But experiments are expensive!

I’ve recently been talking about experiments in a graduate research design course at Oxford. I was a little surprised when students responded by saying, “Right I understand that experiments are great, but how do I pay for one? I’m a graduate student.”

The first response to someone asking this question is that I’m telling you about experiments not just because it would be nice if you did one, but also because thinking about experiments helps you understand the challenges we face in observational studies. For any causal research question, it’s always good to ask what the ideal experiment would be; in design-based observational studies, you follow that up by saying why the ideal experiment is impossible and why the design you’ve chosen is a good approximation.

But I also want to address the practical question: how can you do an experiment when you don’t have a huge grant?

The answer I gave in last week’s lecture is that you can cultivate a relationship with a party organization, or NGO, or government agency, and offer a free evaluation if they are willing to work with you on design. Of course this depends on some luck and possibly some connections, but it’s important to remember that you might be offering something that they would otherwise have to pay a lot of money for.

Afterward I asked Florian Foos, who did a lot of interesting experiments while he was at Oxford as a graduate student, and he offered these observations:

  • Graduate students are usually poor in money, but rich in another resource: time. How much of what a senior researcher would usually pay for can you do yourself, or in collaboration with other students?
  • Not all field experiments need to be expensive: Think for instance of the many audit experiments conducted with legislators by Butler/Broockman etc.
  • If you have a great idea, but lack funding (and a bit of know-how), it might be worth asking a faculty member (this can, but need not be your supervisor) if they would be interested in collaborating on an experiment.
  • Think about what type of outcome you are interested in: Some behavioural outcomes can be collected without expensive post-treatment surveys. Administrative data is usually free of charge or available from government agencies for a small charge.

Also, you could always fake the outcome data.