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Speaking of the Economy
Research associates at Richmond Fed
Speaking of the Economy
June 7, 2023

The Fed's Research Associates: Tomorrow’s Economists

Audiences: Economists, Students, Job Seekers, General Public

Aubrey George, Conner Mulloy and Sean McCrary share their experiences as research associates supporting the economists in the Research department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. George and Mulloy are completing their second year as RAs while McCrary is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania.


Tim Sablik: Hello, I'm Tim Sablik, a senior economics writer for the Richmond Fed. My guests today are Aubrey George and Conner Mulloy, research associates at the Richmond Fed, and Sean McCrary, a former research associate and current economics Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania.

As our listeners may have already guessed, today's conversation is all about the research associate or RA program here at Richmond. RAs play an important role, helping our staff economists conduct their research. I'm excited to talk with you all today about your journeys, which I think will be particularly interesting to any young aspiring economists out there in our audience.

To start off, I wanted to know how each of you got interested in economics. Aubrey, why don't we start with you?

Aubrey George: Studying international relations, I took the required economics courses, which were intermediate micro and macro. After two years of studying both economics and international relations, I really liked the way that economists thought about problems, using math and intuition alongside graphs to explain everything. So, I switched my major to economics in my junior year, and I've loved it ever since.

Sablik: Conner, how about you?

Conner Mulloy: I entered college as just a math and data science guy. I knew I wanted to be in applied math, but I had no idea what I wanted to apply the math towards. Then I took a couple econ classes my sophomore year, I think, just as general education requirements. I was like, oh, I like those. I need more electives. Let me take that more. So, I kept taking more and more econ classes and I liked the way that economists spoke about things. They are some of my favorite classes that I took. And then I liked it even more enough to be an undergraduate RA for one of those professors. That led me to want to start pursuing research in economics.

Sablik: Sean?

Sean McCrary: My background is somewhat similar. I studied math and statistics as an undergrad, but also economics because I thought it was just a good, general-purpose degree and gave you a lot of career options. Over time, the more courses I took, I enjoyed the research side of economics, which led me to decide to pursue a Ph.D. and also led me to thinking about becoming an RA at the Fed.

Sablik: There are many different types of post-undergraduate economics programs out there, not just RA programs. There's also pre-docs [pre-doctoral fellowships] at universities. What led each of you to choose an RA program at the Fed, and at the Richmond Fed specifically?

Mulloy: I had the idea of a Ph.D. in my head. But I wasn't 100 percent sure that I wanted to go that route and it seemed like a big commitment. And I didn't really want to continue doing school after doing four years of school. So, I wanted to get some sort of pre-doc.

I grew up in Richmond, so Richmond was an obvious choice for where to look for jobs in general. Also, I found something interesting about having the monetary policy side of things as part of my job. It's really interesting to go to meetings and hear economists talk about these real-world problems, and that was something that attracted me to applying to the Fed.

George: Like Sean mentioned, an economics degree is a very all-purpose degree. So, when I got to my senior year, I knew there were a million things I could do as my next step.

I knew that I liked school, I knew I was good at school, and I knew I liked economics. So, I thought, okay, a Ph.D. seems like where I'll go next. But to be honest, I knew nothing about what a Ph.D. actually was. So, I started applying to all of the RA positions across the Federal Reserve System. I went to school at William & Mary for undergrad, so Richmond was only an hour away from that.

I also remember that the interview process was really fascinating. We got to meet Arantxa [Jarque] in all the interviews and she was just like a real person on the other end of the phone and she was so nice. Throughout the interview process I thought, okay, this is a place that's going to be a good next step, a very friendly place where I'll be able to explore what I want to do for my next career stage.

McCrary: The academic world is a bit top heavy, and you want to get into the best Ph.D. program that you can [in order] to have success in a Ph.D. program. The first couple of years you're taking courses. Everyone's very bright. Everyone's you know working hard and doing well. Then you get to the research stage and you have to come up with your own ideas and pursue your own lines of research.

