Thomas J. Sargent - Economist and Mentor
We congratulate Professor Thomas Sargent for winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Economics. Tom's research has received a lot of attention since the award was announced -- Dave Backus's article is a great example. As important as his research has been, however, his contributions to economics actually go far beyond. He has also profoundly influenced the discipline through his role as a teacher, advisor, and mentor to Ph.D. students. Although his teaching methods are sometimes a bit cryptic -- one might fully understand his sayings only after the course is over -- he has been very successful everywhere he has taught -- at Minnesota, Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, and NYU. A list of his students speaks for itself.
In Tom's classes, one learns to be rigorous and to take models seriously. Ask any Sargent student what an economic model is and you will get the same answer: “a model is a probability distribution over outcomes.” In his reading group, he teaches while barely speaking. As Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh relates, gestures are sometimes worth a thousand words. Just a look from Tom and one knows whether one's comment was good, not so good, or perhaps that he is reconsidering one's reading-group membership altogether. And Tom teaches much more than economics, instilling discipline and inspiring good work habits through his 5-minute presentations. By example and gentle encouragement, he also trains us to think and communicate precisely. As Jesse Perla remarks, Tom coaches us “to say things once, say it right, precisely, and with no adjectives.” Perhaps most importantly, we also learn to think twice before speaking. Indeed, one of Tom's most feared questions is “Did you really mean that?”
By following his example, one also learns how to become a caring teacher. While Tom's pedagogic style might make one wonder what goes on in his mind, one thing is certain: he is very supportive of his students. He always makes time to meet with students -- even those in the first or second year -- and he is excited to see new research. His support goes beyond discussing research ideas. His office is a one-stop advising shop, playing the role of psychologist to many job market candidates in crisis. But as always, Tom has his own unique way of doing things. Just ask George Hall.
There is no template 'Sargent student.' On the contrary, he encourages students to study whatever interests them, as long as they approach research seriously and rigorously. As Danny Quah says, "I hope I have kept to the other things Sargent taught me: Ask the research question that is most challenging and most interesting; then throw every tool and weapon you have at it until it cracks." Tom also has a special ability to help separate good ideas from the bad without being discouraging. And as Mariacristina De Nardi notes, he “knows when you really need help and when you should figure things out on your own.” In Viktor Tsyrennikov's words, Tom is “someone you come to test your ideas, not ask for one.”
What is perhaps most remarkable is the extent to which Tom's students continue to learn from him after graduating. While continuing to be a teacher and mentor, he also frequently becomes a colleague and friend.
Thank you, Tom, and congratulations!
Tributes from some of Tom's students
With his patience and kindness and commitment to economics, Tom Sargent opened the door for me to a life of research. I am forever grateful. This has been much more fun than I even imagined.
Sargent was a fantastic advisor throughout my graduate career and throughout my professional career after that. Some moments I particularly cherish were the (many!) lunches with him at Stanford, where he hired me as a summer "RA" (he taught me tons more than the little work I did for him). These lunchtime conversations were a precious moment to see first hand how his research projects took shape. What I learned is that his success is a combination of two ingredients. The first ingredient for pathbreaking research is having new tools. In his case, these came mostly (but not only) from his ability to bridge the gap from the engineering and applied math literature, and from his deep knowledge of history. The second ingredient is the "secret sauce," the ability to apply new tools to interesting and important questions. From observing the first ingredient I better understood the importance of lifetime learning, within but especially outside the narrow field in which my work lies. I am not sure whether the second ingredient is learnable, but, to the extent that it is, I am sure those conversations greatly contributed to my formation as an economist.
One of the main things that always struck me about Tom (beyond the obvious brilliance of his research) is how he is always open to a good idea. Clearly, he's had many insightful ideas of his own (often challenging some of his earlier work) but, from the perspective of a grad student or advisee, he's also amazing at sorting through a confused but promising set of ideas and prompting the student to develop the essential kernel of the project - often before the student has realized what that is!
Mariacristina De Nardi
I owe a great debt of gratitude to Tom. He is a fantastic advisor, who knows when you really need help and when you should figure out things on your own. And even after you graduate, Tom is still there for you. He is supportive, kind, and generous. He also has a great sense of humor. I will never forget when Tom, Marco Bassetto, and I were working in Stanford one summer. One time, Selo Imrohoroglu came to visit, driving up in his brand new, fancy BMW. Selo drove us all to a Mall for lunch and was driving quite aggressively. Tom at some point expressed the feelings of all of the passengers by bursting out " I keep having these images of Princess' Diana last moments." Needless to say, we all burst out laughing. Even if I graduated in 1999, I still look up to Tom, to his thirst for knowledge, his intellectual curiosity, wit, and joy of discovery. Tom keeps being an example for me every single day. Thank you, Tom
Here is Marty's charming speech at the Plaza Hotel, January 2012.
