does not matter how you look, how you dress, or how you act. Once you establish that you are an expert in your subject and have good ideas, you immediately earn people's respect. ...My colleagues treated me like anyone else in the department as soon as I arrived at Berkeley ...) is largely true in several top Indian institutions that I know. It's certainly true at IISc, and from Swarup's comment, it's clear that this culture exists at TIFR and ISI.

    IITs too have this culture, but junior faculty there may face some problems because of the huge emphasis on teaching. Thus, junior faculty may end up teaching courses that are not keen on. However, on the research front, I do not know of any interference; and they are treated as equals.

    As for universities, ... ;-)

    Swarup: Thanks for all those details! In metallurgy, we have a couple of examples too. Prof. T.R. Anantharaman became the Head of the Department at BHU at a pretty early age, and built it into a formidable research centre during the 60s and 70s. My colleague, Prof. S. Ranganathan, too became a full professor at a young age of (I think) 32!

    I must admit, though, that I have not heard of such cases (where the system recognizes young people with great achievement) from recent decades.

  5. gaddeswarup said...

    Abi,
    Sidhartha Gadgil who is in I.I.Sc now became an Associate professor in ISI at the age of 28. I think that depending on the opening of areas, jobs etc. it is still possible in some places. I would think that it is not widespread.