Thoughts on Theses: Andrew Swenson
Q: What is your thesis about?
A: My thesis is at the intersection of urban economics and industrial organization economics. What it’s looking at is competition between landowners who own retail centers. It’s essentially thinking about how the landowners’ choice[s] of retailers within the centers affect each other. At the start of [brainstorming for] my thesis, I identified two effects that the number of retailers within a center can have. The first [is that] if you have more retailers within your center, consumers will like to go to that center more, so you’ll get more demand. The second effect is that if you have more similar retailers, like if you have a lot of clothing brands, they might compete with each other more, so their prices will lower, and thus you’ll be able to extract less profit from them.
My thesis is looking into the question of, if there are two landowners who are competing with each other, can one of the landowners say, ‘Okay, I’m going to have a ton of retailers, and I’m going to get a lot of consumers. My prices may be low, but that’s beneficial to me.’ And then, is it possible that [that] will incentivize the second landowner to be like, ‘Well, I would like to have a ton of retailers, but since I move in second, and since this landowner has already taken all these consumers, I’ll just have very few retailers in my center and I’ll charge higher prices,’ because there’ll be less price competition. So [my thesis] is theorizing that there’ll be some sort of pattern, where the first landowner to move in will have a ton of retailers, and then the surrounding landowners will have less retailers.
Q: How did you become interested in this topic?
A: I took [the elective courses] “Industrial Organization” and “Urban Economics,” and [my thesis] is at the intersection of those [two fields]. I live in Minneapolis, which is a fairly big city, so I’ve just always wondered how cities form [or] the ways that things come together. Obviously, there are certain things like central planning that can affect that, but just wondering what the competitive forces there are. I always imagined an ideal model [that]’s almost like an evolutionary model, where certain things pop up in a city and they affect each other, and it kind of evolves over time. And then also I was interested in firm competition, like how firms compete with each other, how strategic choices interact, and I thought this topic was at the intersection of those two [interests].
Another thing I thought was interesting was, during Covid now, a lot of food restaurants and retailers are having to shut down. And that’s mostly because of cash flow issues, so presumably, after Covid, there’s going to be a whole new influx of new retailers and new food restaurants. And so, studying this [topic] now is pertinent, because it kind of shows how that will develop.
Q: What was it that motivated your theory, and what kind of research have you had to do?
A: One thing that motivated my theory is [that] my dad used to own a coffee shop, and it was [stated] in his lease that he couldn’t sell food in his coffee shop, because the restaurant next to him sold food. The restaurant next to him wasn’t owned by his landowner, but the property was, and so I thought, ‘Okay, that’s interesting, the landowner’s trying to protect the profits of the restaurant next to him in order to make it so that there’s less competition on the land.’ After that, I thought, ‘Wow, so this is actually a choice that landowners have to make,’ and then I noticed that near to that landowner, there was a lot with a McDonald’s and a Burger King and a Taco Bell on it, and I said, ‘Okay, these seem like contradictory things,’ so I was wondering how they trade off.
As far as the research to come up with my idea, it was a lot of literature review and looking into a whole bunch of articles, but once I’d done that stuff, it’s actually [been] just a lot of building models, seeing what works with the math, and just thinking about stuff, making pictures. I usually carry a lot of blank sheets of paper around with me at all times and just randomly write out pictures. Most of them amount to nothing. I feel like I’ve taken a hundred passes on this thesis, and only one of them has been kind of working out.
Q: Who is your thesis advisor and what has it been like working with them?
A: My thesis advisor is Professor [of Economics Jun] Ishii. He’s great. I remember when I used to play football in high school and we had to go to the weight room, our coach would always spot for us, and he would make it so [that] when we were on our last rep on the bench or something, he would give us just enough support where we could get it up and get a good workout, but not too much. I feel like that’s kind of like a thesis advisor’s job, [to] give you enough support where you don’t feel like you’re going to drop the bar on yourself, but you’re still doing a lot of work. Ishii’s really good at that — he’s really helped me along the way [by] asking me questions rather than giving me answers.
Although it’s independent research, in economics, there’s just a lot of knowledge that people with PhDs can give to you, and there are a lot of times where I’ll be starting off one path, and Ishii’ll say, ‘Well, I’m not sure if you should go down that path,’ and it might have take[n] you a month [by yourself] to figure out that there’s going to be some mathematical problem [with that path]. So I think he’s been very helpful.
Q: What has been the most rewarding part of the thesis work so far?
