“When do you ever get the chance to speak to a Nobel Prize winner?” Koen de Nijs was one of the 25 PhD candidates who seized the opportunity to talk to Guido Imbens. In 2021, Imbens, along with Joshua Angrist and David Card, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research on using natural experiments to explain causal relationships. Imbens’ academic career began at EUR. On Wednesday, during the celebration of the university’s Dies Natalis, he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

When Imbens was asked beforehand what he wanted to do on this mostly ceremonial day, he himself suggested talking to PhD candidates. And within no time at all, the event, dubbed From beginner to Nobel Prize winner, was booked to capacity.

Right place

PhD candidates from all corners of the campus trickled into the Education Lab of the Polak Building on Wednesday morning. They eagerly discussed the questions they wanted to ask Imbens while attempting to enjoy the small green pastries EUR had laid on in celebration of its 110th anniversary standing up.

Despite his busy schedule, Imbens entered the room in a relaxed mood. “I spent a lot of time in the Tinbergen Building as a student. Of course, many buildings have been added since, but it still feels familiar”, Imbens said. “I’m quite happy to be awarded this honorary doctorate, because I didn’t actually graduate from here. Now, after forty years, I can finally say that I’ve completed my studies at EUR. I do hope today’s students can manage that a bit more quickly”, he joked.

As the session began, Imbens tried to reassure the PhD candidates. He stressed that they did not have to be intimidated by his status as a Nobel Prize winner. “I was just in the right place at the right time”, he said modestly. We largely have Imbens’ old economics teacher to thank for the fact that EUR was the starting point of his academic career. “He showed me a book by Jan Tinbergen, one that I thought was incredibly interesting. So I never looked any further than Rotterdam.”

Making sense of the world

Looking back, Imbens realised that he could have gotten more out of his time at EUR. He emphasised the importance of asking questions and admitting when you do not know things. “I remember taking a course on money markets. After the examination, my fellow students and I still didn’t know what bonds were, and I never asked.”

According to Imbens, that was a shortcoming of the Econometrics programme at the time. “It didn’t help me make sense of the world, but seemed more focused on mathematical cleverness. Now, I’m convinced that our work should be motivated by real societal issues.”

Guido Imbens_Nobel speech publiek audience PhD Dies 110_8nov2023_Shrey Khurana
PhD candidates listen to Guido Imbens. Image credit: Shrey Khurana

A Nobel Prize winner’s advice

After his Bachelor’s programme, Imbens left Rotterdam for the University of Hull, where he obtained his Master’s degree. He then pursued his doctorate at Brown University in the United States. Currently, he is affiliated with Stanford University. “I found the doctoral process challenging”, Imbens said when asked about his own PhD experience. “I even applied for a job at a bank, outside the academic world, but they didn’t even invite me for an interview. So I just continued with my research.”

The PhD candidates did not hesitate to ask questions. They sought advice and tips on standing out as an economist in a competitive international labour market, staying motivated, maintaining a good work-life balance and dealing with the challenges of interdisciplinary research. Especially the latter was a recurring theme. According to Imbens, interdisciplinary work is essential if we want to address current societal issues. “For example, I see leaders of large tech companies talking much more easily with people outside their field. Academics can learn from that.”


“Does the fame of winning a Nobel Prize overshadow your actual research?”, one PhD candidate asked. “Not so much at a place like Stanford, where many of my colleagues have their own important awards to their name”, Imbens said nonchalantly. “Besides, the work itself doesn’t change after winning a prize like that. The mathematics are still the same, as is the interaction with students.” Still, there are things that have changed, said Imbens. “I’ve become more of a public person, which I can turn to my advantage for outreach. For example, I go to high schools to talk about what economics is all about. That’s my way of giving back to my field.”

Afterwards, Imbens quickly disappeared to his next appointment. A group of lingering PhD candidates from ESHPM excitedly discussed the conversation. They found it refreshing that Imbens was so honest about his struggles as a researcher. PhD candidate Prithviraj Basu Mallik was inspired. “My takeaway from this conversation is that I should never feel like I can’t ask questions. Now I sometimes feel like I don’t want to bother my supervisor. From now on, I won’t be holding back any more.”

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