Student Research

Valuing Research
Undergraduates Reflect on the Senior Essay Seminar Experience

By Katie Magallanes

The Senior Essay Seminar, Econ 191A and 191B, is two-quarter course sequence required for departmental honors, designed largely to prepare students for graduate study. But it also provides several other – perhaps unexpected – benefits, including attracting employers in today’s tough economy.

Research Questions

The course begins with an application process. Students choose their research from an amazing breadth of topics. This year’s students pursued the following areas with remarkable success.

  • Financial markets: What is the effect on the markets of high frequency trading by hedge funds using computerized trading schemes? Can an investment strategy based on the leading opinions of individual investors or mutual funds outperform the averages?
  • Microfinance: How successful is small scale lending to the poor of less developed countries?
  • Sporting events: How does the variability of a baseball player’s performance affect his salary? How do major sporting events (like the Olympics and World Cup) affect tourism in the host country in following years?
  • Money and macroeconomics: How does entering the labor market during a recession affect lifetime earnings? How do floating versus fixed exchange rates affect the economic success of countries during the recent financial crisis?
  • Policy questions: How does the defense budget affect the growth of the U.S. economy? What are the economic determinants of an individual’s willingness to pay for greenhouse gas abatement?
  • Offshoring and outsourcing production by U.S. firms
  • U.S. charities: How are they supported? How do they choose their specialty?

We asked several students who participated in the seminar what they gained that was unexpected, and here is what they had to say.

[Photo: Julia Yao]

Julia Yao

Interaction with Faculty

Students praised the seminar for giving them the opportunity to interact closely with faculty. Julia Yao, a management science student set to graduate in spring, felt that she was able to develop “a great relationship” with her advisor, Professor Famulari. For recent management science alumna Karina Litvak, the seminar was “an incredible experience from the very beginning … Professors from the department provided guidance and support” while students learned more about the faculty’s professional paths and research.

Personal Rewards

Julia echoed the sentiment of other students when she described the Senior Essay Seminar as “the most rewarding class” of her entire college career. Her motivation to enroll was to obtain research experience and to help her decide whether to go to graduate school, but what she gained was “that and so much more.” She developed her quantitative skills and was also nominated to present at UC San Diego’s annual Undergraduate Research Conference.

[Photo: Molly Novasel]

Molly Novasel

Other recent graduates were pleasantly surprised at the personal benefits derived from the seminar. Tammy Weng did not anticipate the depth of learning: “The sense of wonderment and truly understanding the feeling that the more I learn, the more I learn that I don’t know … I learned how expansive economics is.” Molly Novasel considers the Senior Essay Seminar to be “the most beneficial experience” she had while at UC San Diego: “In an academic setting that focuses on theoretical concepts, it is incredibly enlightening to do something practical to apply in the working world.”

Molly was also struck by “the talent [the seminar] gathers in one room. All the other students in the course have amazingly insightful and interesting ideas.” She “looked forward to this class more than any other to listen to all the great ideas.”

Skills Gained

Students developed a variety of invaluable skills and a deeper understanding of economics. Karina “gained many skills: problem solving, quantitative analysis and professional writing.” She “learned how to ask the right questions, how to anticipate complications, how to interpret regression results and much more.” Although many of these skills were addressed during the econometrics series, Karina stated that “nothing helps learning like doing your own project. I also became much better acquainted with STATA.”

Management science student Lucy Huang also gained from the intensity: “I didn’t expect to apply so much of what I learned from my economic classes. For example, I was familiar with STATA from completing homework assignments for econometrics classes. However, actually creating a model by myself and running it through the program was a new and very educational experience for me.”

Elliot Marks, also majoring in management science, pointed out how the project overlapped with his other commitments: “In leading a discussion section for Econ 100A, I helped introduce the implicit function theorem and a Jacobian matrix to students. As a student in Econ 172B, I used the Jacobian matrix as a piece of a Bordered Hessian matrix to determine if an optimal point was a constrained minimum or maximum in more complicated optimization problems.”

Standing Out in the Job Search

One of the most powerful benefits of the Senior Essay Seminar was how it helped students during their job searches. Karina, who graduated in March, used the research project as a tool to find a job: “Every employer that responds to my job application asks me about this project and is impressed when I provide details of my research.” Karina had the opportunity to present her project at the Undergraduate Research Conference, which is also a point of interest for employers: “Some companies ask for a research writing sample. After I attach my completed research paper, the company contacts me in less than a week.”

Elliot also found his research to be integral to the favorable impression that he made: “When talking with potential future employers – at info sessions, career fairs or in interviews – the paper I am working on in 191 is always a part of the conversation. Most of the interesting employers that recruit undergraduate economists for entry level positions like to see some experience with research. At the UC San Diego job fair this quarter, I had about a 15-minute conversation with a representative from NERA Economic Consulting about the paper I was working on. The experience I am gaining from the (incredibly time-consuming and intellectually-demanding) 191A-B series definitely helps me provide concrete evidence to differentiate myself as a strong candidate for many positions in my job search.”

