Anna Spurlock, PhD recipient in Agricultural and Resource Economics, claimed “relief” is the best word to express her feelings after submitting her dissertation.
“I was just so exhausted, it was hard to grasp what it meant,” she said. “People kept telling me that I had accomplished something big, but it’s hard to think of it as an accomplishment when it’s just been my way of life for the past six years.”
And what has been her “way of life for the past six years” is leading Anna to her next accomplishment. She will work full time at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as a researcher, what she refers to as a “win-win situation.”
“I wanted to do research on policy-relevant issues and I wanted to stay in Berkeley,” she said.
Anna grew up in Point Arena, a small coastal town in Northern California and received her undergraduate degree in Anthropology from UC Santa Cruz. In 2002, she moved to Oakland and found employment in a restaurant as a bookkeeper, an opportunity that indirectly inspired her to pursue a PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics.
“While I worked there, I listened to NPR every day in my office. One day I heard a discussion and one of the panelists was referred to as an agricultural economist. I had never heard of that before, so I looked up that field of study and learned how it related to other topics I was interested in.”
After extensive research, Anna discovered that UC Berkeley offered the Agricultural and Resource Economics graduate program (ARE), which allows students to focus on agricultural economics, environmental economics or development economics. “I decided that it would be a great fit for me,” she said.
However, what Anna did not expect was the amount of work needed in order to prepare for graduate studies in economics. As an undergraduate, she’d majored in anthropology and had not taken any courses in mathematics or economics.
“I started taking classes at Berkeley City College and some of the other Peralta Colleges, starting all the way back at Economics 1 and Pre-calculus,” she said.
It took nearly a year for Anna to meet the necessary requirements. In 2006, she decided to apply to the ARE PhD program at UC Berkeley, only to find that her dream career required yet more work.
“I didn’t get in the first time,” she said. “But at that point I felt committed.”
Anna persevered and took another year of classes at community colleges. She repeated the GRE exam, and applied once again to UC Berkeley. This time, she was accepted.
“I often think that if I had known what I was really getting myself into when I first heard that NPR radio program and decided to start heading in that direction, I probably wouldn’t have tried,” she said. “But I did try, and worked really, really hard for two years before getting in, plus six years in the program. I can’t believe I actually finished.”
Now that she has completed her dissertation and her PhD program, Anna will spend her time at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researching energy efficiency-related topics. She also plans to enjoy her free time engaging in activities she enjoys the most (besides agricultural economics, of course.)
“I like to read escapist science fiction and fantasy literature, go out and eat at all the fabulous restaurants in Oakland, and do ceramics,” she said. “I like to do things that feed my soul, instead of my head.”
In this recent interview with eGrad, Anna talked about her dissertation, her work at the Laurence Lab and remarkable times she had as a PhD student at UC Berkeley.
What is your dissertation about?
My dissertation is called “Essays in Energy Economics” and consists of two big projects. The first explores consumer behavior on alternative electricity pricing. In particular, I show that consumers exhibit behaviors consistent with the psychology and economics concept known as loss aversion when on critical peak pricing for electricity. The second project explores firm pricing behavior for household appliances when faced with a tightening of the minimum energy efficiency standard. In particular, I show that prices of clothes washers following a tightening of the minimum efficiency standard changed in a way that is consistent with clothes washer suppliers engaging in second-degree price discrimination.
What made you decide to focus your dissertation on this particular topic?
I came up with the topic for the first project because of taking the psychology and economics field classes in the economics department. I was interested in finding a way of applying psychology and economics concepts to the area of energy economics and the project I did seemed like a natural way to bring those two fields together. It took me a year and a half to get access to the data I needed to do that project, but I was able to in the end. The second project came out of a research assistant position I have had for the past year at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the Energy Efficiency Standards Group. They had data available to explore the affect of new standards on appliance prices, and the concept of looking at it from the perspective of market power and price discrimination was a natural approach to exploring the empirical patterns in price adjustments that were seen in those data.
What was your biggest challenge while working on your dissertation?
My biggest challenge was getting access to data for the first project. I worked so long and hard to find data, and was lucky in the end that I was able to find data to explore the idea I had developed, but it was a long stressful time before I had it.
How did you feel after submitting your dissertation?
I felt relief, but also I was just so exhausted, that it was hard to grasp what it meant. People kept telling me that I had accomplished something big, but it’s hard to think of it as an accomplishment when it’s just been my way of life for the past six years. It’s starting to sink in now that it’s been a week and a half, but it’s still a process to transition out of the state of anxiety that has been my life for so many years.
Talk about your work as a researcher for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
My job at LBNL is split between two overarching areas of research. I’m working in the Energy Efficiency Standards Group doing economic research on energy efficiency related topics and I’m also working in the Electricity Markets and Policy Group doing research on dynamic electricity pricing. This position is exactly what I was hoping for when I started the PhD program. I wanted to do research on policy-relevant issues and I wanted to stay in Berkeley, a win-win.
What will you never forget about your time at UC Berkeley?
This is a hard question to answer. School has been what I’ve been living and breathing for years, and so it’s hard to believe I could forget things. The thing I value the most are the people I met. All my cohort, and my advisers, are just so wonderful. We went through so much together.
What made you choose UC Berkeley?
I had been living in Oakland for five years. I loved the Bay Area. Berkeley was the best Agricultural and Resource Economics department in the country and was in the place that I loved. It wasn’t even a question for me.