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PhD candidate Sarah Raviola talks about her research on urban economics and housing policy in the US

PhD candidate Sarah Raviola talks about her research on urban economics and housing policy in the US

Saturday, June 26, 2021

About Sarah
I received my bachelor’s and master’s degree at the University of Turin in Italy. Economics has always been my focus of study. I’ve taken classes in lots of different departments: geography, political science, computer science…being exposed to these different disciplines really shaped me and my way of thinking about research in economics. For instance, when I was taking economic geography classes, my interests were way more aligned with geography than I had originally thought.

My focus is on urban economics and housing policy in the US. I study different models to create safe and affordable housing, and how their implementation affects the surrounding neighborhoods. For instance, the US housing policy has traditionally relied heavily on nonprofit organizations for the development of subsidized housing because of their mission to serve vulnerable communities. I try to understand how the behavior of nonprofit housing developers differs from the behavior of for-profit developers and how they impact the communities in which they are located.

Choosing Economics. Choosing Duke.
I started my studies in economics but without really understanding the field. I graduated high school shortly after the 2008 crisis, so I was hearing a lot of depressing news all the time but not really able to understand what was going on, which was frustrating. No one in my family had studied economic-related subjects, so we didn’t have a deep understanding of what was going on. The rationale for studying economics was to not be scared of what was going on, but to understand.

When I was finishing my master’s degree, my advisor told me to consider pursuing a PhD and encouraged me to apply to the US. He helped me understand the process, what exams to take, etc. Without my advisor, I would never have considered a PhD or had the opportunity to move to the United States.

As I was applying to schools, I wasn’t completely sure what specific field in economics I wanted to study. I had some general interest in urban economics, but I wasn’t ready to commit. So, I was searching for a department that was large and had a community that was working on different projects so I could explore. Although I didn’t know much about Duke or Durham, during my initial visit I was able to explore and talk with current PhD students and learn more about the city, school, and program. They were so helpful and really gave insight into what the program was like, both academically and socially. The students were friendly and open about their experiences and were comfortable enough to share that some of them were struggling. I liked that they didn't sugar coat the process and I had a better understanding of what to expect. I knew Duke fit all my criteria. 

Pros and Cons
One of my advisors explained the process of a PhD as working as an entrepreneur. You have to think of a bunch of projects and fail numerous times before you succeed. This can be difficult at times since students who start PhDs are usually not used to struggling. For me, I was always good at studying, taking exams, and now I had to come to terms that I was going to have times I would fail. Getting a PhD is a long marathon. You won’t get constant feedback. You’ll work months on something before you are ready to share and get advice, so this can be a bit difficult for students like myself. Other students thrive off of the independence. It really comes down to how you work best and how you can acclimate to a new environment.

I applied to the PhD program immediately after my masters and I do wish I had given myself a bit of time to explore more before embarking on such a long commitment. I am very lucky that I have a supportive group of peers and advisors that are open and encouraging.

Advice for Incoming Students
Invest in relationships. Be sure to spend the time creating your own support system within the program and also have friends outside the program. There needs to be balance. My first year at Duke was intense with lots of studying, hard classes, exams, etc. but it was doable since I had such a tight knit group of fellow students to lean on---our cohort was very close. We studied together, met up frequently, and relied on each other for help and guidance. We didn’t leave anyone behind. It’s so important to keep these mutually beneficial relationships going when you enter your research phase of the program since this is the time when you can feel a bit isolated and lonely.

Choosing your advisor is so important. Pay attention to how they lead their seminars, how they talk to students, and their overall demeanor. Can you see yourself working with this person? I can be a bit shy, so I knew I really needed someone to balance me. If I am struggling and need help, I want to feel comfortable reaching out to my advisor or committee members.

The Importance of the Social Sciences
Social science helps people understand the behavior and motivations of people around us which affects our work, businesses, and all aspects of our everyday life. Continuing research that fosters this understanding is crucial.

What’s Next
I’m very open to all career possibilities, but I would like to work in policy. This next year is all about research, attending conferences, and presenting papers, but then I’ll be thinking about the job market. If there was an opportunity to work in academia, I would be thrilled, but I am also confident that I would be comfortable in the policy world. Many options outside of academia would make me happy, so that takes away a lot of pressure and anxiety, and I am able to focus more on the process instead of the end result.


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