Deivy Houeix had just started a predoctoral research fellowship and was gearing up to help with a massive survey designed to measure the impacts of urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa when his faculty mentor learned of a development in Côte d’Ivoire that was worth studying all on its own.
Professor Pascaline Dupas, faculty director of the King Center and co-lead investigator with Marcel Fafchamps of the center’s Africa Urban Development Research Initiative (AUDRI), had heard that certain municipalities in the country were planning to digitize their tax collection in an effort to increase revenues and reduce the corruption associated with cash payments.
“My antennae went up,” Dupas remembers. “That sounded super exciting: less corruption in tax collection means more resources coming into the city means more people have trust in their government—all these positive things.”
But Dupas was only in the country for a week, so, when she left, she asked Houeix to investigate further. Now the pair are co-principal investigators on the project, which is supported by a $1 million grant from USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures; and Houeix is a PhD student in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dupas—who has regularly hired predocs for her own and AUDRI’s research—plans to continue providing opportunities for postbaccalaureate students to engage with critical research through the King Center with the recent launch of a predoctoral research fellows program in July 2021. In its first year, the program launched with an initial cohort of four fellows; in subsequent years, the program will continue to grow to include more opportunities. The focus of the two-year program will be on recruiting fellows from underrepresented communities and low- or middle-income countries.
There are many goals of the predoc program, including expanding opportunities for well-qualified students who might otherwise have a hard time breaking into the insular world of academia, strengthening the King Center’s own capacity for ground-breaking research, and—bigger picture—expanding the pool of talent studying global development more generally.
“We’re trying to be more proactive in solving the pipeline problem,” says Dupas, whose empirical research on “Gender and the Dynamics of Economics Seminars” was recently featured in the New York Times.
Diversity is not just a social aspiration but a requirement for both generating and using good research. Having people from low- and middle-income countries study issues related to development ensures the field will stay connected to the most important issues on the ground, Dupas says.
These scholars will be uniquely situated to not only generate high-quality and well-contextualized research, but also to serve as advisors to local policymakers if not become policymakers themselves.
Like Houeix’, former predoctoral fellow Eva Lestant’s experience working as part of AUDRI also demonstrates the benefits of predoctoral programs.
Lestant was on the ground in Côte d’Ivoire and had just overseen the completion of a household demographic survey of 3,000 people when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The data collection required a team of 40 enumerators conducting multiple four-hour interviews daily and could not have been completed once restrictions designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 were put in place. But Lestant had started and finished the survey ahead of schedule, and, because of that baseline data and follow-up phone surveys, AUDRI has been able to document the pandemic’s financial impact on everyday Ivorians.
“Clearly, Eva was the person who made all that possible,” Dupas says. “She knew the enumerators on the ground; she tapped into her network and trained people through WhatsApp from afar.”
The data—which shows devastating short-term financial impacts for men and much longer-term financial impacts for women—offers researchers a rare real-time look into the effects of a once-in-a-lifetime global health and economic crisis.
“With the richness of our baseline data, collected just before the pandemic, we can identify those who had the hardest impacts short-term and long-term,” Lestant says. “And that can teach us some things about implementing policies: Not everyone needs the same help at the same time.”
Lestant says her predoc experience with AUDRI helped her understand the impacts of her research.
“This job has given me the opportunity to be where things are happening,” she says. “That colors whatever data or research question we are studying. It’s really important to humanize the research.”
Lestant, who is now a PhD student at Stanford, also says the fellowship helped validate her professional choices.
“Having this behind-the-scenes experience has been key for my personal and career development,” she says. “It showed me that this is exactly what I want to do.”
Predocs also have room to explore their own interests and see projects develop organically.
“There was freedom in the field to explore and report back,” Houeix says. “Pascaline and Marcel really emphasized that.”
“The predoc program is about learning,” she says. “You’re here to learn and your professor-mentors know that and include that in their time.
Dupas says career development is one of the program’s explicit goals and one reason she tries to coordinate her predoc fellows’ arrival and departure so they overlap for at least a month or two.
“It’s cross-pollination,” she says. “Each time a predoc comes in, they learn from the previous one.”
Since Lestant has now started her economics coursework at Stanford, Laura Fabiola Hernandez, who is from Colombia, has joined the AUDRI team as a predoc.
The predoc program was one of the first initiatives Dupas began working on, after she became Faculty Director in September 2020, with King Center Executive Director Jessica Leino.
In addition to all the obvious benefits—to the King Center’s research mission and to the personal and professional development of future scholars—Dupas makes a simple case for the predoctoral program and its emphasis on recruiting people from underrepresented communities and countries.
“I’m an economist,” she says. “The fact that we have very few scholars from these parts of the world is a result of misallocation. We’re missing out on a lot of talent.”