Nicola Gennaioli is a Full Professor of Finance at Bocconi University. He obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Bocconi University before completing his Ph.D. at Harvard University. He conducts research in the fields of finance, psychology and economics, political economy, law and economics, and economic development.
Why did you choose a career in research?
Because research was my passion. Since I was a child, I have always loved to read and think, and I thought that this was a job in which what you get paid for is to read and to think.
Could you tell us a bit about your Ph.D. experience at Harvard? What do you like most and least about it?
I cannot tell you one single thing that I like most. There are many things that I loved about my Ph.D., one of them being the intellectual environment, that is, being surrounded by great researchers that shaped the way I think about problems and that are willing to talk across disciplines in order to find innovative ideas. This environment was intellectually very stimulating. The other thing I loved about my experience at Harvard was the interaction with my classmates. I made friends, and we had fun together, but we also exchanged ideas and grew together intellectually. I can say that I learned as much from my classmates as I learned from my mentors and from the professors. The third thing I loved about my experience at Harvard is living in a new country, experiencing a different culture and way of living, and embracing them. It was also interesting to live according to a different set of standards and rules, often to find that the absence of a rule is better than having a rule, especially if the rule does not make sense.
The first thing I enjoyed the least about my PhD experience was working like a dog on the courses: having problem sets to deliver the next day, in fact very often during the week, so, having to work until the middle of the night to meet deadlines. The second thing was when I had to start to do my own research, in other words, to write my thesis and to work on my papers: I was feeling alone, left in front of a blank page and trying to find a way to make progress. I would have very much liked to do it in company, but it was not the way to go. That was not a very pleasant experience, but we also learn from unpleasant experiences, so I do not regret it.
What was your best memory from your time at Bocconi?
I had many good memories at Bocconi, but I would say one is the innumerable hours spent in the library talking to my classmates, sometimes about football, sometimes about courses. I would sometimes skip dinner to talk to them. I still remember a conversation with a classmate of mine in the library where he told me what I should do given my passion to become a researcher. I had no idea that I had to go abroad and do a Ph.D. I remember that moment very vividly; I even remember the books on the shelves that were behind my classmate and the tone with which he spoke. That was a very beautiful moment for me in which I learned something very important about my future.
Interaction with my colleagues was one of the best things about Bocconi. Another thing was the learning experience. I remember the econometrics courses with Professor Corielli and the Advanced Macroeconomics course with Professor Giavazzi. These courses were a source of anxiety because I wanted to do well and the material was challenging, but it was also extremely interesting. I remember spending a lot of time on the material, trying to make progress. In the end, it was very rewarding.
Lastly, I have very fond memories of discovering the city. I come from a small village in the countryside, so for me, living in Milan for four years was very interesting. Going to bars and being surrounded by many people even on a Wednesday evening, attending concerts in San Siro, and going to beautiful movie theaters where you can see the latest releases on a nice couch was very exciting for me.
What is the most important skill you gained at Bocconi?
I think the most important skills I gained at Bocconi are quantitative skills. I came here with little knowledge of math and statistics because I did what is called “classical high school” in Italy. I was lucky that here we had an excellent faculty in math and applied math from which I learned many things that turned out to be extremely useful for my Ph.D. During my Ph.D. at Harvard, I did not feel disadvantaged in terms of skills, to the contrary.
What do you think are the must-have skills for someone who would like to go into research or academia?
Having a strong quantitative background is important. My generation of economists were expected to be good theorists. Now, an economist also needs to know how to handle data. So, a sound understanding of both empirical methods and formal economic models is essential.
The other important thing for a successful research career is not a skill in the strict sense; it’s more of an attitude. You need to be very persistent, accepting failure but never giving up, and you also need to be very passionate about what you do.
Would you like to recommend our readers some books to read?
One very interesting book I have read recently is Who We Are and How We Got Here by David Reich. Reich studies and tells in his book how we come to be populations through migration and genetic exchange. I thought it was a fascinating book because it shows how intermixed we are and how difficult it is to pin down the geographical origin of a person. It also exposes the intricacies of genetic research and the scientific method used to understand who we are and where our traits come from.