David Phillips

Published on 20 July 2022

Associate Director, Direct Tax and Welfare Research Programme

What first attracted you to IFS?

After discovering the City wasn't for me (the hours and the early starts!) I focussed my job search on economic consultancies and research organisations. The IFS had been mentioned a few times in lectures at university and I had read about it in the press, but I always thought it was open only to those with postgraduate degrees. I was told this definitely wasn't the case at a careers event and decided to apply. IFS seemed to offer an attractive mix of applied policy-related and more academic work, and seemed a good place to start a career. It has an unmatched reputation and it gives you the opportunity to work with leading academics and evaluate flagship government policy right from the start. I chose it over 3 other job offers (some of which offered to pay much more). And, I’ve now been at IFS for 9 years and have developed a lot in the intervening years... so it looks like I made the right decision!

Which projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m a little unusual in the IFS in that my work covers a wide range of areas. But that is one of the good things about the IFS – you can focus on a narrow area of research, or work on a broader range of topics depending on your interests, and the Institute’s needs. At the moment, I have major projects looking at the responsiveness of people to the National Insurance system and the economic incidence of it, and the effects of the top rate of Income Tax introduced in 2010 on the incomes of the top 1%. I also work on the distributional and behavioural effects of tax and benefit policies in developing countries – and have visited places like Mexico and Turkey as part of this. And, I lead the IFS’s work on issues related to devolved and local government finance issues in the UK, which has been a fascinating area to work in over the last couple of years, and I have a hunch, will continue to be.

What kind of things do you do during a typical day at work?

A typical day starts with checking my emails to see if anything needs doing (like answering these questions!) and then making a start on the research and other work I'm doing. This will probably involve some data-work (cleaning up the data can be a chore sometimes) and then analysis and interpretation. I might have a meeting to discuss some aspect of the work with colleagues or co-authors, or might have a seminar to attend. Sometimes I'll have to give a presentation, and if there's a big story any of the topics I work on I might need to talk to the press or be interviewed for TV or radio.

As I have become more senior I have taken a more active role in developing research ideas and getting them funded. So that means organising research meetings with colleagues and external academics and stakeholders and writing project proposals and funding applications. I also sit on a number of external advisory or technical advisory groups – including for the Welsh Government, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the World Bank – which the IFS supports.

What do you particularly enjoy about the job?

I'll start with the part that's least appealing for me: data-cleaning. This can be really tiresome, but it's vitally important in getting reliable results. Once things are all tidy, you get on to the fun part. I like investigating little sub-hypotheses, finding a rationale for unexpected results, and then trying to put this all into plain English. If you're working on something of particular policy relevance, upon publication you may have to deal with the media (or you may get phone calls out of the blue!). It's really good to see your work actually have an impact, particularly if it helps correct the misconceptions about economic or fiscal issues that you often find in the media or in wider public discourse. 

As part of my work is in developing countries I have had the opportunity to travel to quite a few interesting places, with more on the horizon. It is particularly satisfying when your work has a positive impact on people in such countries as well. And I have enjoyed the chance to engage with senior policymakers and politicians in these countries as well as the UK – our work on devolved financial issues has meant giving evidence at numerous parliamentary committee meetings, for instance (and has been quoted by numerous politicians on both sides of the debate in Scotland!).

How has your career progressed, so far, at IFS?

I've been here just over nine years. I must admit, I never thought I would be here this long. But I guess that goes to show that it’s a good place to work and a good place to build a research agenda grounded in key policy issues. Over these years, my skills as an economist, in data-work, in writing reports and in presenting and discussing results have all improved massively and I am now taking forward research and policy work in several distinct areas. The IFS’s strong reputation means that the careful analysis myself and my colleagues undertake really is treated as the “Gold Standard” we always aim for – and that means the possibility for real impact in academia and wider society. It also stands IFS researchers in good stead for finding new opportunities when we decide it is time to move on.

How would you describe the working environment?

The people at IFS are the best thing about it – helpful, knowledgeable and friendly. There's no unhealthy rivalry or 'office politics', and the atmosphere is relaxed. Provided you get the work done and are around at busy periods, you can work pretty flexibly; some people come in early and leave early, whilst others do the opposite. You're trusted, respected and valued from the start – no overbearing boss here.

Education and profile

BA Economics, Cambridge University

MSc Economics, University College London