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Tra i Leoni & Jobs

Tra i Leoni & Jobs: Interview with Marco Tabellini

Reading time: 13 minutes

Marco Tabellini is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He completed his B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Economic and Social Sciences at Bocconi before pursuing a Ph.D. in Economics at MIT. His research focuses on the effects of migration on politics, culture and economics. 

Why did you choose a career in research? 

I decided to choose this path when I was in high school. I liked the idea of trying to answer questions about economic development and about human behavior, and my hope was to do something useful for the world. When thinking about academic research, I was immediately attracted to economics because I was curious about why certain countries grew and others did not. Then, of course, you realize that you cannot directly answer such broad questions, but you try to give a small contribution with your research. Relatedly, I like thinking about big ideas and discussing these ideas with people. I hoped that academic life would allow me to do that. It did. 

Could you tell us a bit about your Ph.D. experience at MIT? What do you like most and least about it? 

I truly liked doing a Ph.D., but it was tough. I would not do it again in the sense that doing a Ph.D. once in your life is more than enough. But I am very happy with the experience I had back at MIT, I enjoyed being there.  

Especially at the beginning, since you are surrounded by very competent peers, you feel like you are the very last in the class, and then you gradually realize that you are not the best or the worst, that you are somewhere in the middle. Probably, the hardest part for me was adapting to the new life during my first year. It was very alienating because you have to study a lot. You have a schedule packed with endless problem sets. I had gotten used to studying a lot during my master’s at Bocconi, but Ph.D. was another level. And that’s how a Ph.D. is supposed to be, in my view. When you think about it, they want to push you to the limit, so you have to understand what you can do is and reach maybe your limit, but not exceed that. It’s like being in a marathon. You cannot sprint for 42 kilometers as if it were a 100 meters race – as one of my advisors at Bocconi told me. 

One of the things I liked most about the Ph.D. was that it allowed me to become a more mature person, even before making me a more prepared scholar. It helped me find the right balance in my life, which required forcing myself to take time off at certain points, even when I was constantly pushed. Another aspect of the Ph.D. I loved was being exposed to incredible people, such as Joshua Angrist, Daron Acemoğlu, Esther Duflo, and Abhijit Banerjee, just to mention a few of them. These people made my Ph.D. a fantastic and remarkably stimulating experience. I was lucky enough to have Acemoğlu as the main advisor. Moreover, one of the advantages of following postgraduate studies in Boston and Cambridge is that you can talk to people not just at MIT but also those at Harvard and Boston University. I used to regularly attend students’ lunchtime presentations at Harvard. I remember with joy the conversations I had with Alberto Alesina from Harvard, who was an advisor of mine at the time. 

The other fun part was when I started doing my own research. In the first two years of the Ph.D., you follow classes and then you start doing research in the remainder. It was very fun to start thinking about what I found interesting in the research phase. 

What was your best memory from your time at Bocconi? 

I have very fond memories of my time at Bocconi; I truly consider it my alma mater. There are two moments that I remember with particular joy. One is when I took my first class at Bocconi, which was Macroeconomics 1 taught by Professor Passerelli. I remember when I was sitting in this class, I thought this is what I really wanted to do with my life. I wanted to do economics. 

The second memory that I recall with joy is joining the IGIER Visiting Student Initiative program during my master’s degree, where I had the opportunity to interact with fantastic peers and mentors. I was lucky enough to be mentored by Nicola Gennaioli. It was this initiative that really made me understand I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., and I have to thank Maristella Botticini and Massimo Marinacci for organizing it. 

Bocconi also gave me strong friendships that stayed with me. One of my best friends from Bocconi is also one of my current co-authors, for instance. Another opportunity Bocconi gave me was the possibility of spending a semester as an exchange student during my undergraduate degree. I did an exchange at UCLA, which was a very fun and formative period that also allowed me to understand I wanted to do a Ph.D. in the United States. I also ended up meeting professors at UCLA with which I remained in contact. 

