Turin is one of Italy’s least glamorous major cities: despite its rich cultural, sporting, political and intellectual history, it also has a reputation for being grimy, industrial and a bit drab. I suppose that when you compare it to Venice, Milan, Rome and Florence, it is understandable that Turin is regarded as a bit of an ugly duckling. But with its setting on the mighty Po River, and against the backdrop of the Alps, Turin is actually surprisingly spectacular. Moreover, the Torinesi are incredibly warm and friendly.
On my recent trip to Turin – to attend an academic workshop on The Organization, Economics and Policy of Scientific Research – I sampled the many joys of Turin (think Gianduja chocolate, wonderful vermouths, black and white truffles, and incredible red wine) as well as glimpses of the weird (almost-Soviet) suburban heartland. The following photo essay captures the flavour of that trip and the beautiful piazzi, palazzi and porticoes of Turin city plus the gastronomic delights of the Piedmont region (including the wine region of Barolo). Thanks to my wonderful friend Prof Beppe Scellato for showing me around his hometown and surrounds!
This is the first in a series of blog posts on Unsung Heroes: those people who really float my boat but have been unceremoniously thrown on the scrapheap of history. Unsung Heroes casts a brighter light over their magnificence.
There are lots of lists out there of ‘the coolest/hottest/best-dressed guys on the planet’ and they normally include people like Harry Styles, Brad Pitt or Don Draper. This is not the sort of ‘cool’ I want to talk about. I’m talking about something primal, mesmerising and edgy: the dark priests of cool. And it’s not just a black vs white thing either – although Miles Davis, James Brown and Omar Little are definitely members of the fraternity, so are Marlon Brando and Jim Morrison.
These men all have something ethereal and dangerous: it’s the way they hold themselves; the things they say; the way they dance; and the roles they play. They ooze cool in everything they do. I’m not going to enter into a cuttin’ contest about who’s in the club and who’s not, I just want to put forward the case for one often-neglected candidate for the club: Billy Preston. Don’t know him? Then be prepared to kneel down and beg forgiveness!
Although it is impossible to give a definitive set of characteristics, there are some guiding principles about what constitutes a ‘good’ research question. There are three main characteristics –it must be novel, important, and tractable. The best research questions – which often lead to the best publications – fall in the intersection of these three domains.
What are novelty, importance and tractability? ‘Novelty’ essentially relates to the notion that your work must push back the frontier of knowledge. It must create something that is new to the world, not just new to your own country. This is probably much harder to do in some domains than others: for example, older (more mature) areas of inquiry that have been studied intensively by the brightest and best for the last 50 years are likely to pose a much tougher novelty requirement than newer areas of inquiry. There are obvious risk-reward trade-offs embedded in the novelty of your topic: with the potential of higher impact comes the fact that completion rates will fall and completion duration will increase.
There are a handful of excellent guides to different aspects of the academic profession that are invaluable to PhD students in economics. See here for a comprehensive summary.
As a complement to these guides, I want to focus on one specific (and often under-appreciated) choice that a young researcher makes: the choice of the PhD topic. Most students considering embarking on a PhD focus on more-immediate choices such as the institution and the choice of PhD supervisor rather than the choice of topic. All three choices, however, have persistent long-term effects on your career – and there is no good reason to under-estimate the importance of the choice of PhD topic.