Dileni Gunewardena (PhD '03)
What is your current occupation?
I am a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics and Statistics at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. This currently involves teaching undergraduates as well as curriculum development, but also leaves me quite a bit of time to do research, mainly in development microeconomics; poverty, inequality, gender, and child malnutrition. I am also an associate at the Centre for Poverty Analysis in Colombo, and an occasional consultant with the World Bank and UN organizations in Colombo. A few years ago I served a term as the Editor of the Sri Lanka Economic Journal.
What were you doing before joining AU?
I had just joined the University of Peradeniya as a junior lecturer. It was fairly typical then for Universities in Sri Lanka to hire young graduates (i.e. with only Bachelors' degree) and then provide them with paid leave for graduate studies. I applied to several Universities in the U.S., but AU gave me the best funding.
How did your PhD at AU help you in your career?
In a very direct way—I needed the graduate degree to move on as an academic, and of course, to fulfill my obligation to Peradeniya. But, it helped in many other ways as well. I joined the World Bank as a summer intern, and found out later that they accepted me partly because they were so impressed by the other AU students they have worked with. I really appreciated that AU was a school that put a high value on teaching. I remember participating in workshops on teaching, organized for the teaching assistants. And, hopefully, I learned something about teaching from good teachers I had like Alan Isaac and Julia Lane. I somehow missed being taught Development by Jim Weaver, but spent a couple of semesters as his teaching assistant, and enjoyed every bit of it.
What components of the PhD program did you like the most?
I liked the flexibility that the PhD program had. At the time, you had to choose between the Political Economy (P.E.) track and the "straight" track, and I remember wanting the best of both—so I did P.E. –as a field. This however restricted the number of other courses I could take and to this day I regret that I did not take any classes in Labor Economics. I did enjoy P.E. though, and especially enjoyed the class taught by Mieke Meurs who had just joined AU. I liked the brown bag seminars we had, and the types of speakers we got.
I also liked that AU was a fun school, and grad students and faculty alike had time to socialize, and that most faculty were approachable. Apart from my first semester, which was pretty scary when I had to bridge the gap between my undergraduate background and graduate work, the program was quite handle-able. I made some great friends here, and some of these friendships have lasted over the years and I value them greatly.
What components of program could have been improved?
Econometrics at AU was not very strong during my time, and I am glad to hear that has changed now.
What is your advice for current or prospective PhD students?
Do what you like, and hopefully you will like what you do (what a cliché!). Having said that though, I do have some specific advice—think of a PhD as an apprenticeship; don't lose an opportunity to work under someone who is good at what they do, and make the best use of their expertise.