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Interview with Shikha Basnet Silwal, Professor of Economics

Prof. Shikha Basnet Silwal is a professor of Economics at Washington & Lee University. Before joining W&L, Prof. Silwal worked at a Colorado-based NGO where she helped develop technical models to analyze the economic cost of maritime piracy around the Horn of Africa in the Indian Ocean. The report she co-authored serves as the official cost estimate of Somali piracy by the Shipping Industry and was widely reported in popular media. She also has experience teaching at the primary level in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she was born and raised.
She has Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Pittsburgh.Shikha Basnet Silwal Faculty Profile


Tell us briefly about your career journey. What made you attracted and what keeps you interested in Economics?

I had no idea what Economics was about before I came to the U.S. I happened to take Principles of Economics by accident and fell in love with it. What was most attractive to me was how analytical the field is and how it helps me understand everything around me. Growing up in Nepal, we deeply appreciated how fundamental mathematical tools are for understanding biological, chemical, and physical processes, but I had absolutely never thought about applying the same mathematical tools to study human behavior and social phenomena as well. I began my study in Economics without even knowing what the field was about but the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. My interest in math and economics became even stronger as I began understanding how important math is to study economics and how important intuitions from economics principles are to develop appropriate mathematical models. Economics helps us understand and solve some of the most pressing issues we face today. From poverty, war, health, and corruption to international finance, trade, and taxation, economics is everywhere. Understanding basic economics principles helps us understand how the world around us works and helps us make informed decisions. The breadth of issues that can be tackled using some of the very basic principles is what attracted me to the field and what keeps me interested in it.


Please tell us briefly about your current teaching and research activities. What do you enjoy about your teaching and research experience?

I am a faculty at a selective liberal arts college, which means I teach undergraduate courses, pursue research, and am involved in various services on campus and in my profession. All these aspects of my job are very intertwined. As per teaching, I teach a broad set of classes. They range from introductory courses, electives (on economic development and economics of war and peace), senior seminar classes, and a study abroad course to Nepal!

While all of these courses are very enjoyable to teach for many different reasons, I am particularly proud of my Nepal study abroad class. I co-teach it with a faculty in Religion department. The course titled, “Caste at the Intersection of Economy, Religion, and Law” is a four-week long study abroad course that dissects the Nepali society from many different angles. I also think the title itself summarizes Nepal’s history, economy, society, and demography both in terms of where it has been and where it is headed in the future. I have offered this course twice and we traveled to Nepal only once, but I thought it was fascinating to see Nepal through my student’s lenses.

I teach in the areas that I work on. Hence, I don’t see my research and teaching as being so different from one another. Some of my recent work are related to Law and Economics and remittance and international migration.

What I like about my work is that I get to do what I like to do, which is thinking about topics I am interested in and sharing it with my students and colleagues everywhere. The university where I work is among the best colleges in the country (ranking ranges from Top 10-15 nationwide, depending on which source you choose). This means I have very talented students and world-class faculty around me. I have a lot of autonomy in deciding the classes I want to teach and the projects I want to work on and I like that a lot.

Shikha Basnet Silwal with W&L students in Kathmandu

Prof. Shikha Basnet Silwal with her W&L students in Kathmandu; Prof. Silwal and the students are part of  four-week long Nepal study abroad course


Is economics science or social science?

A social science, but I think the qualifier ‘social’ should not be taken too seriously. Economics is very helpful in understanding how we as a society function. There are many moving parts when it comes to understanding this, hence, we need to make all sorts of assumptions. Our models, therefore, are only as good as our assumptions are. What is fundamental, however, is that when faced with choices or alternatives, our actions are shaped by the incentives we face (there are costs and benefits of doing something and that those costs and benefits sway our behavior in one direction or the other), that they (actions) are a means of appropriation (appropriation of wealth, status, etc. this just means that we don’t do something in total vain). The alternatives, costs and benefits, motivations, etc vary from individual to individual or society to society and are not necessarily tied to money. Hence, there are complex mechanisms at play and trying to grasp every single one of them in one grand theory or premise is misleading. While economists are constantly criticized for getting things wrong, especially as it relates to macroeconomic policies, economics is indispensable for creating and managing institutions that prevent socially undesired outcomes (like monopoly) and foster the ones that are socially beneficial (like promoting scientific knowledge, public education, managing environmental resources).

I think it helps to take a minute to compare economics with medicine, although medicine has been studied for centuries while economics as we study today is mostly post-WWII ‘invention’. Even if we know the biomechanics of our human body, the chemical properties of a medicine, physiology of an organ, etc. the same treatment does not work equally well for everyone. There are variations in how the human body reacts to a generic treatment and there is a need for patient-centric intervention. Economics works similarly. On the outermost layer are these organs, ‘body parts’, the biomechanics that work together to function a system (government, society, or institution of any kind). But, if you look deeper there are varying cultures, historical experiences, values, and emotions that are just as important in determining how a society functions and how it will react to a certain intervention. Hence, we need to recognize what economics is about and what it is most good for. Economics, though is everywhere and virtually all our decisions are economic decisions, is a relatively ‘young’ field and there are many things we do not understand very well.


As an economist, what are the big problems you are interested in?

There are many topics that interest me. Recently, I am very interested in two broad areas, one related to international remittances and another to law and economics. Money, people, and goods are three things (notwithstanding migratory animals, etc..) that move across space (borders) and time. Money relates to international finance, people to international migration, and goods to international trade. As you can guess, money moves geographical boundaries a lot. But, what we are seeing lately is that people move just as much if not more than the goods.

