Pierre-Philippe Combes talks about our graduate programmes
- Pierre-Philippe Combes photo@ Alexis Lecomte
"It's important to see the PhD as both an immense area of freedom... as well as a ‘real job’."
Affiliated to us since 2013, Pierre-Philippe Combes joined the Department permanently in 2021 as CNRS Professor and is the Director of our Master's and PhD programmes in economics. Prior to that he was at the University and Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) of Lyon.
His research interests are in urban economics and economic geography, with a special interest in the working of local labour and housing markets and the location choices of firms and households, resulting in possible economic spatial disparities.
He has a very extensive experience of supervising graduate students and directing programmes - we are fortunate to have him! We asked him a few questions about undertaking graduate programmes in economics. Interview.
You are used to cumulating “hats” and working in both a classical university setting and at Sciences Po. What do you think Sciences Po’s educational project has to offer that make our graduate programmes in economics distinctive?
Sciences Po’s Department is relatively small compared to those in other French universities or in the UK. It’s more like some medium-sized departments in the US. This makes for a friendly atmosphere and is ideal for ‘real’ thesis supervision. Most faculty do not have fixed office hours because professors can be contacted any time and will schedule a meeting very rapidly - doors are always open!
Even though its small, the Department enjoys worldwide recognition because of the exceptional scientific visibility of its faculty as some members are among the top leaders in the world in their field.
The Master’s programme is very well balanced between core courses providing the most advanced tools and technical skills and a very broad range of topics and questions covered in elective courses (see the programme and the faculty pages).
The Master’s cohort tends to split in two, half of our students goes directly on to the job market, while the other half goes on to pursue a PhD and academia. Students are not always sure about that what they want to do when entering which is not unusual - the programme is designed to satisfy the requirements of both non-academic and academic markets while helping students identify their objectives that best match their aptitudes and personal desires.
As a Director of graduate programmes in economics, what do you find interesting about supporting Master’s and PhD students?
Master and PhD students are in this intermediate world in the sense that they are still students, eager to learn a lot and capable of absorbing huge amounts of new knowledge, but they are also individuals preparing their career path. As the head of graduate studies, I try to act both as a director of academic programming, designing the most suitable curriculum for them and dealing with personal or academic issues, and also as a career advisor, counselling them on their future career choices, the strategies to best achieve them or mid- and long-term goals. More time-intensive than career orientation at the undergraduate level, it allows me to really get to know our students on an individual basis with respect to their personal backgrounds and their dreams for the future, which is really nice. I like to joke that students have the great advantage of always being the same age which makes you feel the same !
Also the graduate programme is really at the heart of the department of economics and central in its everyday life - most faculty members teach in the programme and advise both master and PhD theses, and master and PhD students attend and contribute to numerous events of the department (seminars, conferences, workshops...). This means I interact not only with the entire cohorts of master and PhD students, but also with all faculty members and the administrative staff. This gives me a comprehensive view of all the questions tackled in the department of economics and I realise how much economics has progressed as a discipline and how much it informs policymaking today.
What do you believe are the keys to successfully completing a PhD?
I think it important to see the PhD as both an immense area of freedom, whether it be the questions you ask, the tools you use and the people with whom you work, as well as a ‘real job’, with an office to go to everyday, with colleagues with whom you collaborate more or less closely, and an administrative team that supports you, just like in a ‘normal’ workplace.
Even if the researcher seems awfully alone in front of a blank computer screen and a blinking cursor, doing a PhD is not as solitary an adventure as it seems. It involves teamwork in a ring of concentric circles, the first being your supervisor - or supervisors! -, the second, your peers and the department’s faculty members, the third circle, the rest of the Sciences Po community and other research centres devoted to economics in Paris, in France, and abroad.
Take any chance you get to present your work to your colleagues, at seminars, at conferences, or over coffee – discussions next to the water cooler sometimes and unexpectedly allow for quantum leaps, which makes research so exciting. Understand that criticism is what makes you progress and that even if remarks are sometimes negative, their objective is to show you the way forward and often, do.
Economics is rapidly evolving: in breadth, with the emergence of new fields, and methodologically, with the advent of big data. Your own research interests (urban economics and economic geography) are a case in point: access to novel geolocated datasets, the emergence of the historical and societal dimensions of urban agglomerations, are raising new questions. Moving boundaries are challenging for the researcher but also for the head of graduate programmes: how can we accommodate graduate students eager to study topics in emerging fields whose contours are still fuzzy (e.g. government and economics) or topics requiring a multidisciplinary approach (e.g. economics of climate change)?
When you choose to become a researcher, you have deliberately chosen to be on the edge of (a certain) knowledge, and your main objective is to push back on that borderline. Yes, we evolve in a world that is constantly changing and the goal is to make the most of these changes. We encourage our students to embrace novelty in tackling issues, to use new methods, and to combine different approaches when broaching questions. For example, for the past few years, I have been using machine-learning in order to extract information from 19th century maps – I doubt very much that the cartographers imagined such a thing! What’s more, here we’re at an intersection of history, geography, and economics.
As I said earlier on, it really is one of the objectives of our Master’s programme and then during the PhD, to help students identify their goals, refine their preferences by presenting them with the most possible questions and tools.
In 2020, we asked your predecessor Sergei Guriev “why are there so few women in economics?”. You, yourself, have co-authored a couple of papers on the topic in 2016 and 2018. So now we ask: what has changed (if anything) in the last few years? And what remains to be done?
Even if certain fields are worse off, economics remains one of the fields in which women are the most under-represented. But things have changed, and in particular at Sciences Po in the field of economics, and on all levels – Master, PhD, and the permanent faculty of the Department. And things will change further as we are proactively seeking a better balance by closely monitoring the odds-ratio between the number of women candidates and the number of women admitted whether it be to our graduate programmes or in recruiting new faculty, and in the efforts being made to attract more women in absolute terms. This is, in fact, a general approach that is being made all across the board in economic research with the creation of “Women in Economics” committees at, for instance, the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) or at the European Economic Association (EEA) whose chair is Ghazala Azmat, professor at the Department, or at the French Economic Association (AFSE) in which I sit.
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