Yale Economics PhD student Yujie Qian: Be Your Own Master

By Yilin Wang
This interview was conducted in 2016.

Yujie Qian graduated from the Johns Hopkins University in 2014, after receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics, Mathematics, a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Mathematics & Statistics (AMS), and a Master’s degree in AMS. He transferred from the National University of Singapore to Johns Hopkins in his junior year, and managed to complete the abovementioned degrees in two years. At the time of his graduation, Yujie achieved a cumulative GPA of 3.99/4.0.

You earned a Bachelor’s degree of three majors and a Mathematics Master within four years. How did you manage that? And why did you choose Applied Math and Economics as your majors?

A: Two reasons, I guess. On one hand, when I transferred to Johns Hopkins from National University of Singapore as a junior undergraduate, I had already decided to apply for an economics PhD after graduation. When planning for this PhD application, I thought that a mathematics degree would help my study of economics. And it happens that Johns Hopkins offers an Applied Math major, which allows undergraduate students to take graduate level courses towards a Mater’s degree. So I pursued this Math major, considering that it would help my economics PhD application. On the other hand, I have strong interests in both subjects, math and economics.  There were so many relevant courses at Hopkins that I wanted to take, so I always take as many as I can manage, usually six courses for each semester. As a result, I happened to have filled all the requirements for these majors upon graduation.

Why did you transfer to Hopkins in your junior year?

A: Honestly, the college transfer application was pretty tough; Hopkins was the best among all my offers. I thought that I could easily fit into Hopkins due to its rich academic environment.

You’re now a PhD student. In some sense, you’ve been studying for a long time. What does “learning” mean to you? Is it more of a hobby or a habit? Or is it something that you honestly don’t enjoy?

A: I wouldn’t have applied for PhD if I were not enjoy studying. I really enjoy the process of learning. Undergraduate years in particular, when I haven’t settled down on my specialty, I took so many classes because I was interested in everything, and I wanted to dabble in every subject.

Did you have time for non-major-requirement courses, considering that you completed three majors within such short time? What would be an example of such courses?

A: I used to audit politics and history courses, without really taking them, because such courses can be very time-consuming (if you do all the work required). That’s why I just asked for the lecturer’s permission and audited their classes.

What was your favorite course at Hopkins?

A: The most rewarding one was a PhD level microeconomics course that I audited. The professor is a senior scholar. His class laid more emphasis on ways of thinking than on lecture materials. For example, when he lectured on a theorem, he wouldn’t start by proving it, like most teachers do; instead, he would guide your instincts. That was the most impressive and rewarding course I took at Hopkins.

How did you spend your leisure time at Hopkins? Were you in any extracurricular clubs?

A: I didn’t have much time for extra-curriculum activities at Hopkins due to my course schedules. I do enjoy reading, working out, and watching movies at leisure. During the winter intersession in my junior year, I took a social entrepreneurship course, in which we talked about things like how to establish an NGO. That course was very formative and meaningful.

Since you are fond of reading at leisure, would you like to recommend some books for our readers?

A: Recently, there’s this book called “Super Foresting, the Art and Science Prediction.”  It’s a book about how to make predictions in all every single field, including economics, politics, even sports and weather. The book guides you to apply its prediction model for every subject for which you want to make predictions. The model entails data collection, preliminary predictions, making adjustments, and the construction of the final prediction. In order to make a better prediction, you first need to get rid of your preconceptions, and update your model by your observations. In other words, you’ll need to coordinate different opinions into this model. For example, lots of predictions were made for presidential elections in America, each having its own errors; however, if you put all these models together (it could be as easy as deriving an average result of all the predictions), the incorporated result will be more accurate than almost of all of the individual predictions.

After college , many people chose to work. Why did you choose to pursue a doctor degree?

A:  Two reasons. First, I look forward to the challenges in academics. I chose to pursue a degree in phD purely because I would like to learn and developed myself, not because of some jobs. I am curious and hungry for knowledge. I love to explore new things; I think the processes intriguing. Also I think I am good at and enjoying leaning. If I were asked to do something else, I might not be happy about my life.  

What would you like to do after finishing your PhD?

A: My dream is becoming a professor. However, I might change my plan, since I won’t finish my PhD any time soon. As I learn, my abilities in different fields will improve as well. By the time I graduate, I might want something else. Also it is possible that there will be better job opportunities in the future, so being a professor may not be my best option. My plan for now is  to become a professor. If there are opportunities coming back to Hopkins, I would definitely take the chance.  

Do you have any advice for fellow Hopkins undergrads who wish to pursue a doctor degree?

A: In my opinion, undergraduate is the best time to discover yourselves, to try new things. If you are very sure about PhD, it is important to do research by yourself or with professors. This will help you to accumulate experience and know what to expect in the future. 

Is there anything about Hopkins that you miss particularly? Do you like Yale better?

A: Actually, Yale and Hopkins are alike in some ways. Neither is in busy cities with much distraction around. I would say friends and classmates are what I miss the most about Hopkins. Since I was an undergraduate at Hopkins and a PhD candidate at Yale, I can’t tell which I like better. It’s like comparing an apple to an orange.

If you could go back to freshman year and do it over again, what would you do differently?

A: One thing I didn’t do very well in college is that I didn’t get to know people around me better. There were so many outstanding people around me, all striving towards their goals in different fields. I feel that I didn’t spend enough time on getting to know these amazing people, and on learning to seeing things differently from their perspective.

Is there anything you could not imagine living without?

A: I can’t imagine myself living without challenges and alone time. My work and research consistently involve repeated assignments. As a result, I wish that I am able to do something new and challenging to feel achieved afterwards. I also wish that I can squeeze some time to myself every day, even just a few minutes. I can use these alone time to learn new things, organize and take a break from busy days.  

What was the biggest challenge you encountered at Hopkins?

A: When I helped a professor with data analysis. He was rather strict on students. For instance, we were required to track a nation’s currency supply and black market exchange rate. Since the data fluctuates, he asked us constantly update him with reports and analysis that had to follow the methodology of a rigorous process. I was completely new to such data tracking and analysis. Later, I found out that what he asked us to do was very similar to the work of an financial analyst. I had never imagined to put all these things under a strict time constraint. And the challenge was that it’s like a fresh experience, different from what you learned in class, but will be applicable on a new platform.

How would you like us depict you?

A: An assiduous learner on his way of self-enhancement and potential reaching. 

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