Working at the Richmond Fed, you have two years to actually see professional economists conducting research, pursuing their ideas [and] implementing their research agenda. When I was there, you weren't assigned to one specific research project for one or two years and then you leave the Fed being the world's leading expert on one thing. You work with a lot of different economists [and] you get exposed to a lot of different things. That's really valuable.

Sablik: Conner and Aubrey, what's a typical day like as an RA here in Richmond? Maybe you can give some stories about what it's like working with the Richmond Fed economists.

Mulloy: Our days depend on what economists we work with and what their style of working on research is. For example, I work mainly with two different economists, one of which is very hands on … We meet in person all the time. I'll present new data or new things that I found, and we'll discuss what are the interesting questions, where can we go from here.

Going into my second year as an RA, those conversations become more and more common. Any given day, you can come and discuss new ideas with the economists on your research project. You can come out of there feeling like you helped contribute to that research.

George: I'll add to what Conner said. It really depends on which economists you're working with. I think it also depends on your own interests. For me, it was very clear from the beginning that real economic macro research with large models was not actually what interested me. I really liked data analytics and more empirical questions.

So, my day-to-day looks a lot more like a data scientist than an economist most days, working in programs, coding, cleaning data, making charts and presentations. It is very independent work. I think in a given week, I might spend about four or five hours in meetings all together. The rest of the time, it's me and my computer.

One thing that's really cool about our day-to-day is the interaction with policy at the Fed. That's an experience you don't get at universities.

Sablik: That makes me very curious about what research both of you are working on right now.

George: I work on three long-term academic research projects. They're all in different fields that I am interested in.

The first I'll talk about is some work with Claudia Macaluso in macro labor. We have some really cool data that is basically the world of LinkedIn profiles. We have whatever you can imagine is on someone's LinkedIn profile — their education history, their job history. We are trying to map out if there are differences in how people progress in their careers by their gender and by their race, which you can see from some algorithms from the name on the LinkedIn profile — my name is Aubrey, [so] that might be 90 percent female. From that information, you're able to see if there are differences in the firms [that] people choose and their promotions by those characteristics.

Second, I'll talk about my research with Santiago Pinto, which is in crime and economics, a field that you wouldn't think is studied by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank. We're trying to map out how you might find an exogenous shock in somebody's trust in the police from a large media event, like the killing of George Floyd, or another instance of police brutality. Maybe that shocks the criminal system such that people are calling 911 less because they trust the police less. We are trying to see how that factors into crime rates in different neighborhoods.

Finally, I work in econometrics with Paul Ho and Thomas Lubik, looking at impulse response functions, something that you would sort of expect to see at the Fed.

Mulloy: I'm working on a couple of projects.

The first one, it's with Pierre Sarte. We are trying to forecast what the structure of the economy will look like 10,20, 30 years down the road — what percentage of the economy is services or manufacturing? You can break that down as [much] as you want. You could go down to agriculture or durable goods construction. Knowing that shocks don't only affect one sector, they affect the whole economy through production network, we're trying to build a model that, seeing the shocks that have happened in the past, can we forecast which sectors are going to be growing? What sectors are going to be shrinking?

The other question that I'm working on is with Santiago Pinto and Bruno Sultanum. It's about municipal bonds. Let's say a county wants to build a school and they don't have all of the money on hand to pay the loan or the mortgage on that school. Instead of taking out a loan, what they do is issue bonds, issue debt. This can have some positive and negative consequences. Let's say if you're a large county [and] you have much easier access to finances, you may be able to borrow money easier. You're going to build a much nicer school. But if you're a poorer, smaller county, you won't be able to borrow money as easily. You're going to have trouble financing that. A lot of state governments, like the state of Virginia, have ways of combating that to make sure that we get good financing to these smaller counties. We're trying to come up with a model to learn more about how that market works.

Sablik: One of the things we already touched on a little bit is the fact that getting a Ph.D. in economics takes a lot of time and effort. So, it's definitely worthwhile making sure that that's something you want to do before you embark on that journey. One of the benefits of the RA program is that it provides an opportunity to learn hands-on what it means to do economic research.

