Fostering independent thinking

Yongseok Shin's former graduate students have gone on to be successful educators, economists, and researchers. Here, Shin shares his mentorship philosophy.


Yongseok Shin, the Douglass C. North Distinguished Professor of Economics and the PhD placement director for the economics department, has a matter-of-fact nature. Unassuming and at ease, he clearly enjoys his work, but doesn’t expect everyone to share his passion. This laid-back, but staunchly invested, attitude is evident in his approach toward mentoring. Shin wants his graduate students to think for themselves and choose their own projects, but also gives tough feedback and has high expectations for quality work. Sometimes good mentoring can be overlooked as a less important part of being an academic, but Shin has an excellent track record, with most of his students going on to be successful educators, economists, and researchers.

Despite the strong emphasis he places on work ethic, Shin freely admits that he wasn’t the most hardworking graduate student. “Honestly, I'm not joking. I got tremendously lucky, and now things have become much more competitive,” he confessed. Because of this shift toward greater competition, Shin tries to be both realistic and up-front about what is required. Passion is number one: “If you aren’t passionate, you’ll begin to see the work as a chore,” said Shin. He also emphasized how important it is to have a solid technical background, for fear that a student could quickly become frustrated and fall behind early in their program.

“He was always very direct about what this profession requires, which became increasingly useful as I navigated through it,” says Julieta Caunedo, Shin’s former student and now an assistant professor at Cornell University.

Rather than push students in a particular direction, Shin tries to foster the kind of self-sufficiency that will be necessary after graduation. “They should learn to become independent thinkers and researchers who set their own ideas and topics and projects,” he says, stressing his hesitancy to interfere with that process. Instead, he guides his students toward becoming producers of knowledge, rather than merely consumers, never simply “giving” anyone a topic, and always supporting independent thought.

“Dr. Shin is one of the best advisors for people interested in serious research, both inside and outside academia.”

“He would push you to think hard as of why a particular question is interesting,” Caunedo said, “how would it fit into the literature, and why the approach is sensible.” Faisal Sohail, another student and assistant professor at the University of Melbourne, echoed this sentiment: “He would ask questions that made me really reflect on its importance in the literature, leading to insights that invariably helped guide me toward a more fruitful path.”

After graduation, not all students choose to remain in academia, but Shin trains his students to be effective researchers in a variety of occupations. Former student Sangmin Aum, for example, works as an economist at the Korea Development Institute, a think tank focused on developing and promoting research-driven economic policies. Despite choosing a non-academic career path, Aum praised Shin for the preparation he received. “Dr. Shin is one of the best advisors for people interested in serious research, both inside and outside academia,” Aum said, even asserting that Shin could often tell what direction his students would eventually pursue before they knew themselves.

Yet, Shin still strives to improve his mentorship, weighing decisions like: 1) “How much guidance should I try to provide?”, and 2) “How professional of a relationship should I maintain?” Because of Shin’s hands-off mentoring style, he worries that some students who could use a little more guidance may fail to reach their full potential. Similarly, because he tries to maintain a mostly professional relationship with his students, Shin sometimes worries that he might be less able to spot personal difficulties. Although these may be true for some, it was not so for Sohail, who confessed that although he “was tempted to seek advisors that would tell me exactly what I did right or wrong,” ultimately Shin’s self-reliant mentoring style was “much more personally and professionally rewarding.” Aum echoed this sentiment, saying, “His mentoring style exactly matched my own needs, and likely would for many others.”

At the end of the day, perhaps because of this emphasis on independence, Shin doesn’t take much credit for his students’ successes. “I’m responsible for probably 1% of why they are successful, and 99% of it they did themselves by putting in the work.” Ironically, his students tend to view it the other way around, attributing much of their development to Shin’s constructive criticisms and support.