I also believe at Bocconi, even before skills, I learned how to approach research and learned about life or at least the type of life that is academic, most importantly, the importance of work ethics and generosity. I was very lucky to meet people like Francesco Giavazzi, Nicola Gennaioli, and Maristella Botticini – just to mention a few ! – on my path, and I can still feel their legacy today. 

What is the most important skill you gained at Bocconi? 

I think Bocconi gave me many technical tools that were extremely important for the Ph.D. When I started my Ph.D., my level of preparation was at least as good as the rest of the class. More broadly. I think Bocconi taught me to be organized and to be structured, namely, not to do things at the very last minute but to do things step by step. It also gave me a specific way of thinking about problems that I did not have during my high school studies. And of course, it taught me the value of doing your best. Bocconi exposes you to the very top standards of the world for academic research, management, finance, for whatever path you want to pursue. 

Related:  IL Perdono Giudiziale

What do you think are the must-have skills for someone who would like to go into research or academia? 

I think the most important skill is resilience. During your Ph.D., you first study for your classes, but later on, you have to think about problems and try to write papers, collecting data if you are an empirical researcher or writing models if you are a theorist. This process takes months, even years, and you never receive the payoff until it’s very late. Therefore, you must be very resilient and patient, and you must believe in yourself and your ideas.  

I am in touch with several students at Bocconi, and what I often tell them is that you have to be “assatanato”: one way to say this in English would be “excited to the point of obsession”. Not in the sense that you only think about that, but in a positive way. You must be driven by something intrinsic. You should be getting satisfaction out of thinking about the things you are doing research on. 

Typically, in your life as a Ph.D. student first and then as an academic later, you will get many rejections and bad news. During your Ph.D., your advisor will tell you that your idea is not good enough or that someone else has already done it. After you finish the Ph.D., you will start getting rejections from journals. I think only 5% of the time the news you are getting is good news. You cannot make it in this kind of life if your only goal is to publish very well or get privileges. You need intrinsic motivation; you need to believe that you are doing something good for yourself and the world. 

I believe another essential feature is generosity with your time with others, giving back to students what you have learned from your own mentors. I was lucky enough to have very good examples of that when I was a student myself. 

If I had to pick three keywords, I would pick resilience, passion, and collaboration. 

Do you have any advice for students who are considering a career in research? 

Students who are interested in this should be patient and understand that they will have to make huge upfront investments for future payoffs. They also have to understand that academic life is a little bit strange. There are huge advantages, such as flexibility in terms of schedule and workplace: you can decide whether you work on the seaside, in a basement, at the top of the mountain, or wherever. But the problem with this is that due to the stress from the competition, you might end up working all the time, which has very detrimental consequences for your mental health, of course. So, I think being able to find the right balance is key.  

Again, being passionate about what you do is crucial, but you should also be patient and understand that you must get satisfaction out of the paper that you have written, not by the fact that your paper has been published. Of course, the publication of your paper is something important for your career, and so are the approval of your thesis and good grades during your Ph.D., but these should not be the reasons why you do research.  

Another piece of advice I have is that you must absolutely not take any professional defeat personally. It is important to make sure that a low grade you get during your Ph.D. or failure during research does not translate into how you think of yourself. I guess this is true in any profession, but because of the blurred boundary between personal and professional life in academia, it’s very easy to be unhappy and to have a low opinion of yourself because you don’t get the success you hope for. 

Would you like to recommend our readers some books to read? 

I like doing sports, and one book I liked and that made me draw parallels between sports and a Ph.D. was Open: An Autobiography by Andrea Agassi, which I read during my Ph.D. In the book, Agassi describes being obsessed with tennis while not liking it at the same time, and I believe a Ph.D. is a similar experience. You don’t really like what you are doing, you hate the problem sets, you hate the stress, you hate sitting exams, but at the same time you feel like you have to do it, you want to do it. Moreover, when you do a Ph.D., especially at a demanding institution, you have to compete with others, always doing your best, which is like preparing for a sports tournament.  

Marco Tabellini is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He completed his B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Economic and Social Sciences at Bocconi before pursuing a Ph.D. in Economics at MIT. His research focuses on the effects of migration on politics, culture and economics. 

