Interview with a Professor: David Schindler
Authors: Daan Schrage, Ashita Khandelwal & Daniël Asselbergs
March 9, 2021
We interviewed professor David Schindler, from the Economics faculty, about his current research, and his journey of becoming a professor.
So our first question is if you would like to tell us more about yourself and your work?
My name is David Schindler. I'm an associate professor in the economics department. I've been at Tilburg for four years now since I joined in 2017. My work is mostly on the intersection of behavioral economics and public policy questions. I'm teaching Public Sector Economics in the bachelor Economics, and I'm teaching a course in the master's program, called Seminar Economics and Psychology of Risk and Time. And I'm also teaching a Macroeconomics course, for first year students in the Econometrics program. Besides this I'm a member of the Faculty Council.
Where did you attend university? And how did you end up at Tilburg?
I was born and raised relatively close to the Dutch border, on the German side. And so yeah, I would have never imagined that eventually, I would end up in the Netherlands. But that's then how it happened. So it's also still haunting me that I didn't take the action of learning Dutch as a second language in high school, because we had the option, but I thought, what am I ever going to use that for? So I definitely regret that today. So I did an undergraduate degree at the University of Cologne in Germany. And after that, I did a master's program and a PhD at the University of Munich. And during that time, I spent a little more than a year abroad at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. And that's also from there on I went on the job market. So essentially, going on the job market, it was completely unclear for me where I would end up. And I was fortunate enough to pick from several options, two of which were in the Netherlands. And Tilburg clearly was my top choice from that list. So that's how I ended up here. And I haven't regretted it a single day.
What is your area of expertise? Is it related to behavioral and experimental economics?
Yes, I started out doing mostly experimental economics work, but my work has shifted since then a little bit more into what's usually called applied or empirical work. So because I have a strong focus on studying questions that are relevant for public policy, from a behavioral economics perspective. Kind of like, using all these insights that lab experiments have generated over the past few decades and saying, “Okay, how can we apply that to an actual question in the real world?” For example, one recent paper I've worked on is on gun ownership, because previously, people have always modeled engaging in crime as a purely rational decision. And then my paper says, “Well, maybe the guys who go totally crazy when Donald Trump gets elected and buy firearms, maybe they are not doing this out of a rational purpose. And maybe we have some insights from behavioral economics that we can use to predict behavior.”
Why did you choose this particular field? Because of course, there are many fields within economics.
I think I ended up there by chance, right. So when I was doing the master's program, I was doing all these different courses from the different areas and I thought before I started the master's program that I would probably be most interested in theoretical macroeconomics, but then I ended up doing empirical microeconomics, which is kind of like the polar opposite. So I think I was just blessed that I had good teachers who were really showing me how interesting stuff can be and so I got really excited about it. And the research that I'm doing shows you that I got more excited about other stuff along the way too. And I like to think of myself as somebody who's doing work really broadly. So my advisor, when I went on the job market told me that it's certainly going to be harder for me, because I'm not the one guy doing this particular type of question, but I do lots of stuff. But I must say, I'm proud of that. Because I think one reason why we're doing research as researchers is because we're interested in knowing how things work. And if I find something interesting, then I want to work on it.
What does the life of an academic look like on a daily basis?
It looks very different now than it looked a year ago, right? But then also not so different, I think, compared to some other jobs. So usually, what life looks like is that you're spending way too much time in some meetings, discussing administrative bureaucracy. And I know, Tilburg is a place where you're blessed with not having too much of that. You spend time preparing teaching, you go to classes, you hopefully have a few hours in peace that you can spend on some research projects. But quite often, research projects are simply like, you have 15 minutes to quickly talk to a co-author and quickly discuss what the next steps are, and then hope that another day, you'll have some more free time. And I guess most academics, and most researchers spend a lot of time there, in their evenings and the weekends. But I'm trying to minimize that because I very much value my free time too.
You always hear a lot of stories, both positive and negative, about academia. So as a professor, what would you say is your favorite thing and your least favorite thing about working in academia?
I directly know what my most favorite thing is. And that is the freedom to work on the topics that I find interesting that I pick a paper that I want to write. If I don't find it interesting, I don't have to do it. I think that's pretty unique about academia. The negative sides, there are a few smaller things that are negative about academia. One is the lack of job security that many researchers have in their initial stages before they have been granted tenure. That's negative. There's lots of competitive pressure and a negative climate that some institutions create in the economics profession, which has recently also been publicly discussed, but I'm very happy that Tilburg doesn't contribute to that. We have a very good climate. I can maybe think of one negative aspect of academia, and of economics in particular, is that things take really long. I just published a paper a few months ago that I started working on in 2013. So it's been taking eight years and that is not particularly slow. That’s just the average. So I think one downside really is that it takes a long time between the time you start working on something and then when you finally can close the chapter.
What drove you to become a professor, because in general we see most people trying to get a Bachelor’s degree and hopefully moving on to a Master's, whereas taking the step to do a PhD is considered a pretty big thing.
