“I wanted to analyze environmental issues through this lens of inequalities”

Nicolas tell us his experience at the CPES Multidisciplinary Undergraduate degree and his involvement in the students' office of the program. He carries on with his course within the Master in Applied Economics (Public Policies and Development) and his internships in brilliant organizations. Finally, he explains why he chose to join the doctoral program in Sustainable Development at Columbia University, New York.



Nicolas—curious, engaged, a polyglot—is a graduate of PSL’s CPES Multidisciplinary Undergraduate degree and the Master’s in Public Policy and Development (PPD) at Ecole Normale Supérieure – PSL*. He is currently writing a thesis on sustainable development at Columbia University in New York City.
His love of science and literature coalesced while Nicolas was in high school. While studying in a science track, he was also passionate about geopolitics and cinema. After earning his baccalaureate, he didn’t want to specialize in a single discipline or to join a classe préparatoire and study for a prestigious school’s entrance exam. Instead, he applied and was admitted to the CPES.
“It was one of the few programs that gave me the freedom not to choose a path immediately after my baccalaureate. It gave me the opportunity to specialize gradually and take the time to talk my aspirations over with my professors. In retrospect, I now realize how decisive the program was for me. The CPES offers small class sizes, which is rare in undergraduate programs. We developed close relationships with our professors, and as students, we could share our feedback about the program and make suggestions. It’s an extremely formative experience, even outside the classroom. I have particularly fond memories of my very simulating discussions with Pascal Combemale, director of the Economic, Social, and Legal Sciences track (SESJ), and his very valuable guidance.”

During his three years in the program, Nicolas was also involved in university life. He represented his fellow students on the PSL Academic Council and actively contributed to the CPES student office by helping organize events
“Getting involved with university governance and the student bureau were both incredible experiences. The CPES was a new program—and so was PSL, for that matter. There was a certain effervescence, and we had the feeling that anything was possible, we just had to go for it. Some friends and I formed a delegation of some 20 PSL students to attend the European Parliament European Youth Event (EYE). We obtained funding via PSL’s student initiative program, and we went to Strasbourg to meet with European elected officials and students from all across Europe. It was exciting!”

Getting involved with university governance and the student bureau were both incredible experiences

After receiving an honors SESJ degree from the CPES, Nicolas enrolled in the Master’s in Public Policy and Development (PPD) offered by ENS - PSL in partnership with the Paris School of Economics. There, he took courses with Thomas Piketty, who ultimately directed the dissertation that earned him the International Economic Association’s Stiglitz Essay Prize.
“The Master’s program broadened my horizons to embrace other issues and helped consolidate my initial intuitions. It is now clear, to me, that the economy must be a tool to serve political will, rather than vice versa. Thomas Piketty’s courses were very inspiring in that sense. He is developing a line of thinking that is very unique in the discipline and has brought inequalities to the forefront. By drawing inspiration from his work, I hoped to analyze environmental issues through this lens of inequalities.”

The Master’s program broadened my horizons to embrace other issues and helped consolidate my initial intuitions

The internships offered through the CPES and PPD Master’s gave Nicolas his first professional experience. To make good on his commitments and take advantage of his Russian language skills, he chose to do a first internship with a Russian NGO called the Civic Assistance Committee, whose goal is to help refugees in Moscow. Two years later, he built on that experience with a second internship, this time with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Turkey. Although this internship disappointed him, because it was too far from the field, it did offer lessons that would prove useful later on and he took the opportunity to learn Turkish. After completing his Master’s, Nicolas hesitated: research appealed to him, but he felt driven to work on “topics that matter” and didn’t want to retreat into theory too early on. He opted for a first real professional experience with Agence Française du Développement (AFD), where he began as a consultant in Paris, then became a project manager in Uzbekistan.
“It was a decisive professional experience; I learned so much. I was in direct contact with members of the government of Uzbekistan to negotiate the implementation of development projects funded by AFD in hydroelectricity a well as water and sanitation systems. It was a concrete assignment, demanding and very intellectually stimulating. I really appreciated the culture at AFD. Yet despite everything, I still wasn’t sure, and I found academia very appealing."
At the end of his assignment, Nicolas applied to a variety of PhD programs at Harvard and Columbia University. When he was accepted by both prestigious universities, he once again had to make a choice:
“It wasn’t easy to choose between Harvard and Columbia! I eventually chose the Sustainable Development program created by Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia. The program is in a class of its own, with no real equivalents to my knowledge, and it emphasizes the selected subject matter over the disciplinary approach. It takes five years to earn a PhD, with the first two devoted to coursework. We have a great deal of freedom to choose our thesis methods, drawing from the various social sciences as well as the natural sciences. I joined the program with the idea of conducting a research project on how climate change impacts inequalities, and have ultimately expanded on that project with a wide variety of other topics, from environmental economics to political economics and applied microeconomics. I’m also working with professors at other universities, including Vincent Pons of Harvard on a project related to political polarization and COVID-19, and Charles Angelucci of MIT on local media and political responsibility on a local scale.”

Nicolas is continuing to write his thesis at Columbia University and hopes eventually to make a concrete contribution to the development of public policies.

*The Master’s in Public Policy and Development is jointly accredited by ENS-PSL, EHESS and Ecole des Ponts ParisTech and certified by PSE-Ecole d’Economie de Paris. It is also financed by IRD and CEPREMAP and receives support from J-PAL Europe.