Using data to answer important questions

Dr Jan Feld’s research might look scattered but it’s all focused on one idea—using data to answer important questions.

A profile image of Dr Jan Feld.

This focus on harnessing data led Jan, a Senior Lecturer in Economics at Wellington School of Business and Government, to conduct his most recent piece of research—investigating the effect of a student’s peers on their choice in major and their labour market outcomes.

“Much of my research is about trying to understand why women and men have different labour market outcomes,” says Jan. “For example, women earn less, work fewer hours, and end up in different occupations than men. These differences have many reasons. In my research into the economics of education, I try to understand which factors affect men’s and women’s major choices.”

In a paper recently published in Management Science Jan, along with Assistant Professor Ulf Zölitz from the University of Zurich, analysed data from a Dutch business school to investigate if the gender of a student’s peers impacts their career trajectory – which turned up some interesting results.

“In our research we focussed on whether studying with more female peers in first year courses affects subsequent major choices of men and women,” says Jan. “We found that studying with more female peers causes women to choose more female-dominated majors like Marketing. The opposite holds for men, who choose more male-dominated majors like Finance. We also found that equalising the proportion of female peers across tutorials can reduce gender differences in major choices.”

As this research only focuses on one business school in The Netherlands, Jan hopes that other researchers will look to see if their findings hold true in other contexts.

“It’s an important question if these result hold in other contexts. The size and direction of some effects researchers find in education varies a lot between contexts,” says Jan. “Ultimately, I hope our paper stimulates more research in this area. It is important to understand why men and women choose different majors.”

With his focus on the economics of education, Jan also recently conducted research looking at the effectiveness of student-tutors over lecturers in tutorials.

“Both students and professors teach tutorials, so we wanted to know if a professor’s qualifications and experience translates to better teaching effectiveness. It doesn’t. Tutorials just don’t allow professors to shine,” says Jan. “I’m sure the results would be different for lecturing, but I think universities should investigate using more student tutors. More generally, I think universities should make better use of the skills of their academic workforce.”

Jan’s latest research focus is on savings, and whether allowing New Zealanders to commit to future savings would affect saving rates.

“Committing to save more in the future is easier than saving more right now, because one does not have to give anything up immediately. Based on this insight, Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler has shown that his Save More Tomorrow plan can increase retirement savings,” says Jan. “Right now, I’m exploring if this plan could be adapted to the New Zealand context by adding an option to the KiwiSaver application form that allows people to choose automatically increasing contribution rates.”

Senior Lecturer
School of Economics and Finance