Why did you choose a career in research? 

I decided to choose this path when I was in high school. I liked the idea of trying to answer questions about economic development and about human behavior, and my hope was to do something useful for the world. When thinking about academic research, I was immediately attracted to economics because I was curious about why certain countries grew and others did not. Then, of course, you realize that you cannot directly answer such broad questions, but you try to give a small contribution with your research. Relatedly, I like thinking about big ideas and discussing these ideas with people. I hoped that academic life would allow me to do that. It did. 

Related:  Interview with Emanuela Wu

Could you tell us a bit about your Ph.D. experience at MIT? What do you like most and least about it? 

I truly liked doing a Ph.D., but it was tough. I would not do it again in the sense that doing a Ph.D. once in your life is more than enough. But I am very happy with the experience I had back at MIT, I enjoyed being there.  

Especially at the beginning, since you are surrounded by very competent peers, you feel like you are the very last in the class, and then you gradually realize that you are not the best or the worst, that you are somewhere in the middle. Probably, the hardest part for me was adapting to the new life during my first year. It was very alienating because you have to study a lot. You have a schedule packed with endless problem sets. I had gotten used to studying a lot during my master’s at Bocconi, but Ph.D. was another level. And that’s how a Ph.D. is supposed to be, in my view. When you think about it, they want to push you to the limit, so you have to understand what you can do is and reach maybe your limit, but not exceed that. It’s like being in a marathon. You cannot sprint for 42 kilometers as if it were a 100 meters race – as one of my advisors at Bocconi told me. 

One of the things I liked most about the Ph.D. was that it allowed me to become a more mature person, even before making me a more prepared scholar. It helped me find the right balance in my life, which required forcing myself to take time off at certain points, even when I was constantly pushed. Another aspect of the Ph.D. I loved was being exposed to incredible people, such as Joshua Angrist, Daron Acemoğlu, Esther Duflo, and Abhijit Banerjee, just to mention a few of them. These people made my Ph.D. a fantastic and remarkably stimulating experience. I was lucky enough to have Acemoğlu as the main advisor. Moreover, one of the advantages of following postgraduate studies in Boston and Cambridge is that you can talk to people not just at MIT but also those at Harvard and Boston University. I used to regularly attend students’ lunchtime presentations at Harvard. I remember with joy the conversations I had with Alberto Alesina from Harvard, who was an advisor of mine at the time. 

The other fun part was when I started doing my own research. In the first two years of the Ph.D., you follow classes and then you start doing research in the remainder. It was very fun to start thinking about what I found interesting in the research phase. 

What was your best memory from your time at Bocconi? 

I have very fond memories of my time at Bocconi; I truly consider it my alma mater. There are two moments that I remember with particular joy. One is when I took my first class at Bocconi, which was Macroeconomics 1 taught by Professor Passerelli. I remember when I was sitting in this class, I thought this is what I really wanted to do with my life. I wanted to do economics. 

The second memory that I recall with joy is joining the IGIER Visiting Student Initiative program during my master’s degree, where I had the opportunity to interact with fantastic peers and mentors. I was lucky enough to be mentored by Nicola Gennaioli. It was this initiative that really made me understand I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., and I have to thank Maristella Botticini and Massimo Marinacci for organizing it. 

Bocconi also gave me strong friendships that stayed with me. One of my best friends from Bocconi is also one of my current co-authors, for instance. Another opportunity Bocconi gave me was the possibility of spending a semester as an exchange student during my undergraduate degree. I did an exchange at UCLA, which was a very fun and formative period that also allowed me to understand I wanted to do a Ph.D. in the United States. I also ended up meeting professors at UCLA with which I remained in contact. 

I also believe at Bocconi, even before skills, I learned how to approach research and learned about life or at least the type of life that is academic, most importantly, the importance of work ethics and generosity. I was very lucky to meet people like Francesco Giavazzi, Nicola Gennaioli, and Maristella Botticini – just to mention a few ! – on my path, and I can still feel their legacy today. 

