Livia Alfonsi, 25 years old, is a former Bocconi student who now works as a Research Associate for BRAC in Uganda. She is currently working on a research project about small firms’ expansion and job creation for the youth. It is a randomized control trial (RCT) that BRAC is carrying out with partners at LSE and UCL. I decided to interview her to know more about what it means to work in the field and how it feels to carry out research in person.
Livia, what does it mean to be a Research Associate?
The description of the job really depends on the project you are working on. The tasks are very diverse and require a variety of skills, not only qualities that you learn in school and strictly related to research. In my experience, since day one I have been given a lot of responsibilities. My team is very small, with only four people total: a field manager, a research assistant, an intern and me. That is why I also carry out tasks that would more easily fall under the description of a project manager’s job.
What I do can be broadly divided into two categories: research-related tasks and managerial tasks. Most of the research-related work is carried out after the data collection phase, although even during that initial stage I think it is always a good practice to look at the data coming in, controlling for its quality. It is essential to know if the respondents really comprehend what you are asking them and the enumerators fully understand what they have to ask, and if not, to try to solve the issue before it is too late. After the data collection you have to run consistency and attrition checks, clean and analyze the data. Usually the principal investigator, the Professor who gets the grant and conceives the research project, sends you a to-do list of tasks to perform on Stata. In my experience I have been given a lot of freedom of choice and responsibility about how to carry them out and I have been lucky enough to be involved in all the phases of the projects, from the design of the survey to the writing of the paper.
The managerial tasks are very diverse and are difficult to describe. They are mainly related to the data collection phase, which in my project lasts about 6 months every year. In my case they range from training and assessing the preparation of the enumerators (the people administering the survey; usually locals that master the Uganda language/s) to organizing the purchase of thousands of bars of soap, the reward we give to our respondents. Usually the research associate is not in charge of the daily monitoring of the data collection. I still go on the field sometimes, especially if the interview is important (e.g. we are piloting a new section of the questionnaire or we previously detected issues in one enumerator’s work and we want to double check) and is carried out in English. However, usually it’s the field manager the one who is in constant link with the field, especially due to linguistic barrier.
Managing all the problems that can come up during the data collection phase isn’t easy, anything can happen: the tablet used to collect the data breaks, the enumerators loose the soap bars to reward the respondents (or sell them!) etc. You need to solve all the problems; it can be tiring sometimes but it teaches you a lot!
Another very important task, especially in the first waves, is formulating the survey. Thinking about what to ask and how to phrase the questions is a very delicate chore: you have to think about who is going to answer those questions. In our study, for instance, even if we are interviewing firm owners, the firm is typically very small with no more than 5 employees in most cases, and the owner usually didn’t go to school past 5th grade. You need to phrase the survey questions taking all this into account.
How did you get there?
Like many students who are passionate about the field, I first approached the subject during my undergraduate studies, when I attended, during a campus-abroad experience in Vietnam and Thailand, a Development Economics course “growth and macro-oriented”. That has been the first dive into the discipline, from both an academic and a personal point of view. Later on I did a thesis on microfinance and I kept studying development and other applied micro courses during my master program. After internships at the OECD and at UNIDO headquarters, I realized that I needed a field experience. I got in contact with the junior principal investigator of the project I am now working on, who was looking for someone who was able to do data cleaning. At the beginning I worked from Milan, then I went on the field with BRAC, initially as an intern. After 2 months and a half I got the contract as a research associate and now I’ve been here for more than a year.
What are the competences and personal qualities you consider necessary to be a good RA?
First and foremost, it is the ability to adapt. Not only to live in a developing country (of course you might take a bit to adapt to cockroaches in your bedroom or mice in your kitchen!), but also to a new culture, including speaking English in a different way. You need to be eclectic and it is also crucial to have fertile soil to become a “hands-on” person, to solve by yourself the practical everyday issues you are faced with, especially during the data collection.
