Alumni Profiles Series: Christian Lundblad
Dr. Christian Lundblad is the Richard Levin Distinguished Professor of Finance and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty and Research at Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He completed his master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics at Duke, following his B.A. in economics and English literature with highest honors from Washington University in St. Louis. His research spans asset pricing, investment management, and international finance, with a specialization in emerging market development, and he advises Ph.D. students and teaches MBA students.
Tell us about your career path. What plans did you have when you started graduate school?
While research areas came as a process, I started with a clear roadmap in my mind right from my undergraduate years: I knew I wanted to go to academia and research. My master’s was mostly about Ph.D. preparation; I was very ready for working late nights as a grad student. My passion kept me driven and focused on the journey, which I really enjoyed. I always wanted to be in empirical work. There comes a point when correlations can become meaningless and that kind of exploration can be very risky, and that’s where the role of theory comes in. I made an investment in the theory side to make sure that the empirical work I do continues to hold meaning.
I’ve been very happy with how things have unfolded. And I think I’ve been lucky too.
What is the most interesting part of your job?
In terms of industry, I love that I get to engage with industry and understand their problems, without necessarily having to solve their business problems. Rather, I get to think more about the intellectual problem to understand what the business is struggling with. Our students are a pragmatic audience and value industry relevance.
In your experience, is industry research experience valued in academia?
There is a tension between industry’s use of research and academic research. The toolbox for analyses is evolving, and doctoral programs and students have to evolve as well to keep research relevant. There is tremendous opportunity for doing work that matters to industry or for policymakers.
The currency in this business (academia) is top-level publications. If one does want to stay in touch with industry, a side-hustle in consulting could be one channel of being involved with the present market needs. But of course, this is once you’ve found your footing in the tenure-track line.
What advice would you give to graduate students at the crossroads of industry and academia?
Empirical exercise without theoretical backing is pointless, and that is the difference between a data scientist and doctoral student. Theory for the sake of theory is of no use. Some pieces of existing know-how are going to feel like jumping through hoops, and some like walking on a well-paved path. People are important in preparing you for your journey, and these relationships play an important role in navigating your time in grad school and beyond.
While entering the job market, whether academia or otherwise, you do want to have a sense of the toolbox that will give you the ability to move forward, and from a differentiator standpoint, you want to convey that you have the ability to see it through to the end.
Reverse engineering as a career strategy works well. For example, if you see yourself as a tenure-track academic, you will spend most of your time doing research. A Ph.D. would be required, but how do you position yourself to get into the best program? What kind of class work or what kind of research would you want to work in? I was a research assistant the Federal Reserve and that gave me exposure to some interesting problems. The Fed is probably more on the tail end of being in academia. Those kinds of experiences could help you find your way into a Ph.D. program. Another version of that would be a pre-doctoral fellowship, which is a constructed research position.
Lot of economists tend to be in litigation consulting. There are some ways you can do research in an industry setting, if you want to go the business route. If you see yourself more interested in industry, then all of the previous thinking is not as applicable and then you may not want to pay all that opportunity cost, and rather get to all of it faster. Think of the best things you would do to help open up the avenues you have in mind.
What advice would you give master’s students applying to Ph.D. programs?
Differentiators that give the reader an idea about your fit include Ph.D. courses, getting involved in actual research, and talking about the process. Say that I’ve seen real research and I know how annoying it can be, but I’ve also seen that nuggets that came out of that process were worthwhile. Make sure to convey you’re familiar with what the life of a researcher or doctoral student looks like.
What was the most challenging moment in your academic journey as a Ph.D. student at Duke?
The sacrifices were real: I didn’t go to the beaches that often or spend time with my girlfriend (now wife). Headwinds make life challenging, and for someone who is considering a Ph.D., they must mentally prepare themselves for this.
What kind of projects did you work on during your graduate training?
Half of my time at Duke was spent at the Economics Department working in financial econometrics with Prof. Tim Bollerslev and George Tauchen, and the other half at Fuqua working with Ravi Bansal and Campbell Harvey. Everyone shared a joint passion for questions about finance. The Ph.D. program at the Economics department had a financial econometrics specialty.
What is your favorite memory of Duke?
It is not just a single memory but the memory of the feeling of the entire process. I really enjoyed the journey of being a graduate student, first during my master’s and then as a Ph.D. candidate, and I would do it all a hundred times over. Having struggled together you do develop very strong bonds, and I still play tennis with my Ph.D. advisor and co-author, Tim Bollerslev. The “Duke family” persists with a kind of permanence that I appreciate.
What advice would you give current graduate students?
Figure out your comparative advantage as you continue in your studies. See where your passion lies. You’ve got to be really passionate about this stuff: it’s a long journey to get there and there is a lot of sacrifice. The joys that you get when you get there can be best enjoyed when you’re in it with all your heart. Build the right toolbox, express your interest in the things that feel right, and there will come a point where you find your professional self satisfied.
Master's Student, Economics and Computation
Anuva Agarwal is a second-year student in the M.S. in Economics and Computation program at Duke and an economist at heart. She has developed an interest in applications of machine learning techniques in economics—financial markets, microeconomics, and labor economics—thanks to the academic opportunities at Duke not just in class but also via teaching and research engagements. Having worked in the policy space in India before coming to Duke, she has five years of management and leadership experience from scaling up a policy organization that metamorphosed into India's first social-impact university. These experiences have contributed to her passion to explore data-driven research. She presently holds office in the Economics Master's Student Council. Outside of studies, she enjoys mulling over ideas in economic reasoning and cracking stats jokes. She is also fond of observing models of good governance in different geographies, and loves dancing and food.