Meet the professor - An Interview with Sean Telg October 29th, 2017

It’s a summer’s day in Maastricht; the year is 2009 and a new adventure begins where many must part ways with what’s familiar. For young people finishing their last year of high school, this point in their lives means it’s time to make one of your first adult decisions in your life – what will you do now? We will learn a little bit more about one young man in that situation, Sean Telg, whom we may soon refer to as Dr. Telg.

Sean was born and raised in Maastricht, has one sister, and enjoyed his fair share of economics classes in secondary school. Upon receiving his diploma, he was certain that his next stop should be at the School of Business at Universiteit Maastricht. At first he was uncertain about whether Econometrics & Operations Research would be too challenging, but this programme caught his attention and he eventually chose to pursue it. Now 8 years later and in the final stages of finishing his PhD at the KE department, I’m happy to pass some time over a coffee with Sean and chat about the journey that this decision has taken him on.

“Back when I started the first year of the bachelor’s, we were just 33 students in my year. Now there are over a hundred starting the programme,” he tells me. We’ve found good seats in the SBE lounge. Sean was just taking some time off from preparing one of the master’s courses he is now going to coordinate. Throughout our chat, I tend to forget that I’m talking to my tutor who assessed my presentation skills in period 4 Macroeconomics. Sean is now 26 years old and when it comes to studying Econometrics at the SBE, not many have seen as much as Sean has. After completing the Bachelor’s, he specialised in the Econometrics track of the two-year research master’s programme. In those two years, he also took on the role of President of Vectum in his first master’s year and then also became the President of the student football association DBSV Red Socks in the following academic year, all while being in the Student Council and working part-time as a research assistant.

Having so many responsibilities all while maintaining an ambitious academic record may sound daunting to some students. Yet Sean insists that such doubts are common for anyone in the studies. Looking back at his first year at university, Sean admits how rough a start he had to the bachelor’s, including a moment where he seriously doubted whether he should continue or not, and did not consider himself to be a viable PhD candidate back then. This is not what I expected to hear from a former student who is now a member of faculty! He does admit that through hard work in groups and on his own, self-discipline, and an intrinsic interest in econometrics, he improved gradually throughout the studies and this got him to where he is today.

“I remember the late Jean-Pierre Urbain telling me once that there are two types of people – those natural geniuses who seem to solve any problem they see at first sight, and the rest of us.”

Sean acknowledges that when he decided to go into research, the former professor acted as a mentor figure to him. Whenever Sean needed help, he knew he could pass by his office and Jean-Pierre would set aside some time for his questions. J.P. – as he was known to most colleagues – was not only an attentive and effective instructor, but also a respected and well-liked man. Sean will defend his thesis this December on the topic of noncausal autoregressive time series models, which depend on future realized values (leads) rather than the conventional lagged values. An important implication of these models is that (changes in expectations of) future events may dictate our present-day behaviour. The methods required to develop such models were discussed in the Time Series course that Prof. Urbain used to coordinate. 

The transition from knowing the faculty members as his teachers and then as his colleagues felt natural, he says, at first going from Mr. and Mrs. to a first name basis, which is generally the norm at the UM. Now in his third and final year of his PhD, he has attended conferences together with his colleagues and gotten to know them better in a different light. Sean compares being now behind-the-scenes in the faculty to being able to cook at a restaurant you visited frequently – after seeing the final result in a dish or lecture several times, you get to further appreciate the work put into it once you know how the chefs work in the kitchen and what it takes to coordinate difficult courses.

As a research master’s and later PhD student, one of Sean’s responsibilities is to tutor the PBL sessions for students. Sean now tutors first-year bachelor’s students in Analysis, Macroeconomics, and Finance. In period 2, he is even stepping into the shoes of his former mentor to coordinate the master’s course in Time Series Methods and Dynamic Econometrics – another challenge he accepts.  Having stood on both ends of an SBE tutorial, we discussed his own transition from student to teacher. Sean strives to be as knowledgeable as he can about the subjects that he’s tutoring, especially since sometimes these are not necessarily topics that he deals with in his research on a daily basis. To have a good atmosphere in the tutorials, Sean says, the tutor should play a role in that too. He therefore admits to be quite lenient, but knows that his job is done when the students really feel confident and intrigued about what they have learned. After all, it not only matters that his students passed their exams, but can also hone their interest and skills in economics and econometrics, and figure out how to pose their own questions, which sounds very much like the intellectual adventure of pursuing a PhD.

Throughout our conversation, it became very clear to me that I was speaking to someone deeply curious and enthusiastic about the world of econometrics. Sean is, however, not your stereotypical math nerd, but a charismatic and outgoing guy who has a life away from the numbers. He is an avid footballer and even played in a Vectum football team. Sean also represented his fellow econometrics students throughout the 2012-2013 academic year as the President of Vectum. Looking back at this period in his life, he expressed how relieving it was for him to have friends who share his interest in econometrics, as, after all, “no one is born knowing they’re going to econometrics for the rest of their lives.” Fortunately, Sean’s recollections of his board year are in line with what Vectum sounds like today – a social space for econometrics students to break the ice, form collegial bonds, and perhaps help each other out with an exercise or two and dream about future careers together.

Wrapping up our chat, we talked about the upcoming last weeks of 2017, eight years since his first day at university.  For someone who has come this far since his first days at university, I am confident that he will succeed as a course coordinator and in his PhD defence all without losing his sense of humour. I would like to wish Sean good luck and thanks for taking the time to let me share this story of a Vectum legend!