For myself, it was actually not clear for a long time that I would want to stay in academia. So, I did my undergraduate degree and after I completed it, I felt somewhat incomplete. I thought, like, okay, I've studied so much, I've learned so much. But still, I feel like I know nothing. Most of the stuff that I learned in an undergraduate degree is not really useful for anything other than learning the tools, and I think that has a fair point, right, the tools are important. But still, I felt like there were many situations where I couldn't apply the tools, because some of the stuff that I was learning was still a little bit too old. So I decided to go for a Masters then, in the hopes that this will bring me further and it did. And after the Masters I started working for a strategy consulting firm. And I really hated the job so much, that at some point, I decided that I could not continue this for the rest of my life. And I think for me, that realization came from the fact that maybe I had a particularly bad draw, I don't think all strategy consultancies are the same. But this one in particular, had the feature that many of the consultants working there were talking as if they understood things. But if you yourself understood them, you realize they wouldn't. It was a very pretentious world. And that is really not my natural state of how I would communicate, so that really bored me. And also, I felt like I didn't have enough to do to get through the day, and I didn't see any meaning and the stuff I was doing. So I thought, “Okay, let's do a PhD first. And let's try it out and see if I like that more. If I do, then I do that. And if I don't like it, then I'll do something else.” And so I did the PhD and even in the PhD, I didn't know if I would be staying in academia afterwards or not. Because one of the negative factors about trying to become an academic is that in addition to your own hard work and your abilities, luck plays a major role. And that seems unfair, but it's unfortunately what it is. So I didn't know, am I going to be lucky enough, am I going to be smart enough, and am I going to be hardworking enough? In the end, it turned out that some convex combination of these three things made it possible that I could pursue a career in academia, and because I enjoyed it, I continued down that path.
While doing our background research, we saw that your other area of research is political economics. Could you tell us more about your recent works in that area?
So in general, political economics is, I think, super exciting, because it combines political science with economics, and I've always been a politically interested person. One of my very recent projects looks at the effects of having a possibly prejudiced majority interact with a minority that's visually different. And so psychologists have had this theory since the 1940s, that they said, if somebody has prejudice, and you bring them in contact with somebody they're prejudiced against, and they interact under the right conditions, the level of prejudice will be reduced. And so we know that this works, to some extent, as there have been great experiments about that, but we don't know for how long these effects will last. And so this one project in this area looks at World War II, where we specifically look at African American troops coming to the United Kingdom, and being stationed there before they were crossing the British channel towards France and then eventually Germany. The United Kingdom at that time was very “white”, in the sense that the non-white population in the United Kingdom by 1935 was approximately 8000 people, who mostly lived in London. And so for most of the British people, it was the first time that they would interact with somebody who was non-white. And so we're using the fact that the US military, who sent over 1 million of their soldiers in total to the United Kingdom and that 10% of those were black. They didn't really have any time to figure out where we should put the black people, because all these people were coming over, and they needed to be put somewhere where there was space. So we're saying it's as good as random if the soldier you interacted with was white. And we exploit that interaction in the 1940s, by first showing with some survey evidence that the British who interacted with the black soldiers were having better attitudes towards them. And then we're looking at 70 years later, if we can still see these outcomes? And what we find is that areas that were hosting more black units have fewer members of the far right British National Party, and fewer people voting for the far right British National Party. And to some extent for the Conservative Party's in the years where the British National Party didn't exist yet. And that they answer higher on the scale when being asked how they feel towards black people from one to 10. If they had more black units, and they also have lower implicit bias against black people. And so I think that's good news, because there's other research that tells us that, for example, that anti-semitism in the 14th century in Germany is very predictive of who votes for Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. So there's persistence of 500 years. And that's the depressing side of the story, that negative attitudes towards other ethnic groups,or religions, or minorities are super persistent. And then our paper says, okay, but it can also be the other way round, you can break up this persistence and racial attitudes in the long term.
We talked about research, but a major part of your job is also teaching. Over one year, how has the corona crisis affected your job as a professor?
It has made it more labor intensive. That's the first thing. Yeah, it's made it harder. Particularly, when COVID first hit last year, and there was lots of uncertainty about what's possible and what's not. We needed to adjust the assignments we gave out. So there were lots of new materials and making all these recordings and so on that required a lot of work. It was similar this year, because the Public Sector course last year, I was halfway through when COVID hit. So basically, the art of going online was mostly just reading from my slides and an online version of that. But now for this edition of the course I had to reread things, so it's been a lot of work, and it's still a lot of work. I really miss the interaction, because I like to have people discuss, and I know it's hard online. And I mean, I'm no different. When we have our research seminars, I asked fewer questions on zoom than I would in an actual research seminar room. But I think it's just what it is. And so I can certainly say that I enjoy the teaching less than I did before. It really makes me happy to see that students are getting engaged, and they're thinking about the material. And this is something that I see to a much lesser extent now that everything's online, just because I also don't see many faces in general.
Finally, if somebody is inspired to become an academic after reading your interview, what advice would you give to them?
I don't think there's a one size fits all recommendation that you could give. So everything else equal, of course, if you have a great CV that looks like you're able to do research, then you will have an easier time getting into a good graduate program. So that means having good grades, having research assistant experience with somebody. Being from, everything else equal, a more prestigious institution, having close contact with some of the professors who are well known, then all of that is going to get you into better graduate programs. If that makes you a better researcher is probably true on average. But I think what's what's most important is that if you want to become a researcher, that you're able to develop good and creative ideas, and that you can basically mostly learn by discussing this with others, probably other students already.
We would like to once again thank David Schindler for taking the time to conduct this interview with us.
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