My second and final year at the University of Chicago

by Taro Kunimitsu

My second and final year at the University of Chicago was very different from what I expected. First and foremost, I had not expected my studies to be in the midst of a global pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic made all activities at the university online ― including interactions with my advisors and peers. As a graduate student majoring in public policy, I was expecting to have in-depth discussions on policy topics face-to-face and in-person soft-skills training for policy practice throughout the program. Since these were no longer possible, I needed to reconsider what and how to learn during the program to achieve the most within the remote-learning environment posed by the pandemic.

I also had another unexpected personal situation that I needed to deal with. My wife, an evolutionary biologist, obtained a tenure-track faculty position at a university in Norway at the start of the academic year. As much as I was proud of her, I also needed to decide what I should do after graduation accordingly and to rethink what I should learn to broaden my possibilities post-graduation.

Although these were challenging issues, I believe I was able to coordinate an optimal learning portfolio for the year, and I indeed achieved a great amount through my studies at the University of Chicago, thanks to support from my family, friends, and not least through programming at the Friends of UTokyo. The following will be some details of what I had in mind this year.

Online learning made soft-skills development within the degree program difficult, but on the other hand, it made learning technical skills much more convenient, through the enhanced use of digital technologies and learning methods such as flipped classrooms. Given that condition, I wanted to focus on technical skills that could be used both in policy analysis (which was the most probable career after graduating) and also in other possible career paths including research. My decision was to focus on economics and machine learning.

The policy program at the University of Chicago already had a strong focus on economics compared to other policy programs in the US, but it was still at an entry level for policy practitioners, so I needed to find specialized courses that would prepare me for research level analysis. I had taken PhD-level economics courses in the first year, so I decided to join PhD students in a seminar-like lecture series on energy and environmental economics. Since I had work experience on nuclear energy policy, the topics were somewhat familiar to me, but the courses familiarized me with the economist’s way of thinking, and they also taught me solid techniques for quantitatively analyzing policy, through ideas such as the social cost of carbon. Discussing with top economists in the University of Chicago faculty was always enlightening, and I am confident that I received the best education in the field.

Modern data analysis skills were going to be essential for any serious quantitative work, irrespective of whether I went back to policy making or not. A huge aspect of this was to be able to use machine learning methods at the research level. With this in mind, I decided to take courses at the Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago, a graduate institute on the University of Chicago campus with a focus on machine learning. I ended up taking 4 PhD courses from the institute. I was able to greatly deepen my understanding of machine learning and computer science, spanning from deep learning to graph algorithms. I also spent two months as a research assistant for a project on time-series forecasting of electricity usage. This familiarized me with real world usage of machine learning, preparing me for careers that require data analysis.

What I learned this year was not limited to the program contents I just mentioned, but also came from the experiences and events I went through. When my wife started working in Norway in November, I was able to accompany her there for two months without any interruption to my studies, thanks to remote learning technologies. Other than time difference issues, I was able to take courses and do research in almost the same way as I would have in Chicago. My experience of studying from Norway made me recognize that higher education had huge under-explored possibilities. If done flexibly, it seems universities would be able to connect with far more students around the world.

Time management was another difficult issue in my pandemic experience, due to the flexibility in schedule of working from home, which meant nothing forced me to work during specific hours. Allocating time to do specifically what was required, and sticking to that schedule whatever the situation, was one skill I was able to strengthen thanks to the pandemic.

I believe these experiences at the University of Chicago will be invaluable throughout my whole career.

As for my career path after graduation, I chose to accompany my wife to Norway and to work as a researcher in climate change impacts. I will be working as a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research (CICERO) in Oslo from August. I will be making full use of what I have achieved during my years at Chicago ― research skills in environmental economics and modern statistical methods including machine learning.

Once again, I would like to thank Ito Foundation U.S.A and Friends of UTokyo, Inc. for their support throughout the year. Without their support, I would not have made it through the degree program, at least without having financial and other concerns. The online gatherings in the Friends of UTokyo program was of great support in these difficult times. Hearing from and sharing my experience with others in similar situations around the world made me feel that we were approaching a huge problem together. I look forward to contributing to the scholarship program in the future as an alumnus, and I hope to see many more alumni flourish globally.