Management science student Lucy Huang confirmed that “employers tend to be impressed by the personal drive and motivation necessary to complete such a project.” In responding to their questions about what distinguishes her from other candidates, Lucy could confidently say, “I am part of this program and have experience conducting research that will be used to answer an interesting economic topic.”

Julia, who accepted a position as a Research Associate at NERA Economic Consulting and plans to work for a few years before going to graduate school, learned that having created her own research paper made her “stand out from the rest.” She has been able to discuss the paper with every single employer she has met or interviewed with. “They are always interested to hear more about the analytical techniques and processes I used to conduct my research.”

Tammy Weng graduated last year and is now in law school. Her thesis gave her the edge even in the legal profession: “For the first summer of law school, most students either decide to work in a law office, for public interest organization or extern for a judge. I decided to go for the last one. I had my thesis on my resume and was asked about it on all interviews, including the one for the job I currently have for this summer.”

Molly had an even more direct experience resulting from the seminar. She accepted an internship in home energy management just after she was admitted into Econ 191A. Molly wanted to have a positive effect on the environment and believed the best way to do so was to help decrease energy use through demand-side management techniques. She immediately put her work in the seminar into action: “The first thing that went through my mind was ‘What better way to impress my colleagues than by presenting research that can help the company?’ So, I chose to do a forecast of energy use dependent on specific demographic factors in order to create target populations for the company to advertise and sell to. After finishing my first draft in December, I immediately gave the document to my [internship] advisor who was very impressed with some unexpected things. She said my writing had a nice mixture of analytical yet conversational aspects, while my research was very practical and useful to the research and development of our marketing strategy. Only one month after reading the document – to my complete surprise – I was offered a job in which I would bridge the gap between analytical researcher and marketing journalist. In other words, I would be able to conduct research experiments to improve production, but at the same time write press releases and articles for our marketing department.

“The relief of getting a job offer in today’s economy is inexplicable, and I am unsure whether I would have received the offer without having produced the research paper. It is a very unique way to show employers, graduate schools and professors that you are truly passionate about a specific topic. Skills that you may not even realize you have are revealed ... and rightly so considering all that can be said in 10,000 words!”

[Photo: Alexander Wallin]

Alexander Wallin

Paving the Way for Entrepreneurs

Alexander Wallin, an economics major who just completed his project, had a similar experience to Molly. He saw the Senior Essay Seminar as the “perfect way” to apply research tools to his idea to see “if it would hold in reality.” Pleased with the outcome of the project, he decided to present the results to several investors in order to build a business on his idea. Since then, Alexander has received more than $300,000 in funding to start his own business. Alexander hopes his success will “inspire more entrepreneurs” like him to apply the “useful tools … learned … at UC San Diego and test their own ideas.”

Preparation for Graduate Study

Another aspect of the Senior Essay Seminar is to help students prepare for graduate school and to determine if further study is right for them. Karina “learned the way professional researchers think about their work.” For joint math and economics major Tom Tang, “the primary benefit of taking this course is that it enables students to really consider whether a career is academia is right for them.”

Tammy found advantages for her law studies: “All first year law students are required to take a legal research and writing class where we are given a hypothetical situation/story. We are then tasked with flushing out all legal arguments and ‘serve as counsel’ for a side and write a legal paper on all the possible legal arguments and assess their strengths and weaknesses. Writing this paper requires us to do legal research on Internet databases, which I was able to master much faster because of my thesis at UC San Diego.”


Although students acknowledge the hard work and effort that goes into the Senior Essay Seminar, they greatly value their experience. Karina described the seminar as “difficult, more difficult than I had expected. However, it was also my most rewarding undergraduate experience.”

Tammy has the following advice for students interested in completing a senior essay: “First is to research, research, research because there is so much information out there on your topic – more than you know. This class is extremely hands off and so the work and the motivation have to come from the student. There is no professor with a strict syllabus and a reading assignment every week. Time management is key! At the same time, students need to understand that there’s only so much we students can do with our rudimentary understanding of economics and to understand how much you can truly take on.”

According to Molly, “it is an honor to be a part of such a talented group of students,” and she would “highly encourage everyone else to take the course.” Karina enthused, “As my advisor wrote in an email once the project was complete, ‘Econ 191 – the class that just keeps giving!’ This statement is absolutely true. The class was an amazing experience, and I am immensely proud of myself for having done this. All the difficulties and setbacks were absolutely worth the finished product. I am grateful for my brilliant advisor and to the department for offering us this opportunity.”

The Senior Essay Seminar has grown in popularity in recent years and we have been offering two sections of the course to accommodate the increased demand. Admittance to the Senior Essay Seminar is by proposal only; proposals are submitted each spring.