Jiakun Jack Zhang
MENTOR SPOTLIGHT | SEPTEMBER 2020
Department: Political Science
Describe your research/creative scholarship in a few sentences that we can all understand: My research explores the political economy of trade and conflict in East Asia and I direct the newly established KU Trade War Lab. Current TWL projects focus on the ongoing U.S.-China Trade War, the largest economic conflict in history. We have teams of undergraduate and graduate students working to collect data through surveys of U.S. businesses, coding their political participation in testimonies and lobbying, and mapping their supply chains in China. We hope that this bottom up, firm-centric approach will help scholars and policymakers better understand the dynamics of U.S.-China competition against a backdrop of unprecedented economic interdependence.
Q: How did you first get interested in doing research or creative work?
A: I studied international relations and Chinese foreign policy in college. I was lucky that my first job out of college was at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting company. Working at EG gave me some valuable insights into how businesses viewed international politics and revealed some gaps in the academic theories I studied in college. This inspired me to further investigate the intersection of business and foreign policy in graduate school, focusing on the role multinational corporations play in trade and conflict. Then came the U.S.-China Trade War; many of these previously obscure topics became headline news, and the rest is history.
Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?
A: I believe it is important for students to bridge theory and practice in their future careers. The TWL tries to enable this by creating opportunities for students who develop an analytical toolbox inside the classroom to hone practical skills and work with data as a research assistant. RAs are given a high level of autonomy to develop “mini-projects” under my supervision and to contribute to group tasks such as building a dataset on the political determinants of success in tariff exclusion requests. Each RA developed their project into an Undergraduate Research Award proposal and presented the work in the KU Undergraduate Research Symposium. These mini-projects are then developed into honors theses, and folded into publications. This combination of individual and team research at the TWL enables students to work on much more complex and ambitious research tasks than is possible in a classroom setting.
Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research or creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?
A: The U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century, but it is more troubled today than any point since 1979. The trade war has become a war of attrition; businesses and consumers suffer in the trenches by paying the economic costs while the political end goal remains unclear and a phase-two trade deal unlikely. I think trade and investment is the bedrock of that relationship, but confidence that these are mutually beneficial have been shaken by the trade war and COVID-19 pandemic. As a Chinese American with friends and family in mainland China, I believe that U.S.-China cooperation is essential for tackling many global challenges, such as climate change, technology governance, nuclear proliferation, poverty and pandemics. I hope that my research can help chart a middle path between the outdated concept of engagement and the emerging push towards decoupling by applying area studies knowledge and international relations theory to this important policy debate. I believe sound policy should be informed by high-quality data and take into account the experience of businesses on the frontlines of the conflict.
Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
A: I would encourage students to take an interdisciplinary set of courses in political science, economics, and business, but try to build some skills in statistics and data analytics. Quantitative methods training and data science knowledge are not only essential for careers in academia these days, they are also highly desired skills for the wider job market. I would also urge students to subscribe to a major newspaper, read broadly, and strive to have some generalist knowledge outside of their major. The ability to see the big picture and connect the dots is very valuable for doing innovative research. Finally, I would encourage students to seek out new opportunities to build new skills and develop a habit of life-long learning.
Q: For many students, doing research or a larger creative project is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Or about any tricks or habits that you’ve developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
A: Research can often feel like a series of setbacks. Learning to process criticism without losing momentum is key. My dissertation project had to undergo major changes due to insights gained from fieldwork, but I initially really struggled to communicate with my advisers after they offered tough but fair criticism of my drafts. I fell behind on deadlines, mopped around, and avoided meetings. I later learned there’s a term for this -- the “valley of despair” – and that it happens when the uninformed optimism of a project launch meets the realities of implementation. It took me a while to learn that critical feedback was not an indictment against my ideas, but rather a reflection of the fact that these ideas are underdeveloped. Progress is made incrementally and avoiding advisers only caused me to lose momentum, which I later had work hard to rebuild. The more productive approach would have been to maintain momentum -- even if it means working on the dissertation for 30 minutes a day – and rebuild confidence by gradually improving my work.
Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?
A: Before the pandemic, I loved to travel. Since the pandemic, that’s been replaced with gardening and cooking. I enjoy listening to audiobooks and playing computer games. I’m also a big college basketball fan and really hope that we can have March Madness again in 2021!