Tom truly cares about his students. I have never doubted Tom cared about me; but he some times has a funny way of showing it. Here is one example how he told me "I care." On the morning of Monday, November 7, 1994 I was working at my cubicle at the Chicago Fed. I know the date because on Saturday, November 5 at the age of 45 George Foreman knocked out in the tenth round Michael Moorer, age 26, to become the oldest man to win a world heavyweight boxing championship. Tom was coming in for the day and swung by my cubicle. I said "Good morning, Tom." He responded "This weekend a guy my age kicked the ass of a guy your age. Don't think I couldn't do it to you," and walked off. For the record, George Foreman is six years younger than Tom.
I just would like to say that: I learned a lot of things from Tom, which made me, not only a better economist, but a better human being. So Tom: Thanks a lot and congratulations!
Tom Sargent supervised me so long ago and so far away, there wasn't even a Sargent Reading Group yet. Or at least if there was one, he kept it well secret from me. Sargent taught me that when the environment changes, people's behavior ought to do so as well. But even as my behavior has continued to adjust, I hope I have kept to the other things Sargent taught me: Ask the research question that is most challenging and most interesting; then throw every tool and weapon you have at it until it cracks.
I have one story that you may find amusing. It occurred, I believe, in 1975. It was the 1970s and undergraduates at U Minnesota were full of themselves and disdainful of authority. Some of them banded together to create a company called "Pie Kill". For a fee, they offered to hit any target in public with a whipped cream pie. One day in the coffee room, Tom held forth at great length about how despicable and disrespectful it would be to publicly "pie" someone. He was so eloquent that he moved the graduate students to action - although not the action he intended. Over the next few weeks, ads appeared in the student newspaper warning Tom to beware. Then on the "Ides of February" an empty pie box magically appeared in his office. When Tom showed up in the coffee lounge a bit later, about 20 graduate students followed him back to his office. Someone (it might have been Gary Skoog) grabbed him. And then we presented him with his favorite chocolate cream pie - not in the face but on a plate with his coffee. I must say the look in his eyes - before he was quite sure whether he would wear the pie or eat it - was priceless.
Tom was always a lot of fun. He shared a lot of himself with graduate students from the very beginning, offering them scholarship, wise counsel and friendship.
In 2007 Tom had many (6) students on the market so we decided to thank Tom and celebrate that each of us got a job in a restaurant. There we all waited that Tom will give us this one final advice and here it came: "If you think that your troubles are gone you're wrong. Your most difficult years are just ahead of you. It is going to be like nothing you've seen before." Each year on April 7th I hear these words in my head.
Tom as advisor: Tom was someone you come to test your ideas, not ask for one. And this was great because at the end you had a feeling that you did it all by yourself. But Tom was always guiding us through the reading group. If you haven't presented in a while then you were probably reading wrong papers.
Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh
Tom would sit in the middle of a U-shaped Stanford conference room, in the front of the room. When a student said something smart, he would turn around and smile. When a student said something dumb, he would not turn around. Upon a second disruptive intervention, he would turn around and not smile. This was usually enough to shut the student up for a long while. When Tom spoke in the reading group, which only happened a few times per session, it was always deeply insightful. It fostered an atmosphere of quality interactions, respect and learning from each other, and respect for and even a little bit of fear of Tom. It taught us to always come prepared. His pedagogy is shrouded in a bit of mystery but has been incredibly successful everywhere he has taught. His shining example has proven a compass, something to aspire to, for me in my research and in my own interactions with PhD students.
I thank Tom for bearing with me when I started to work for him as a clumsy programmer. Working for Tom had been both a learning experience, and a confidence building process. He showed deep appreciation for every task I did, no matter how small it was. Many of the lessons I learned from Tom are good for a lifetime. Tom always told me never to put myself down. This I will always keep in mind.
Tom has had an immense impact on me and been tremendously supportive in so many ways: as a teacher, mentor, co-author, and friend. I can't do justice to all he's done for me, so I'll only try to illustrate a little. One word which comes to mind when I think of Tom is generosity. He has always been generous with his time, comments, encouragement, and support. When I was in graduate school, Tom had moved from Chicago, where I was studying, to Stanford. I'd had him as a teacher, but hadn't really gotten to know him until I spent one quarter visiting Stanford. When I first moved out there, I booked a room in a hotel until I could find a place to stay. When Tom heard about this, he invited me to come stay at his house, set me up in his office at Hoover (which he let me use for the whole quarter I was at Stanford), and loaned me his car so I could look for an apartment. I was amazed that such a distinguished professor would do this for a young grad student he barely knew. I appreciated it then, and have appreciated all he's done for me over the years since then.