Michael Wong blogs here

New Job

Even before I first started my new job, people started asking me to post an update. What is your new life going to be like? Back then I didn’t have much of an answer. More often than not, my friends’ well-intentioned questioning sounded existential to me: What are you doing with your life!?

Today I hit my three month mark. I’ve finally settled into a routine, and I like it very much. Here comes the full report!

Location: My new desk is located in the Becker Center on the third floor of the business school building at UChicago. At my desk are two monitors, a blazing fast desktop, and a number of books that someone had left behind and I never bothered to remove. The titles include “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Communist Manifesto.” In this rather cramped and messy room are 20 or so other RAs who like me decided to forego the real world. The space is a bit like a bunker. There’s little space between the rows of desks so I frequently have to climb over other people to get in and out. The lights also flicker a lot and there are no windows. (How ironic that I left physics to escape from windowless rooms only to find myself back in one.) There is a wonderful perk to this location, though. I sit right next to Steve Levitt’s office. In fact, I get to see him even more often than when I had worked for him at the Greatest Good.

Bosses: Jesse and Matt. They’re awesome and brilliant.

Job description: The most immediate benefit of this job is that it is much easier to explain than my last. (My mom still thinks I was an IT consultant…) The new job description basically goes like this: My bosses want to answer some research questions and I help out. For example, here are a few research projects I’ve been helping with:

My job is to help answer these questions by chipping away at an easier sub-question. On a given day, I might head to the library to find historical data, write mathematical derivations, write code to simulate a model, draft parts of a paper–to mention a few of the more common tasks. Most of the tasks are quite intellectually challenging. A majority I wouldn’t know how to do until I spent a couple hours thinking or reading. I’m given a lot of independence to figure out how to achieve a research goal and can go about it the way I see is best.

In past jobs I have often been frustrated by the repetition of tasks that can easily be avoided by using the right tools. No longer! I am very happy about the well designed infrastructure that our research group maintains. Our codebase is kept abstracted, well organized and fully versioned. Our team communicates almost entirely via a project management website. At any moment, I know what’s going on in our whole lab and I easily figure out what someone else has done. It is amazing how big of a difference this has made for me.

Another perk is that my bosses encourage outside intellectual pursuit. I spent a good portion of my summer reading up on econometrics and microeconomic theory. I also attended the Chicago Price Theory Summer Camp and a few workshops. It is enormously fun and stimulating to see brilliant economists get really worked up arguing about greek letters and equations. When school starts up, I will be taking classes as well. Eventually, I’ll also start working on my own research, but I’ve got to find questions first!

The one downside is that I perpetually feel dumb. It’s very much like how I had felt when I was a freshman at Harvard, surrounded by people who were brilliant. It is exhilirating, but it’s also a bit painful to see the distance between where I am and where I can be. Thankfully, so far feeling dumb has been motivating rather than demoralizing, so I have not become depressed. Instead the result of feeling dumb is a sense of urgency. In fact, I’ve started to think that an hour I don’t spend learning is an unproductive hour. This has encouraged sloth in other aspects of my life. I’ve been heading to the gym less and cooking less.

Overall I am happy to be alive in intellectual pursuit. It took a few turns to get here. And I do miss my friends, so do come visit.

Read more here. Or send me feedback and comments.