A: I think going into the thesis, I thought I would be rewarded by getting results and writing out good stuff — the end process — but I think, definitely, what’s been rewarding for me the most so far is being able to explore different models [and] conceptualize this problem in different ways. Like I said, almost all of them have failed, but just learning why they failed or just learning the models has been valuable there. That’s definitely been the most rewarding part. And obviously now, it’s getting down to crunch time — we have a month or so left to submit our thesis, so now I’m kind of like, ‘Oh, well, maybe I should be a little more results-focused.’ But it’s definitely been mostly the process [that’s been rewarding], just writing stuff down and exploring.
Q: Has anything about the research or writing process surprised you?
A: This is kind of economics-specific, or really theoretical economics-specific, but I was surprised how much fine-tuning these models take. When I’m reading an economics paper or something, they have these results, and it’s very clean, very ‘this, this, this,’ and it all works together. So I’ve been surprised. They have to pick the assumptions in their theory really judiciously, and really carefully too, because things don’t come out as clean as I thought they would. Behind the scenes, apparently, there’s a lot of work to make things come out clean. And I’ve even been trying to use a lot of equation-solvers for my thesis, but the problem is that it doesn’t come out clean. I guess it’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s just [that] things don’t come out as clean as they do in a final paper.
Q: What have you found particularly challenging about the thesis process?
A: I think it’s challenging when you go down a path for a little while, and something doesn’t work out. It’s kind of hard to reset, so there have been times where I’ve had an idea for something, I’ve done a bunch of things, I’ve done a lot of work, and I kind of get stuck. And then I think, ‘Okay, this actually doesn’t look like it’s going to work out,’ or Professor Ishii says, ‘Yeah, I don’t know if there’s any more work to be done here, it’s probably not going to work out.’ In economics, we call it the sunk-cost fallacy: ‘Oh, I’ve sunk a lot of work into this, so I should keep going, so I should use this in some way.’ But you’ve already sunk it, so there’s nothing you can do to take it back, and it really shouldn’t affect your next decision in the process, necessarily. For me, it’s been hard to just abandon something that I’ve done work on, but the more I see the thesis as a learning process, rather than a results process, the easier it is, because at that point, I have had to abandon a lot of work, but I’ve learned something from it.
Q: How has the pandemic impacted the experience of writing a thesis?
A: Obviously, I don’t know [what] the world would [look like] if we weren’t in a pandemic, but in the economics department, we have a thesis seminar class — I think we’re one of maybe two or three departments that do this — where everybody who’s writing a thesis is in a class [in the] fall semester. I liked that class, but I think one of the main purposes of that class is to create community, and it was a little bit harder to do that virtually. I think having the support of other thesis writers around you is more difficult during the pandemic. However, I will say that just being aware of that helped, my two friends and I always went and just talked about thesis stuff and other things like that, so we just made sure to keep up [with each other]. I think that the main thing that the pandemic has affected is not having a thesis community, necessarily, but I think there have been workarounds to that.
Q: Has writing a thesis influenced your plans in any way for what you want to do in the future?
A: Maybe — I’m going to have to reflect after the process, because I’ve been thinking about going to economics graduate school, and there’ve been certain times in the thesis where I’ve thought to myself, ‘Yes, all of this is really fun, I’m having a really good time, I should definitely do this,’ but then there have been other times where I’ve said, ‘Oh my god, this is stressful, I don’t know if I want to deal with this much academic stress,’ so I don’t know. One of the main reasons I was going to do a thesis is to see if I want to do research in the future.I have a journal that’s [for] my thoughts on the thesis topic, but maybe I should have had a journal to jot down thoughts about how I’m feeling about this. Because looking back and reflecting, I’d like to try to figure out whether I’d like to do this in the future.
Q: Finally, what advice would you give someone who’s considering writing a thesis in economics?
A: I would say that if it’s early enough in classes for you, let’s say that you’re a sophomore or a junior, as long as you’re taking economics classes, just keep a journal beforehand in classes, or [notes in] the Notes app in your phone, where you’re writing down ideas [that] you have. And also, I would say, during classes, talk to professors, make relationships within the economics department, and just talk to them about random ideas, because I’ve found that professors are really good to talk through with random ideas. I also found [that] the more ideas you think through for yourself, the easier it is going to be to come up with some novel insight for a thesis.
I would also say that, especially early in the process, there’s some sort of balance you have to get between work[ing] on your thesis every day or close to every day — maybe take some break days, but have a consistent schedule — and hav[ing] some sort of attitude towards [your thesis that’s], at least early in the process, almost playful with it. Don’t think of it so much as an assignment or something you have to do right now, [but rather] more like you’re creating something. Have some creativity, play around with certain things; if you come up with an idea, let yourself be sidetracked, and let yourself just write out an idea, send a message to a professor. If you think about [a thesis] as more of a learning process, I think that becomes easier. It’s not really a linear process; it’s not going from here to here — it’s going around [and around], and you might go backwards.