John Conlon, a senior economics major, became interested in economics while in high school. He had read and enjoyed books by economists such as Paul Krugman and Milton Friedman, but he really caught the economics bug from books like Freakonomics.
“I really liked how economics provided quantitative methods to answer questions about why people act and interact the way they do, in all sorts of settings,” said Conlon. “I could appreciate the practical applicability and versatility of economics.” Conlon entered Ohio State as an economics major with a four-year, full tuition scholarship, and has not regretted his choice of major. He is also a philosophy major (for his less practical side) and a math minor (for his more practical side).
Conlon’s broad areas of interest include education and human capital, and how people decide to gather information and act upon it. His first research project, with former lecturer Karen Bernhardt-Walther, was about company-sponsored training and the factors that determine whether an employer will offer training to a particular employee.
At the 2014 Denman Undergraduate Research Forum, one of the largest undergraduate research events in the country, Conlon won first place for the project, titled “Labor Market Frictions and Human Capital Investment.” The paper also won the inaugural Gledhill prize for the best paper in applied economics by an Ohio State undergraduate, and earned Conlon $4,000 in funding from the university. Not bad for a rookie.
The second project, with Economics Professor PJ Healy and PhD candidate Yeochang Yoon, uses a laboratory experiment to study how the decision to purchase a good is influenced by the purchase decisions of other people and the feedback they provide about its quality.
Conlon’s current project focuses on undergraduates’ beliefs about the salaries associated with different college majors. “I was interested in launching a project around this topic because I realized how little I knew about careers and salaries when I chose my major,” explained Conlon. “So, I decided to design a survey for first semester freshmen at Ohio State to find out why and how the students choose their college major - what they think are the average salaries of different majors and seeing how that matches up with what classes they end up taking.”
Conlon sent out a survey to all first semester freshmen at Ohio State; some students were randomly assigned to receive objective information about the average salaries earned by graduates from each major.
“What I’m finding so far indicates that everyone underestimates incomes in all majors,” said Conlon. “Students are not good about formulating expectations about salary.”
Armed with university transcript data, Conlon is now analyzing whether the information student participants received affects their subsequent choice of classes.
This project is Conlon’s honors thesis, “Beliefs, Information, and the College Major Decision”. His supervisor on the thesis is Economics Professor Lucas Coffman, for whom he is also a research assistant. The project is funded by several Ohio State research grants totaling about $7,500.
An impressive feature of Conlon’s research is the variety of methods he has used, ranging from constructing a theoretical model and testing it using existing survey data, to lab experiments, to designing and conducting a survey and field experiment. The fact that three different faculty members have worked with him is a testament to his creativity and potential as an economist.
This past summer, Conlon was an intern at the Microeconomic and Regional Studies Function of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where he worked as a research assistant for Basit Zafar, the economist whose work had inspired his honors thesis.
He plans to join the New York Fed’s two-year research analyst program after he graduates this spring. Past participants in this program have an excellent track record in being admitted to and succeeding in top PhD programs in economics. He plans to pursue a PhD in economics, and is likely to be attractive to top programs in the U.S.
Conlon is from Worthington, Ohio. When he is not working on his research and courses, he enjoys reading historical biographies (including Robert Caro’s four-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson!), car camping and watching Jeopardy. He is interested in being a contestant on the show —he has the training in game theory — but he’s not sure that he has the trivia skills to do it .