Then, it is essential to be organized and a fast learner. Nobody is there to follow your work closely, step by step, because your superiors are far away and are often very busy with several research projects. You need to be able to sort things out by yourself. Thankfully there is the Stata list and also some of your colleagues and friends from the university can help you with Stata work! Moreover, in Kampala there is a vibrant community of people working in the development field, it’s easy to find someone ready to help you.
It is also important to have great communication skills: an excellent level of English and the ability to express yourself clearly are essential both during your everyday work and for special occasions. Sometimes, for instance, you are asked to make a speech at meetings with the top management of the project financing institution or at international conferences.
On the technical side, knowledge of what a randomized control trial is, of econometrics and Stata are of course required. Everything else can be more or less learned on the field. For instance, the project I am working on is associated to labor Economics, but during my studies I have never attended a course in this field. My background has been very useful as a signaling device, it taught me rigor, to sort things out by myself, to be organized and work hard, but even if I didn’t know many things I learned them on the way.
What are the main challenges you encounter while doing research?
When you are at the university, you read beautifully written papers, in which everything seems to work smoothly: randomization works out perfectly, causation poses almost no problem. At the beginning there is a shock if you are used to theory and you are suddenly faced with reality. Ensuring good data quality is not always easy because the survey might be very long and sometimes the respondents don’t understand fully the questions, some other time not even the enumerator understands deeply. Now I know what measurement error is! I really understood the critical importance of the data collection phase, which is often underestimated when you are a student, of a good survey design and of the subsequent check of the data quality. You need to make sure that the information you are asking to provide and the answer you are actually collecting are the same.
Another main challenge is that times and rhythms here are completely different. As a Bocconi student I was used to organize my work with tight deadlines and fast working paces, but here I had to change that: there is a lot of bureaucracy, inefficiencies, and slower working paces. For instance, during the rainy season the data collection had to stop in some areas because of the roads being flooded. Before coming here I didn’t even think about all these practical problems. It is almost impossible to follow the plans and meet the deadlines that you impose to yourself. Related to this issue, physical fatigue in developing countries is an issue and shouldn’t be underestimated when planning the workload. It is quite common that the people you are working with (and yourself) get sick due to parasites, worms or other diseases.
But I need to say that if these can be considered challenges on one hand, on the other they really help you understand what is feasible in conducting research and what the respondents can reasonably understand. To carry out meaningful research, it’s mandatory to do an experience in the field!
Do you think that something could be done in a different way?
I think that in general there is room to invest more in the local staff and in capacity building of the NGO. That is essential to have everybody on board, to have everybody really fully understand why they are doing what they are doing and why it is really relevant. For instance, it is important to explain the importance of randomization to avoid that enumerators involuntarily affect the allocation of the treatment! More attention to the quality of data collection would also be desirable. It’s a delicate phase that shouldn’t be outsourced.
What are the main personal challenges you encountered?
My main difficulty has been finding the key to interact, communicate, and work with Ugandans. It required time to learn how to interact with a new culture, with a different sense of humor, a different way of reasoning, different interests, conversation topics, ways of having fun…
What is most satisfying in your job?
After all the work you put in the data collection phase, seeing that the data come in and everything goes smoothly gives you a sense of accomplishment. When the first submitted interview comes in the server, we are all very enthusiastic. Also seeing that an enumerator really understood the meaning of a question and benefitted from my explanations and from the training gives me great satisfaction. Moreover, it’s nice to feel that you are having some impact and to feel the gratitude of people here when I tell them that I work for BRAC.
Do you have any advice for a student interested in Development Economics?
I definitely would like to stress the importance of a significant field experience in a developing country for at least one year. In a field experience you usually have many more responsibilities than in an internship in the headquarters of an international organization, and you learn many more things in the same time span. Of course studying and getting good grades is important, also as signaling. And if the grades aren’t so good, try to compensate with work experience and collaborations of any kind. Initially you might want to arm yourself with patience and you should be prepared to work hard and often for free. Also keep in mind that networking plays, as always, an important role since the formal channel isn’t always the only way to go. Don’t be afraid to be cheeky; take the initiative, write emails to people working in the field you wish to work in, look for opportunities!