With increased international migration comes increased remittances (money migrants send back to their country of origin). Most of the remittances flow to developing countries. South Asia receives a quarter of worldwide remittance (about $117 billion in 2017). This is huge and interesting because remittances are received privately, which means, unlike income, they cannot be taxed. The most fascinating about this is that remittance can increase household income without increasing government budget. Hence, it has a unique tendency to increase a household’s bargaining power relative to a government’s. I am interested in understanding how the flow of remittance affects economic and political outcomes in the remittance receiving countries.

Likewise, regarding law and economics what is interesting to me is that we have long understood the importance of checks and balances for economic development, but the recent ‘data revolution’ has allowed us to ask many interesting questions about institutions, society, governance, and functioning of markets.


What are the career options after a PhD in economics?

There are many options. Broadly speaking, you could go into policy-making or government, research positions, international development, academia, or private sector. It is important to not equate economics to business or finance. Economics, as I mentioned above, is much broader and has to do with policy-making.


You worked at a non-profit. How do you compare working with a non-profit to working in academia?

It wasn’t all too different except that I had no teaching responsibility at the non-profit work. I was hired as an economist to work on a specific project, so my focus was a bit narrower there. However, I also worked at the non-profit for only one year. My sense is that had I been there longer, I would have had a chance to pursue some topics of my choice but the region of focus would have been Africa, more specifically the Horn of Africa.


Tell us about a time you made an exciting breakthrough — or any other highlight in your academic and career journey.

Hmm.. I don’t think I have one major breakthrough or highlight to point out. When I look back at my journey, I see a culmination of many small breakthroughs, realizations, mistakes, luck, and lessons learned and not a single boom that landed me where I am today. I also never had a clear picture of what I would do or where I would be. I had some sense, but many things came to me in small pieces, one thing at a time, rather than in big chunks and all at once.


Tell us about a time you had serious doubts about your own ability in your job. How did you overcome that?

I always have some level of self-doubt. I think over-confidence and lack of confidence are reasons for inaction. I try to refrain from being too judgmental about my fears, insecurities, and self-perceptions. I try to understand the roots of them and work to address them.


What qualities would you look for in a prospective graduate in Economics?

Strong quantitative skills, creativity, and motivation.


Can you recommend 3 resources for people looking to get into your field?

The American Economic Association has tons of resources for students, teachers, and job-seekers. This is a catch-all resource I highly recommend. Here is a link to a short video about careers in Economics. Newspapers and magazines, such as The Economist, are just as important not only for keeping abreast with the current news, but they also give you lots of research ideas and help you identify your areas of interest.


Women are still a minority in Economics. What are your observations and experiences so far?

Women are underrepresented in Economics and the statistics on tenure and promotion for female Economists are very bleak. There is increasing awareness of this and several programs are underway to help combat that. For example, the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP) does a range of activities to promote the status of women and there are other committees for other minorities in the profession. Data show that these programs are very effective. But, we still have a long way to go and while we work on empowering women, I think we should not treat the victims as the problem. This means, the focus should shift to address the institutional and broader issues that marginalize women and the interventions should not solely resolve to ‘fixing women’. We are beginning to see this happen, which is very encouraging.

While I just touched on the issue from a faculty’s point of view, the problem is much more bigger than that. For example, students self-select to not major in economics based on many different things. One of them is about misconception they have of what economics is about.


Being a young professor must be very demanding. How do you maintain your work-life balance?

Right, it is not easy. I have two young children (four and 18-month-old) and maintaining a work-life seems like a dream right now. My husband and I are both academics, which means we have a lot of flexibility in our jobs. But, flexible work hours are double-edged sword. We can take turns to attend sick children or take care of errands, but it also means that missed work will have to be done late at night, early in the morning, or on weekends. It just displaces work to some undesired times but it helps to have the option when I need it. I don’t know that I have a work-life balance but prioritization and setting reasonable expectations for myself help.


Tell us about the role of mentorship in your professional life.

I have been very lucky to have both mentors who encouraged me to push myself beyond what I thought I could achieve, and those who discouraged me from doing something I thought I could achieve. I think for me it was good to hear both because it helped me work hard and kept me motivated. Most importantly, my advisor in college really helped me take a leap of faith and pursue a PhD. It became clear to me in college that I wanted to be a professor but I was not always sure if I could do it or if I would want to do it. Having a professor with whom I could talk about my aspirations helped and what was most important was that he often nudged me to do things I was already thinking of but was too afraid or sometimes too hesitant to say. I also think mentors come in many different forms and that they need not be our teachers per say. I think my friends, especially girlfriends, from school days, college days, and graduate school days were mentor-like to me. We helped each other achieve our dreams.


 What is the best career advice you have ever received?

I think this was meant more as a threat than advice at the time. But, the first few months of graduate school were rough and many of us were learning to meet the demands of graduate school. One professor made a note of how our intelligence can only take us so far. In his experience, it was not the brightest that succeeded, but the ones who just stuck with his/her desk and put in the hours that fared well at the end. He emphasized that there are no shortcuts to success and that patience and hard work is what he wished he saw more of in us. That left a lasting mark on me because emphasizing hard work over intelligence makes us have more control over our situation.

We may have internalized ourselves are brilliant, not-so-brilliant, or painfully stupid, but if we understand that it is not the end of the story, we become much more detached to it and instead focus on learning and enjoy learning. Also, patience and hard work can be learned throughout our lifetime. This was the first time that someone downplayed intelligence and instead focused on perseverance and I think that is a very important advice.


The career advice you wished you received in your twenties.

Maybe the same advice I mentioned above. I think I was doing all of that before too, but if I had processed it differently back then, I would have been less anxious throughout my adulthood.


Final words of advice for the youth who want to pursue a career similar to yours.

I would say know thyself. That is, know what your strengths and weaknesses are, what motivates you, and what you see yourself as.



Sujhaab Chautaari

Author: Sujhaab Chautaari

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