Q&A: Dr Ian Smith Senior Lecturer, University of St. Andrews School of Economics & Finance

Interview conducted by Maxime Seguin

Why did you decide to become an economist?

For most economists, markets are the fundamental economic institution.  Understanding their operation and outcomes matters to everyone.  As global wellbeing depends on economic choices, investigating mechanisms that link economic decisions to people’s welfare is profoundly important, though not easy.

What is your specific area of interest within the economic realm?

I’m an applied microeconomist using econometric methods to investigate (mainly) household behaviour.  I teach some of these statistical methods in my fourth year module, Econometrics 2, and address family decision-making in my Honours option, The Economics of Social Life.

What do you love most about teaching the very first module of economics?

First-year students are very enthusiastic and responsive.  University is new and fresh and that excitement spills over into the lectures.  There can be a race for who gets to sit in the front row in lectures, with the Chinese and Russian students typically competing. However, by the time students reach Honours, we have successfully knocked the enthusiasm and confidence out of the class and the mood is much more serious.  The first-year classes gave me thank you cards in 2011 and 2012, which I’ve pinned to my noticeboard.  One of these includes the signatures of international footballers John Carew and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  I hadn’t noticed these players attending lectures but perhaps they were in disguise.  This year I had the pleasure of invitations from some first-year students to very enjoyable social evenings at John Burnet Hall and the Hongpao society.  They were greatly appreciated.

What is the strangest thing a student has ever asked you?

At the start of the EC1002 exam last semester, one student informed me that she was about to ‘ace this test’ and asked me for a ‘high five’, which I duly granted.

How would you react if I told you that you were one of the most liked professors?

I’m not entirely sure what contributes to likeability.  I hope the 10% of the first year microeconomics students who fail the module every year still like me.  The good news for students is that I have many smarter, more gifted colleagues who do a better job in other modules.

Has a student ever challenged you to a table tennis competition?

Yes, I practised with a second-year student in January.  For a couple of years, I attended the university table tennis club.  I’m now part of the local St Andrews club and anyone is welcome to participate.  Indeed, a few student economists have played for the local club and we occasionally have friendly matches against the university players.  We have a website: standrewstt.wordpress.org.

How can one try to become more rational in decision-making?

You could acquaint yourself with common biases in decision-making.  The best- selling book by the Nobel prize winner in Economics, Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, excellently explains the systematic biases and errors in the choices people make.

Any words of wisdom for those who continue economics?

I have six pieces of advice:

(a) It’s a good idea to attend lectures.  Try to resist the temptation to look at Facebook, Twitter, e-mails or to daydream about your girlfriend/boyfriend during the lecture.

(b) For many modules it is surprising how many graded essays sit uncollected and unwanted in the School.  They are worth picking up as most tutors provide really helpful feedback and comments which will be useful to you even if it might be painful to read at the time.

(c) It is best to print out tutorial exercises.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’m perplexed when students try to read the tutorial questions from a smart-phone.  They must have incredible eye-sight. 

(d) It is highly desirable to prepare answers to tutorial questions beforehand.  Free-riding in tutorials by turning up with a blank sheet of paper is not the path to success and not what university education is all about.

(e) I suspect that (well-motivated) economists are already regular readers of economic blogs/newspapers/The Economist/reports from international institutions.  These sources are great for keeping up to date with the latest economic thinking and I would encourage you to continue reading as much as possible.

(f) It’s important to make use of your elected School President and SSCC reps.  They provide great channels for constructive feedback to the School.  We take this feedback seriously and there are some things that can be readily adjusted, even during the semester.  For example, are your tutorials regularly finishing 10 minutes early?  Are lectures over-running and making you late for the next class?  It’s relatively straightforward for these problems to be fixed if you tell us about them.

What is one thing you wish your students knew about you but never had the chance to tell them?

I’m a Christian and attend the local Baptist church.  Christians have some interesting observations to make about economic affairs.  The Association of Christian Economists meets for a conference in Cambridge every summer to discuss the interface between Christianity and Economics.  You can visit the website at www.christian-economists.org.uk

Do you have any pieces of life advice for your students?

Be a philanthropist, give generously and share your wealth liberally with others who need it more.

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