A foray into the world of economics research

Sharon Lai


December 29th, 2013

Sharon Lai reflects upon a demanding but highly rewarding year of Honours study in economics.

This article was featured as part of ESSA’s annual Equilibrium publication. 

During a particularly gruelling stretch of Advanced Microeconomics revision, a friend of mine aptly summed up the Economics Honours year in one sentence: “Honours is equal to life, and by transitivity, there is no more to life”. For those of us who are yet to confront the axioms of consumer theory, transitivity essentially states that if A is preferred to B, and B is preferred to C, A must be preferred to C. My friend was therefore attempting to express (and perhaps exaggerate, just slightly) the sheer enormity of the Economics Honours year. Despite what you might be thinking, my intent in sharing this particular anecdote with you is not to illustrate how enormously difficult the year is. Rather, it is intended to show you just how seamlessly economic concepts can be integrated into any conversation. Is your radar screaming “Economics Nerd”? I certainly hope so, because that is the fundamental requirement of being an Honours student! Economics jargon becomes a part of everyday life – the nerdier the joke, the more respect you command from your peers.

For those students who desire further information on the coursework/research structure of a typical Honours year, I refer you to the handbook. In this article, I’m aiming to share with you the intrinsic value of undertaking a dedicated year of study in economics.So with a sample size of one and a time period encompassing my six or so years of economics study (although I like to think I’m also drawing upon the experiences of my peers), allow me to map out a lifetime utility function of education choice. Full disclosure: in this world, undertaking an Economics honours year is always optimal…

First, I will indulge in a brief digression on my own journey in economics. I was first drawn to economics in secondary school where I was introduced to the world of comparative statics. The concepts of opportunity cost, scarce resources and unlimited needs and wants provided me with a novel framework in which to think about the world.  Year 12 economics galvanised within me a burning interest to learn how economic agents interacted and to understand the relationships that governed the inner workings of our economies. In the first few years of undergraduate economics, the idea of maximising welfare was cemented in our minds.

I relished, and still do, how essential and principled this ultimate aim was.  Yet despite these overarching scaffolds that preside over our discipline, economics is always subject to the vagaries and whims of different interpretations.  How wide is its focus? What could it be applied to? By improving our understanding of the world, can economics contribute to actually improving the world? I would argue that it is impossible to appreciate the depth and scope of economics through three years of undergraduate studies alone. An honours year however, will take you just one tiny step closer.

The defining element of the Economics Honours year is of course, the research essay. It’s akin to having a niggling child at your side throughout the entire year, or a segment of your brain named “research” that is switched on for the duration of your project. You are forced to confront, head-on, the convoluted process that is research. It is about making discoveries and taking ownership of a particular area of interest. In fact for many of us, it’s the first foray into a world that is bewildering and confusing. There are long periods of tedium, interspersed with fleeting moments of panic, determination, further panic, more steadfastness and finally (one would hope) vindication.

I will leave you now with some parting observations I have accumulated throughout this year:

  • Maths is a large part of economics. Be prepared to go through tedious algebra in your coursework.But always take the effort to step away from the maths and think about the intuition. Why are you solving this particular function? What are the economic implications? Are your assumptions valid and realistic?
  • Research work is and always should be up for scrutiny. Contributing to knowledge generation and diffusion is a difficult feat that demands the praise and criticism of others in the field.
  • The value of “academic collegiality” should not be underestimated. You can take small strides in the research world alone, but larger and more confident strides if you leverage off the thoughts and experiences of other students and academics.

Most importantly, accept and celebrate your wins, no matter how minor. Best wishes to all students who choose to make economics the centre of their studies. It is the most rational choice, after all!

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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