Sean, as someone who has gone on from the RA program and is getting a Ph.D. in economics, how did your work here at Richmond influenced your decision and also prepare you for what you're doing now?

McCrary: I think a lot of people go into the RA program thinking an economics Ph.D. is the main goal. After a year or two of seeing economic research, people find that it's interesting but it's maybe not what I want to do for my career. It's better to learn that while working as an RA at the Fed than to learn that in your first year or two of graduate school.

If you do decide at the end of the day you want to continue on and pursue a Ph.D., the structure of most Ph.D. programs [is] about the same. The first year or two are great. You're back in school, most people who end up in a Ph.D. program were pretty good at that [and] you spend a lot of time studying. It's very clear what it is you need to be doing every day. In the second and third year, you go to your desk and you're thinking, okay, well, now I need to write a paper. And that means I need a topic. I need a research question. Having a little bit of experience becomes really valuable.

If you are an RA at the Fed, you have spent two years seeing economists working on the research — two years with really, really great speakers in the Fed seminar series and really, really great long-term consultants who visit the Fed and speak about their research. It just gives you such a leg up when it comes time to do your own research because you've seen the questions people are interested in. You've seen some of the methods that are being used.

Sablik: Do you all have any tips or recommendations for any students out there listening who might be thinking about applying to the RA program?

Mulloy: I think it helps to have some sort of background in math, statistics, or maybe computer science, meaning coursework in upper-level, proof-based math classes. You don't have to learn the math behind the models. You're familiar with the math and it's just a new application of it

Two, it really helps to have some sort of interest in economics and some economic curiosity. You don't go in here knowing exactly what project you're going to work on. If you don't really have a special area, I think it really helps to keep your mind open to different fields in economics.

As a final addition, having some sort of taste of research before you get into your "RA-ship" was really helpful. Like I said, I was an undergraduate RA for a semester. It gave me just enough to realize that this is something that I really wanted to do. I didn't come into this job not knowing anything about research. I still didn't know much, looking back on it, but at least I knew a little bit of what the research process looks like. I'd worked with an economist.

George: I agree with Conner. It is important to come in with enough math. I took data science courses in undergrad and that was very helpful. Given I already knew how to code in one language, it was a lot easier for me to learn how to code in the two other languages that I needed to learn at the Fed.

But I think it's less important that you come in with all of those high-level math classes. You can take them while you're here.

To succeed as an RA — both in your projects and then just in your day-to-day — it's much more important to be a good learner, be a good independent learner, and like the process of learning. It doesn't matter exactly what skills you come in with because you'll get all those skills while you're here. That's one of the reasons it sets people up so well for a Ph.D. program, or other things as well.

Sablik: Thinking [about] the future, where do you see yourselves fitting in the economics profession?

George: I don't see myself in the next generation of academic economists, and that is good and valid. After I graduate from the RA program this summer, I'm going to work in applied business economics at a big bank, which I was inspired to do by my work at the Fed with John O'Trakoun — trying to do shorter term research focused on explaining what's actually going on in the economy right now. So, that's where I'm going next, and where I hope to have an impact with my research skills.

Mulloy: I can't exactly tell you what I'm going to be in the future because I want to have an open mind going into a Ph.D. program. While I did work on production network stuff or municipal bonds here, maybe I find something else completely different and incredibly interesting in my first couple of years taking classes.

So, where [do] I fit in with the next generation of economists? I guess I'm not really sure, but I'm really excited to find out and I have an open mind to where I can be.

McCrary: Yeah, it's a tough question. I submitted my thesis to the library two days ago. So, I don't know what my standing is in the next generation of economists. But I'm just happy to be part of the club.

Sablik: Well, Aubrey, Conner and Shawn, thanks so much for joining me today to talk all about the RA program.

Mulloy: Thanks.

McCrary: Thank you.

George: Thank you.

Sablik: As always, listeners who want to follow the Bank's research can head over to our website, And if you enjoyed today's conversation, please consider leaving us a rating and review on your favorite podcast app.

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