New Professor Q&A: McGuirk talks teaching plans, development economics

Eoin McGuirk, assistant professor of economics at Tufts, poses for a portrait on Oct. 11. Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily

Originally from Ireland, Eoin McGuirk is an assistant professor of economics who joined Tufts this semester. He is teaching Basic Econometrics (EC-0015). The Tufts Daily spoke to him to learn about his background, research projects and plans at Tufts.

Tufts Daily (TD): Could you tell us about your background?

Eoin McGuirk (EM): I’m from Galway in the west of Ireland. I studied French and economics in my undergraduate years at the National University of Ireland, and I also spent a year in Montpellier, [France]. I wasn’t entirely certain in my junior and senior years about what I was going to do with my life, but I was always interested in international development, so I did a master’s in economics at University College Dublin. By the end of getting my master’s degree, I was sure that economics was the discipline that would speak the most to me after meeting incredible mentors and influential professors. I was then nudged to do a Ph.D, which wasn’t something that I was interested in doing since an early age; it was a case of what sounded attractive to me at the moment. I did a Ph.D. in economics at Trinity College Dublin, and I spent the final two years of that at the University of California, Berkeley, which was my first introduction to academia in the U.S. There has been a lot of hopping around since then. I did a project in Sierra Leone, spent some time in Sweden and then I had postdoctoral appointments and Brown University and Yale University. I met my now-wife who is from the U.S., which sort of sealed where I would end up. Now, I’m an assistant professor at Tufts in the economics department.

TD: Why Tufts?

EM: Tufts has real strengths in the areas I’m interested in: development economics, which is about the economics of poverty and escaping poverty in the world, and political economics, which is using the tools of economics to understand political behavior of voters and government institutions. The other reason why Tufts was such a good match was that it is very strong in applied econometrics — the tools we use to study our fields. It’s brilliant to be in an environment where the study of economics is so emphasized. The students are outstanding, and the professors take teaching seriously. Looking at the bigger picture, living in this part of the U.S., especially the Boston area, is unrivaled.

TD: What are you teaching this semester?

EM: I’m teaching Basic Econometrics, which is a required class for people who are majoring in economics. Students will have completed introductory economics and statistics courses, so this will be a way to use statistics to test economic theories to try and determine what causes what in economics. I’m enjoying it because I think the students are excellent. They seem engaged, or least they’re good at pretending they are, which is equally gratifying to me. There are two small sections — it’s the type of thing that works well in a smaller group because there’s a lot of unfamiliar material for the students. I hope that the students are getting something out of it. What I said to them at the start was that with econometrics, my aim is not to teach everyone to become an economic researcher. There are critical thinking tools in econometrics that will help you with no matter what you do, even if you never take an economics class again. Putting structure to a problem by analyzing its correlation will help students gain the skills to think carefully about that problem in their life. A basic understanding of econometrics can help you consume research by learning how to filter out nonsense interpretations of data and make more thoughtful inferences. So I might be getting a bit high-minded about what students can learn from an introductory class, but that’s what I hope some of them feel.

TD: Could you tell us about your research?

EM: I mentioned that my interests lie in the overlap of developmental and political economics. One of the subfields at that intersection is the economics of violent conflict. My last three projects were centered around conflict. I’ll give you a snapshot of what I’ve been working on.

In one of my projects, I wanted to look at the relationship between poverty and conflict. In economics, we ask a classic question related to this discipline: Does conflict cause poverty, or does poverty cause conflict? Usually, you see conflict in areas that are quite poor, and you don’t see civil conflict in areas that are quite rich. Alongside co-author Marshall Burke, we looked at if economic shocks (negative economic events) can trigger civil conflict in Africa. We had to find an economic shock that is not caused by conflict in Africa to focus on … we wanted to experimentally change increments in some places and not change increments in other places, using this to determine how conflict responds to that. Obviously, we had to look at a natural experiment because we didn’t have the research budget or the IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval to go ahead with something like that. We studied what happens after world food prices change — world food prices vary for several reasons, but nothing within Africa is going to make a dent to world food prices. We saw that when world food prices increase, there were fewer civil conflict events in areas that grew those crops because income was coming in. We saw more civil conflict in areas that consumed those crops, which is when income was falling and things became more expensive for consumers. That allowed us to conclude that negative economic shocks do cause conflict in Africa and that when food prices change, you can trace where conflict is falling and increasing.

Right now, the thing I started recently is looking at how weather events can cause conflict in Africa through migration. If you have a drought in a pastoral area where nomadic areas live, the people will migrate to find water. There are often conflict events in the new areas that the nomadic groups migrate to.

TD: What do you hope to accomplish at Tufts?

EM: There’s a teaching side and a research side. On a teaching side, I’m looking forward to seeing what students have gained out of being in my course. The evaluations that you guys fill out are important to us professors. I think Basic Econometrics is fundamental to social science, so I’m looking forward to modifying the course based on the feedback I get from students. I’m also very excited to develop my own course, which is something I will probably do next year. The topic of political economics is really having a moment, so I’d like to develop a course for juniors and seniors to explore it. Students would be able to apply their basic skills of microeconomics and econometrics to political problems. This is my dream course, so I hope that at least a couple of students would show up. On the research side, it has been a fruitful experience already, and I hope to use the tools at Tufts to extend my research. We have internal seminars where we can get feedback on preliminary thoughts and current projects that have been beneficial. There is also a new Ph.D. program that is at the forefront of my mind, which is the EPP (Economics and Public Policy) program joint with the Fletcher School [of Law and Diplomacy]. Students are able to specialize in either developmental economics, environmental economics or political economics in their second year. It is going to be super exciting to see where the program goes, as it is only in its third year. I am excited to make changes to the program alongside other economics professors after seeing how the first cohort finds their experience and enters the job market.

TD: Do you have any advice for first-year students?

EM: I was at a retirement event for an economist, and he was asked if he had any advice for junior researchers. In a roundabout way, he said that everyone’s situation is so different due to their different backgrounds and experiences. Universal advice is almost meaningless. We all have our own path. I don’t know if there is any advice I can give other than the obvious stuff. If you go to class, study with your friends and do all your coursework, then you’ll have an enjoyable time. Stay on top of things. That’s the most boring universal advice I could possibly imagine. Also, talk to your professors. This is a good secret — professors love talking about their research. Don’t be intimidated to meet them in their office hours because we love when a student is interested in our work and subject. Maybe this piece of advice was slightly less boring, I hope.

TD: Do you have any fun facts about yourself that you’d like to share?

EM: I can’t imagine that there are any fun facts that I’d like to share … No, I shouldn’t say that. There are no skeletons in my closet. [Laughs] But I do have the best dog in the world! He’s a 10-year-old black labrador. Maybe I’ll bring him to campus one day so people can say hello.