What is the most important skill you gained at Bocconi? 

I think Bocconi gave me many technical tools that were extremely important for the Ph.D. When I started my Ph.D., my level of preparation was at least as good as the rest of the class. More broadly. I think Bocconi taught me to be organized and to be structured, namely, not to do things at the very last minute but to do things step by step. It also gave me a specific way of thinking about problems that I did not have during my high school studies. And of course, it taught me the value of doing your best. Bocconi exposes you to the very top standards of the world for academic research, management, finance, for whatever path you want to pursue. 

What do you think are the must-have skills for someone who would like to go into research or academia? 

Related:  Interview with Tommaso Arenare

I think the most important skill is resilience. During your Ph.D., you first study for your classes, but later on, you have to think about problems and try to write papers, collecting data if you are an empirical researcher or writing models if you are a theorist. This process takes months, even years, and you never receive the payoff until it’s very late. Therefore, you must be very resilient and patient, and you must believe in yourself and your ideas.  

I am in touch with several students at Bocconi, and what I often tell them is that you have to be “assatanato”: one way to say this in English would be “excited to the point of obsession”. Not in the sense that you only think about that, but in a positive way. You must be driven by something intrinsic. You should be getting satisfaction out of thinking about the things you are doing research on. 

Typically, in your life as a Ph.D. student first and then as an academic later, you will get many rejections and bad news. During your Ph.D., your advisor will tell you that your idea is not good enough or that someone else has already done it. After you finish the Ph.D., you will start getting rejections from journals. I think only 5% of the time the news you are getting is good news. You cannot make it in this kind of life if your only goal is to publish very well or get privileges. You need intrinsic motivation; you need to believe that you are doing something good for yourself and the world. 

I believe another essential feature is generosity with your time with others, giving back to students what you have learned from your own mentors. I was lucky enough to have very good examples of that when I was a student myself. 

If I had to pick three keywords, I would pick resilience, passion, and collaboration. 

Do you have any advice for students who are considering a career in research? 

Students who are interested in this should be patient and understand that they will have to make huge upfront investments for future payoffs. They also have to understand that academic life is a little bit strange. There are huge advantages, such as flexibility in terms of schedule and workplace: you can decide whether you work on the seaside, in a basement, at the top of the mountain, or wherever. But the problem with this is that due to the stress from the competition, you might end up working all the time, which has very detrimental consequences for your mental health, of course. So, I think being able to find the right balance is key.  

Again, being passionate about what you do is crucial, but you should also be patient and understand that you must get satisfaction out of the paper that you have written, not by the fact that your paper has been published. Of course, the publication of your paper is something important for your career, and so are the approval of your thesis and good grades during your Ph.D., but these should not be the reasons why you do research.  

Another piece of advice I have is that you must absolutely not take any professional defeat personally. It is important to make sure that a low grade you get during your Ph.D. or failure during research does not translate into how you think of yourself. I guess this is true in any profession, but because of the blurred boundary between personal and professional life in academia, it’s very easy to be unhappy and to have a low opinion of yourself because you don’t get the success you hope for. 

Would you like to recommend our readers some books to read? 

I like doing sports, and one book I liked and that made me draw parallels between sports and a Ph.D. was Open: An Autobiography by Andrea Agassi, which I read during my Ph.D. In the book, Agassi describes being obsessed with tennis while not liking it at the same time, and I believe a Ph.D. is a similar experience. You don’t really like what you are doing, you hate the problem sets, you hate the stress, you hate sitting exams, but at the same time you feel like you have to do it, you want to do it. Moreover, when you do a Ph.D., especially at a demanding institution, you have to compete with others, always doing your best, which is like preparing for a sports tournament.  

Author profile

Cansu Süt is currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in Economic and Social Sciences at Bocconi University. She graduated in Economics from Bilkent University in 2020. She is passionate about political economy and behavioral economics. Formerly an arts and culture writer at GazeteBilkent, she is an art aficionado and enjoys traveling and learning foreign languages in her free time.

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