Interview Insights: Dr Saptarshi Mukherjee

Dr Saptarshi Mukherjee is the Associate Professor of Economics working in the Humanities and Social Science (HUSS) department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. His research interests include mechanism design, social choice, game theory, and bounded rationality; he teaches microeconomics, game theory and mathematical economics. Dr. Mukherjee completed his post-doc from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain and his PhD in Quantitative Economics from the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), New Delhi. Prior to working at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, Dr. Mukherjee worked briefly at the Jawaharlal Nehru University as well as at IIIT, Delhi. With his several years of experience in the field of game theory, Dr. Mukherjee shares his insights with high-school students.

3 March 2020

At what point did you realize you wanted to enter academia/industry and why? What is your favourite class to teach?

I began my career with mathematics at the undergraduate level. Over time, however, I realized that I wanted to move beyond mathematics, and so I delved into economics (specifically, behavioural economics), which involves applied mathematics at several levels. Current economic research can be bucketed into two segments – data driven research (which uses econometric and statistical tools), and economic theory and modelling (which uses mathematical tools). At IIT, I teach three courses – a 200-level course in Microeconomics (an introductory course usually opted for by undergraduates), a 300-level course in game theory (opted for by advanced undergraduates) and a 700-level course in microeconomics (a specialized course usually opted for by masters and PhD students). I really enjoy taking the class in game theory. It being an advanced course, I can tweak the problems, and test the students, which serves as a great way for them to think critically and learn.

What is the hardest part of your job as a professor?

That is actually very idiosyncratic. At IIT, Delhi, there are only the six of us working in the department. There is great demand for courses in economics, especially with students in Computer Science, Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical Engineering. While this does increase the teaching load, there are also great advantages of being here. I think the main challenge is the research work that we have to do apart from the teaching. As the saying goes in the research world, “Publish or Perish.” One cannot be at par with other economics professors until they keep pace with the quality and quantity of publications and research work.

They say, “life is a never ending learning process.” In all your years of providing education and teaching a plethora of students in this esteemed institution, what can you say that your students have taught you in return?

I actually started teaching pretty early on in my career, and my students have taught me a lot of things over these years. Prior to working here at IIT, Delhi, I have taught at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as well as at Shiv Nadar University (SNU). I have majorly learnt two important things – firstly, the virtue of patience, and secondly, not everyone is – or can be – at the same level (and that this fact has nothing to do with intellectual ability). When we study economic theory, we spend a long time trying to understand the various nuances within that theory. As professors, we might even spend as long as two to four weeks trying to understand a particular theory. What we often take for granted though, is for students to understand that same thing when we condense it into a class lecture. I think it is unfair to expect our students to understand in ten minutes what we ourselves spent days being irritated, frustrated or annoyed with. Indeed, students are extremely patient, and more often than not, that leads to very interesting questions and consequent research ideas. Another thing my students have taught me is that everyone is different from each other in the time they take or the outside confidence they showcase when explaining a concept. Even though some students might take as long as half an hour to understand a concept, it is these students who will question thoroughly and end up coming up with excellent research ideas.

“The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.” -Barack Obama. Can you share a life experience or anecdote where you used your failures as stepping stones? How would you encourage your students to take failures in the right stride?

I started my college education at one of the IITs. I had aced the so-called difficult test and had joined an engineering program. At that time, the course and college I was enrolled in was supposed to be a dream career option for many. But I not only felt out of place, but also started feeling like this was something I wasn’t made for. I thought I was probably not ready for it and started questioning myself. In retrospect, I think it would have been a blunder had I continued down that path. But I did take it as my failure at that point and age. In retrospect, I think it is most important to recognize failure as failure. Especially in research, people may comment on your work, or your papers might get rejected. While it can be painful, one should accept it and learn from it without clinging to it.

What are your opinions on the concept of literacy being expanded from classroom teaching to digital modules? Do you prefer one over the other?

While both are being used in the present day and age, it really depends on what you are teaching. Again, economics can be subdivided into – applied courses, and economic theory. For the latter, I strongly prefer the rudimentary blackboard teaching, because the students like to see something being developed through someone who is teaching. Even when researchers are collaborating on projects, learning from each other, and sharing different experiences, fundamental things like body language and voice modulation matter a lot. On the other hand, I have been invited to take sessions at institutions such as the Management Development Institute (MDI), and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), and I have prepared slides for my sessions because audiences here like visuals better. At the end of the day, choosing between the two really depends on the target audience as well as on the course being taught.

If you had the ability to go back in time, what piece of advice would you give to your sixteen-year-old self?

Times have really changed from when I was sixteen to where things are now. But if I were to give advice to my sixteen-year-old self, I would tell him to listen to his mind. A lot of people talk about ability being the most important criterion for choosing a career path – but I disagree. I think beyond ability, it is important to identify what you enjoy exploring. If you love what you do, you will be able to make a great career out of it.

What alternate career would you have pursued?

Something in history or archaeology – I am extremely fascinated by these two areas of study.

According to you, can economic inequality be erased?

No, and it is not even desirable. But this needs more explanation. I surely argue for a threshold level of welfare for all.

What is the best book you would recommend?

For Game Theory, I would recommend ‘A Course in Game Theory’ by Ariel Rubinstein and Martin J. Osborne. For an introduction to the field, ‘Game Theory for Applied Economists’ by Robert Gibbons is a great book. I would also strongly recommend ‘Fun and Games’ by Kenneth Binmore.

If you had a time machine, which famous personality would you want to interact with?

Definitely Satyajit Ray

World Peace or Resolution of Global Poverty?

World Peace

What are your hobbies/interests outside of economics?

I like to read (Many favourite books; some are: Agent running in the field by J. Carre; A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth; In search of lost time by M. Proust….), and love to travel places (favourite spot: The Balearic Islands near Spain).

What is one superpower you would like to have?

Being able to remember everything I read.

How would you describe yourself in one word?


What languages do you speak?

I am fluent in English, Hindi and Bengali and also know a little bit of French and Catalan.

What do you dislike about your profession?

The rising competition in academia, which stems from the pressure to publish. I think we should let people know that competition in academia should be taken in the right stride, without developing feelings of jealousy toward other researchers and instead, learning and collaborating with them.


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