November 19, 2020

Alumni Spotlight: Diana Thomas

Mercatus PhD alum Diana Thomas’s (’09) interest in economics began with conversations around her family’s dinner table in Germany. “My family has a strong Social Democratic background. My grandfather...was always involved in his union,” she says. “It was kind of a big theme in my family, pride in being labor, being Social Democratic. So we would always have conversations about economic policy at the dinner table with my grandparents when the whole family was together. Then when I was in high school, there were all these reforms going on in German labor market policy.” These reforms and the conversations surrounding them sparked her curiosity about the role of incentives, a curiosity she carried to George Mason University while studying abroad as an undergraduate.

Her first encounter with Mason’s economics PhD program was a bit “serendipitous”: her roommate during that study abroad experience was a first-year PhD student in the Mason Economics Department. Through conversations with her roommate and the rest of her cohort, Diana says, “I found that people were asking some of the same sorts of questions at Mason that I had had, and I heard some answers that I hadn't heard before. So that just piqued my curiosity and got me really excited and interested in continuing in that tradition and that conversation there.”

It's in the application and conversation about ideas that you learn the most.

A few years later, she entered George Mason University’s PhD program in economics as a Mercatus PhD Fellow. As a PhD Fellow, Diana took part in the normal activities of a PhD student, including taking classes and working on her dissertation (advised by Peter T. Leeson), but she also formed close relationships with Hayek Program scholars and other PhD Fellows and participated in seminars and the Graduate Student Paper Workshop (GSPW). Those workshops and seminars were the most formative part of the fellowship, she says, because they gave her the opportunity to “learn [her] trade”—to engage with the literature, make connections between different strands of scholarship, and understand how economists interact with one another. “Classes are obviously important for providing some context,” Diana says, “but I think that it's in the application and conversation about ideas that you learn the most.”

Overall, “the thing that stands out to me always in my memory of what it was like to be at Mason…is intellectual honesty and openness,” Diana says. “You want other people to be intellectually honest and open so that you can participate. So that means you have to practice what you preach…and I think that brings out the best in discourse and how people interact with each other.”

In her current roles as Director of the Institute for Economic Inquiry and Associate Professor at Creighton University, Diana has ample opportunity to draw from the toolbox she gained in the PhD Fellowship. Her current work focuses on engaging undergraduates in scholarship as well as on continuing her own scholarship through research on behavioral symmetry and the regressive effects of regulation. As the director of a university-based center, she focuses on the Institute’s big-picture mission as an organization which is “heavily focused on undergraduates...bringing them along in the process of what it means to be a scholar.” The Institute accomplishes this by taking the students through writing a research paper, exposing them to the academic literature within a field through reading groups, and bringing in outside speakers for seminars—“adapt[ing] a lot of what Mercatus Academic and Student Programs does, to undergrads.”

The Mercatus network is “central to everything we do,” Diana says. Connections with Mercatus alumni and scholars have resulted in numerous speaker invitations and opportunities to collaborate on research. “Having a network of scholars that are interested in similar questions and ideas means that your career can have these synergetic experiences that you otherwise don't get to have,” she says. “It makes for a kind of multiplicative impact.”

She cites one of her current projects, co-editing a volume titled Entrepreneurship and the Market Process with another PhD alum Arielle John that features chapters by other alumni of Mercatus graduate fellowship programs, as an example of those “synergetic experiences.” Her other current projects include research on the regressive effects of regulation, a recent paper on the application of behavioral symmetry to the Republic of Science, and writing on the effects of the pandemic alongside her husband and PhD alum, Michael Thomas. Additionally, Diana is also excited about a nascent initiative at the Institute examining “Native American reservations and the institutions that constrain them” from a public choice perspective. She’s hopeful that this will present an opportunity for the Institute to engage with the university and the broader community, given Creighton University’s connection to the Native American reservations in that area.

It’s always starting with the question of, what are the incentives and how can we get to a better set of incentives?

Tying all of Diana’s work together is “the idea that you can study human behavior in all sorts of contexts, using the same lens,” as well as “thinking about the world as a set of institutions that channel human behavior in different ways.” At the end of the day, she says, “It’s always starting with the question of, what are the incentives and how can we get to a better set of incentives? What are the institutional forces? Is there competition between the different levels of governance or civil society that would create a better kind of dynamic in the long run?”

“The training that you receive at Mason makes you into a very open-minded and broad person, and it allows you to cross disciplinary and ideological boundaries that other people have a hard time crossing,” Diana says. It should come as no surprise, then, that when asked what advice she would give to new or potential Mercatus PhD Fellows, Diana focuses on the opportunity for “academic entrepreneurship” and the importance of jumping in with both feet: “Don't be scared to jump right in and participate and become a member of the academy, right from the get-go.” Similarly, she advises current PhD Fellows to focus on “communicating their ideas as clearly as possible” by continually seeking feedback on their work. 

Don't be scared to jump right in and participate and become a member of the academy, right from the get-go.

All in all, she says, “If you care about ideas and if you care about the ideas underlying economic liberalism or classical liberalism, then I think Mason's the best place you can go to learn about those and to learn how to fit those into a conversation that's broader than that even. I think it's the best place to be for anybody that's serious about careful economic analysis and thought applied to the problems of the world, today or anytime.”

For more information on the Mercatus PhD Fellowship, and all of the other Mercatus Fellowships offered to graduate students at George Mason University as well as other universities around the world, visit students.mercatus.org.