Michael Keenan graduated in 2016 with degrees in economics and pure mathematics. He is now working towards earning his Ph.D. from Wageningen University and Research.
Majors: Economics and Pure Mathematics
Current graduate program and job: Ph.D. candidate in the Development Economics Group at Wageningen University and Research (WUR); visiting researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Nairobi, Kenya.
Main job responsibilities: Designing research studies, supporting primary data collection, and analyzing socio-economic data in an effort to write academic research papers and to support organizations’ monitoring and evaluation initiatives.
What do you like best about your job?
I love the independence and variety of work that comes with being a researcher. Within the designated field of my Ph.D. program, I am given almost unlimited freedom in choosing the projects on which I work. If I find a particular research question interesting and it presents a viable academic study, then I am encouraged to pursue it. It’s a lot of fun to have an idea and then test to see if it works! I also love to travel, and my job has allowed me to see parts of the world that I never dreamed I would go. I am very fortunate for this.
Why are you pursuing a Ph.D.?
Pursuing my Ph.D. is a natural step in progressing as an independent researcher. Before starting my Ph.D., I had only worked on the technical aspects of research; however, the Ph.D. allows me to be involved in every aspect of the research cycle. I have to find funding and partners, manage partner relationships, manage project progress, and conduct the research itself. In a lot of ways, it’s like being an entrepreneur. I wanted to gain this experience, and doing a Ph.D., specifically at Wageningen (who encourages independence among it’s Ph.D. candidates), was the best way for me to do this.
What is your research area?
My research is mostly focused on using quantitative methods to answer questions surrounding the economics of smallholder farmers. Some of the projects I am working on focus on using machine learning to provide improved methods for estimating coffee yields, analyzing the impact of ethnic tensions on agricultural market prices in Ethiopia, and microeconomic modeling of climate-smart technology adoption among Tanzanian farmers.
What have you been up to since graduating?
Immediately after graduation, I worked as a short-term consultant at the World Bank’s Global Program on Forced Displacement where I served as a data analyst for a report on the global refugee crisis, Forcibly Displaced. In the fall after graduation, I began my masters in Specialized Economic Analysis with a focus on International Trade, Finance, and Development at the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics. The program lasted one year and provided an intensive focus on economic modeling and econometrics.
After my masters, I moved to Kigali, Rwanda to work for Laterite, a data and research advisory firm with offices throughout East Africa. At Laterite, I worked on supporting data collection for a gender-based violence study and on supporting the coding of a machine learning algorithm to help the Rwandan Revenue Authority utilize their electronic billing receipt data. I spent nearly 5 months in Rwanda and afterwards moved to the Netherlands to start my Ph.D. at Wageningen University and Research. In my first year of the Ph.D., I took coursework and began my research, making frequent trips to Kenya and Ethiopia. I also consulted for Laterite to support the design and implementation of a conditional cash transfer program for coffee farmers in Ethiopia.
This year, I moved to Nairobi, Kenya and began my visiting research stay at the International Center for Research in Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) where I am working on the economic modeling of climate-smart agriculture adoption and household nutrition in Tanzania. I will be based in Nairobi for at least the next year.
How did the Love School of Business prepare you for your career?
The emphasis on experiential learning and soft skills in the Love School of Business has been instrumental in my career so far. During my time in the LSB, I was constantly giving professional presentations, working in groups, and writing reports (sometimes for real-world companies). In the economics department, we wrote papers in each class, developed our own research questions and hypotheses, and were always encouraged to ‘think like an economist.’ These soft skills have made it easy for me to assimilate quickly into different working environments and to think creatively in my research. Plus, the LSB education complements the more rote, technical learning style of graduate school education very well.
How did Elon’s liberal arts curriculum help strengthen your understanding of your business major and your overall educational experience?
Business and economics are becoming increasingly multidisciplinary, and they require creative problem solving. The liberal arts curriculum prevented me from getting ‘tunnel vision’ and only thinking about issues from an economic perspective. It wasn’t about whether or not I’ll ‘use’ something in my career. For example, it is unlikely that I’ll use the knowledge I gained from my art history course; however, I will use the distinct analysis and critical thinking skills developed in that course on a daily basis.
Further, the ability to pursue a mathematics major outside the Love School of Business strengthened my understanding of economics. Having a mathematical background helped me to spend less time trying to understand the mathematics behind economics and more time trying to understand the intuition of economic theory in both my undergraduate and graduate education.
What did you enjoy most about being a Love School of Business student?
The sense of community at the Love School of Business made it a special place for me. I didn’t realize how unique the relationships between faculty and students at LSB were until I left. Professors were never ‘too important’ to get coffee or lunch with me, even in my first year. The faculty were always genuinely interested in helping other students and me to succeed and to follow our interests. The student relationships in LSB were special as well. Spending many hours in the Koury Business Center studying for exams and writing my thesis with fellow economics students brings back fond memories. The relationships with other students were collaborative, not competitive and this made LSB a fun place to learn.
What advice do you have for current Love School of Business students?
Be uncomfortable. Take the classes that scare you. Study abroad and go to places that are out of your comfort zone. In your internships, try to work on projects that are outside your area of expertise. Branch out socially to people who are dissimilar to you. Almost all of the learning that will come from your time at Elon (and after) will come when you are outside of your comfort zone. You will be forced to learn and forced to grow, and you may even discover something you’re passionate about that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.
Also, Elon gives professors meal swipes to take students to lunch. Take advantage of this program and ask professors to lunch. Relationships will get you far in your career, and some of the best relationships you can build are with professors.
- Business Fellow
- Vice President of Omicron Delta Epsilon
- Economics Tutor
- Phi Beta Kappa
- Sigma Phi Epsilon
- Ferrell Capital Managment, Greenwich, Conn.
- Centro de Estudios para la Paz, San José, Costa Rica
- Jefferies Socks, Burlington, N.C.
- Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, Elon, N.C.
As of 5.8.19