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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Carrie Wenjing Xu

Carrie describes herself as ambitious. That trait manifests itself in why she ended up at U-M and what she’s done since she got here. She explains, “I came to the U.S. because I want to immerse myself in a new environment. I grew up, went to school, and pretty much spent my entire life in Shanghai. When I graduated from my undergrad, I asked myself where I would be in ten years, and it is so hard for me to imagine that I would be somewhere else rather than living and working in Shanghai, maybe having kids of my own. I thought it was sad that my future could be so predictable. That’s when I knew I wanted something different.”

She applied to graduate school in the states. It was a hard decision to choose which offer to accept. She chose U-M because of the strong faculty team in behavioral economics, the University’s connections with China, and her friends’ descriptions of beautiful Ann Arbor. She finally chose U-M and to pursue a Ph.D. degree, despite the uncertainties that come along with the decision.

“It was worth the risk.” She says, “Michigan is a fantastic place where I got to meet a lot of amazing people. It doesn’t feel that I’m so far away from home.”

When asked what grad school has been like for her, Carrie very quickly responds: a roller coaster. She started as doctoral student in the School of Information (SI).  Now she’s a joint doctoral student in SI and Economics – the very first student. She confides, “SI gives me strong training in behavioral economics and Econ exposes me to a broader range of other economic research. I feel that SI and Econ can be complementary and I really want to do both.” This is not without its challenges. “To individually initiate a Rackham joint degree program, especially as the first mover to create one, I have to go through set-up work , plan a 5-year timeline for myself, determine what research I want to do, and who might be on my committee, even though I just finished my first year. I got a lot of support from Rackham. They helped me overcome administrative hurdles and communicated with departments to educate everybody on this process. Compared to other students, I have to watch out more for myself for that trajectory and manage different expectations and requirements for both departments. The good thing is that faculty members are really encouraging, and my advisors are both friends and mentors.”

All of that is Carrie: “I’m ambitious. I’m a person who embraces challenges – coming to the states, creating the Econ-SI joint degree – but it is U-M that provides support along this road and guides me through these challenges. This support helped me win the Predoctoral Fellowship Award.” She has also received other awards from Rackham such as the Rackham Travel Grant and the Rackham Summer Research Award, as well as grants from other departments such as the Center for Education for Women and the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.

Her research focuses on labor economics and behavioral economics where she uses applied methods to study peer effects. “I am interested in understanding how friends affect each other’s behaviors. For example, my job market paper conducts a large scale field experiment to measure the influence between self-formed study partners. This research design can be further applied to workplace management, in order to leverage the spillover effects between workers to boost productivity. My work also has the potential to help identify influential people in the network to target so as to further leverage the network and potentially scale up policy impacts.”

She continues, “From my work, I also become very interested in network formations and the question of how to best cultivate peer networks. For example, in cases of mergers and acquisitions, managers are keen to know how they can break and merge the employees from their previous but separate networks. In schools, teachers are keen to know how they can help transfer students to merge into an existing student social network.”

Besides her work on peer effects, she has ongoing projects studying feedback mechanism design. In one project, she contrasts the effectiveness of different feedback mechanisms to achieve entry into competition from those high ability workers and to encourage female workers to compete.

Carrie is pursuing a position in academia, particularly at an R1 institution continuing her research on behavioral economics and labor economics. She’s not doing it alone, though. “I am very grateful to my committee, not listed in order, Prof. Erin Krupka, Prof. Tanya Rosenblat, Prof. Stephen Leider, Prof. Brian Jacob, Prof. Charles Brown, and other wonderful faculty mentors such as Prof. Neslihan Uler, Prof. Yusufcan Masatlioglu and Prof. Yan Chen for their encouragement and guidance.”  

Developing her own joint program wasn’t interdisciplinary enough for Carrie: she continues to take one German course each semester. “I want to learn more German and let the steam off, and it gives me the chance to hang out with undergrads not as a GSI but as a peer.” In her spare time, she also served as an interpreter for Confucius Institute and appreciated the chance to contribute to her culture here in the States.

“There are these great teaching/mentoring relationships here. There is so much mentoring. I feel a lot of support being a female minority in this profession. I also feel support as a non-native English speaker. I’ve learned a lot from my advisors, including how to get grants for research which is so important, but rarely taught in graduate school. U-M is preparing me for research but also for a future long-term career in academia.”

Knowing thousands of new graduate students are joining the ranks this August, Carrie has some sage advice for them: “Try to be an independent researcher. Look out for yourself – don’t follow others blindly. Always plan ahead. Even just starting out, you should treat yourself like a senior grad student, have that mindset. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You will be an amazing wolverine!”