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MIT professor’s path to Nobel Prize began in Pittsburgh

MIT labor economist Joshua D. Angrist was awarded the Nobel Economics Prize.. He shares it with two other scholars.
MIT labor economist Joshua D. Angrist was awarded the Nobel Economics Prize.. He shares it with two other scholars.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

PITTSBURGH — Joshua Angrist suspects that his childhood in Shadyside in the 1960s and ‘70s wasn’t like those of other people who have won the Nobel Prize.

He rode his bike around the city at all hours, stopping home for dinner before heading out again with his friends. He played bass in a band, then switched to guitar. He frequently skipped Hebrew school. In high school, looking to do the bare minimum, he figured out the requirements for graduating and gamed the system so he could finish a year early.

“I didn’t like school very much,” said Angrist, 61, of Brookline, Mass. “I loved working, and I just wanted to be a working man and have a salary and have a car.”

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Years later — after leaving Pittsburgh, serving time in the Israeli Army, earning a doctorate in economics, and staying on faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology long enough to receive a rocking chair to commemorate his 25th anniversary — Angrist won the Nobel Economics Prize.

He shared the award, announced Oct. 11, with David Card of the University of California, Berkeley and Guido Imbens from Stanford University. The three researchers were honored for their work on drawing conclusions from natural experiments, or the types of situations that occur naturally in the world, rather than through researchers’ intervention.

Angrist’s work has focused on the economics of education and school reform, the effects of immigration and labor market regulation, and econometric methods for program and policy evaluation.

He wrote a book on econometrics — or the use of statistical methods to develop theories or test hypotheses in economics — in 2014. In 2019, he founded a company that uses software and algorithms to help make decisions about school choice, teacher placement, and scholarships.

He is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonpartisan organization that investigates and analyzes economic issues, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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But as a high school student in Pittsburgh, Angrist wasn’t so interested in learning. He hadn’t even heard of economics yet.

In 11th grade, opting out of any advanced or accelerated classes, he stacked his schedule with the minimum requirements to graduate — two English classes, two health classes, two gym classes — and got his diploma early.

He then spent time working at different medical facilities as an aide, starting at a small organization that worked with children who had severe handicaps and then moving to a state facility.

He was a union member, but the pay was still low.

After his early graduation in 1977 and his stint at other jobs, Angrist went to Oberlin College in Ohio. There, he met the economist Orley Ashenfelter, who would later give him the idea that he would spend much of his career studying — but first, he would turn down his offer to go to Princeton University.

After graduating from Oberlin in 1982, Angrist went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem for graduate studies, but he later dropped out.

The experience was not academically successful, but it was personally, he said at a news conference Oct. 11. That’s where he met his wife.

Angrist then spent time in the Israeli Army before later taking the offer to study at Princeton.

During one labor economics class, his thesis adviser, Ashenfelter, came in with an idea.

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He had just heard about a study, Ashenfelter said, where a group of researchers compared the death rates of people who had high lottery numbers in the draft for the Vietnam War and those who had low numbers. Someone should do that to look at their earnings, he thought.

So Angrist did.

“I went that day to the library,” he said. “In some sense, I’ve been working on the draft lottery all my career. It’s that kind of problem that grabs me. I have an interesting question and a clear, maybe not immediate, way to answer.”