08.05.2024 | News

Kwabena Adu-Ababio – Going Blue in Michigan

Doctoral researcher Kwabena Adu-Ababio reports on his scholarly visit to the University of Michigan in 2023.

In Finland, many doctoral students have the possibility to include an academic year or semester in another university to their doctoral studies.

From Finland to the United States as an exchange scholar

As a foreigner coming to Finland for my doctoral studies, it has been a great learning experience. I not only learned first-hand about the Finnish education system but also the immense cultural shocks I have had since I arrived in the cold winter of January 2019. I believe most of you will agree that a lecture on foreigners’ cultural shocks in Finland will surpass the limits of this blog. Consequently, I leave that discussion for another audience.

For this piece, I limit my Finnish experience to their education system and narrate the benefits gained from a unique practice in the doctoral education program. I highlight this as unique because most PhD candidates aim to finish their thesis in time while attending relevant seminars and conferences within or sometimes outside their home university. However, in Finland, most doctoral students can spend a semester to an academic year in another university as visiting scholars. With such a status, visiting students can participate in the host university’s faculty activities while engaging with other students and faculty members.

Arriving at the University of Michigan

In 2023, I benefitted from such an experience when on the invitation of the esteemed doyen of public economics, Prof. Joel Slemrod, I had the opportunity to visit the University of Michigan (UMICH) as a short-term visiting scholar at the Office of Tax Policy and Research (OTPR). Although it was not my first visit to the United States, it was my first as an academic and the experience was illuminating. As I travelled with family, we experienced life in a capitalist setting compared to the conservative welfare state we had been used to in Finland. Our arrival to Ann Arbor was smooth as it was not the first time we had flown more than 8 hours to a destination. Interestingly, the cabby remarked on our arrival from the airport: GO BLUE! On realising that I would be a visiting scholar at UMICH. A catchphrase I later realised was the slogan for UMICH due to their proxy colours, Blue and Maize.

Kwabena Adu-Ababio with Prof. Joel Slemrod

My office at the OTPR, which is inherently linked to the UMICH Economics Department but situated within the Ross School of Business, was a fertile ground to meet students and faculty members in diverse research fields. I shared the office with three other candidates in various stages of their PhD studies who were always fascinated by the fact that a PhD student in Finland did not have to fall into debt to complete the degree or enrol as an exchange scholar as it was in my case. My half-hour daily commute on foot to the office, even though I possessed a student card permitting free access to public transport, immediately taught me that I was within the confines of an automotive hub. Most Wolverines, as members of the UMICH community call themselves, drove everywhere. This is ubiquitous among students but not apparent in Finland, where we love to walk or rely on efficient public transport. Working in UMICH was different, and organising anything with colleagues in Finland was next to impossible due to the 7-hour time difference. However, as my research ideas had taken shape, I knew how to proceed with minimal crosschecks and supervision. This is the stage I will advise any doctoral student thinking of going abroad as an exchange scholar to be in before making a move out of your home university.

Colleagues of the Office of Tax Policy and Research (OTPR)

The joys of visiting Michigan

I enjoyed the seminars organised by the Economics Department. What intrigued me most were the acronyms associated with them. I will never forget the “PFFLS”, the Public Finance Free Lunch Seminar, where we were not only served innovative ideas on the frontiers of empirical and theoretical public economics research but also an appetizing lunch buffet (with dessert) where one could eat to their fill. Usually, PFFLS was filled compared to the Public Economics Seminar held later on the same day. As a precursor to these seminars, Prof. James (Jim) Hines will deliver his homily, usually arriving in our emails on Sunday, about the need to attend both seminars and brief abstracts on the speakers, their topics and what to expect on the seminar day. I presented my work at PFFLS and at H2D2 (Human Capital, History, Demography, & Development Seminar), where I received valuable feedback from the audience. I will also remember M-TAXI, the Michigan Tax Invitational, where UMICH public economists and alums present broadly on tax-related topics. At M-TAXI 2023, I had the opportunity to meet researchers from the US Treasury Department, the IRS, the IMF, and the Fed, who were doing research similar to mine. These meetings have enriched my network, which was impossible without visiting UMICH.

I enjoyed the serene research atmosphere in Ann Arbor as nature felt different. The cold was tolerable, and I could take random walks around the campus town where everything was within reach without worrying about freezing temperatures. One could sit in the well-trimmed grass or on the portico or veranda of a coffee shop for a quick read if the office space got crowded and stuffy. Joel was also graceful, and his office was always open to me for discussions on how I was faring and how my research was progressing.

Lastly, in addition to this professionally rewarding experience, I experienced the joy of fatherhood for the first time as I welcomed my child into the world in a state-of-the-art Michigan Medicine Centre. Through this, I learnt how the local healthcare system works through frequent trips to the 12-storey maternity and paediatrics unit.

Special Thanks

I gained so much from this scholarly visit to the UMICH Ann Arbor campus, which cannot all be enumerated for brevity. Special thanks to my supervisor, Prof. Jukka Pirttilä and his colleague Tuomas Matikka, who visited the OTPR some years ago, for introducing me to my host. Most importantly, I thank the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Tax Research (FIT) for providing the funds for my stay in Michigan.

University of Michigan: https://umich.edu/
Office of Tax Policy and Research: https://rossweb.bus.umich.edu/otpr/
University of Michigan Department of Economics: https://lsa.umich.edu/econ

Photos from Michigan: Kwabena Adu-Ababio’s home album