Graduate Education

William T. Dickens

[A posting to the ARMCHAIR discussion group, 17 May 2000,
by William T. Dickens, Brookings Institution - email: wdickens@book.edu]

I've been in the business of giving advice to undergraduates contemplating graduate work for 20 years. Past advisees include several respected academics including our list host. I've also sat on graduate admissions committees many times (at Berkeley where I worked for 15 of those 20 years) and I have had many conversations about these matters with people who do graduate admissions at all the top schools as well as others. I have a pretty good idea of what they want both from potential graduate students and from new assistant professors.

I am not a libertarian, though my views on economics are sufficiently outside the mainstream that I have a perspective that might be useful to a libertarian.

I generally agree with the weight of advice that has been given. The most important of which has been to know why you want to go to graduate school and to inform your choice about graduate school accordingly. If you want a professional career outside academia, an economics Ph.D. is almost certainly not the right way to go. Also don't waste four years of your life getting an economics degree if the only reason you are thinking about getting a degree is because you like _studying_ economics. Now is the time to think seriously about how you want to spend the rest of your life. The paths your life can take are now seriously diverging. Changing paths will be possible in the future, but it will mean back tracking or making your own way through the underbrush. A little careful thought now will save time, trouble and effort in the future.

If you aren't sure what you want to do, don't go to graduate school now. Take a job that will allow you to get a feel for what a career in a particular area might be like. For example, if you think you might like to be a Ph.D. economists but aren't sure, start looking into internships. Places like Cato, Heritage (or Brookings where I work) usually have internship/research-assistant positions that will let you get a much better feel for what careers of those sort are like. So does the Federal Reserve, and many government agencies. You might also try to make your own way. A number of years ago when I was visiting at the NBER a young woman showed up at my door with her resume in hand and asked if I needed a research assistant. She was fresh out of college and thinking about a research career. I hired her for a year and later wrote her a letter of recommendation for MIT where she was accepted. She is now a tenured professor at a very good liberal arts college and is a respected expert on the economics of immigration. Other interns/research assistants I have hired (like my current one) have decided that economics is not for them. Spending a year being moderately unhappy while learning a lot and earning a fair amount of money is a lot better way of finding out that you don't want to do something than flunking out of graduate school, or worse, spending four years in graduate school and six years as an assistant professor being miserable. Way to many people try to bang their square pegs into round holes. Its not good for the peg or the hole.

That said, if you're pretty sure that you want to devote your life to teaching economics, or to doing original thinking and writing about social policy, than by all means go get a Ph.D. in economics. No other preparation will serve you as well. Forget doing sociology or political science. The training in economics is much much better. Do consider law -- particularly if you find that you don't like math. I've seen people who would not have made very good economists become first rate legal scholars with important things to say. (Even if you like math you may find the legal mind set or the problems of the law more interesting than the standard fare of economics. The same doesn't hold for other social science disciplines. If you are interested in political science get a degree in economics and then do political science. You'll be better at it than someone trained in political science. Better still, get a joint degree, but make sure you take all the rigorous methods training that economics offers. That is where the value added is.)

On the very off chance that you know that you want to work in a consulting firm as a research analyst, or that you want to work as a forecaster for a major corporation, or some other very narrow career that requires a Ph.D., again, go for it.

As many people have said, if you want to teach or work in business it doesn't matter as much where your degree is from -- though even then the more prestigious the degree the more options you will have. Also, graduate school has a funny way of changing people's minds about what they want to do. Whatever you come in thinking you want to do, there is a good chance you will come out the other end thinking you want to do research.

So assuming you've thought it through, and you've decided that you want an academic research career in economics then:

1) Study lots of math. The courses that have been mentioned several times are the right ones. But don't just study math (I would not go so far as to be a math major -- math minor is better). You are going to learn economics from the ground up in graduate school so a lot of economics as an undergraduate will probably be wasted. The best use of your undergraduate time (other than math and economics) is to broaden your perspectives. Take Psychology, History, Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, etc. You sure won't have time for this in graduate school (nor when you are an Assistant Professor).

2) Go to the highest ranked school you can, though remember that the rankings change and feel free to use this wiggle room to find a school that is a comfortable fit. Don't go to the school currently ranked N+1 if N or N-1 is much more appealing to you. Do visit the schools that accept you to get a feel for them. If you have a choice to make, use your visits to help you make that choice. Do not, as one person suggested, rule out schools that don't give you fellowships. Lots of schools, particularly large state schools, don't give many fellowships and expect that students will support themselves by teaching. This is the norm at these schools. Only the very very top students have full fellowship support. This is also true at many of the good private schools. When fellowship support is the norm it is usually outside money (NSF) and not inside money. Sometimes schools don't let first year students teach. Be sure you understand your chances for being able to support yourself with teaching and research positions once you arrive at a school, but don't rule out a school if you have to finance a year's tuition, or if you aren't sure how you are going to pay for all four years.

3) There are three main ingredients to a successful academic career. You should keep them in mind in preparing for graduate work, doing graduate work, and thereafter. All are important and none should be underestimated:

(i) You should have a very firm foundation in economic methodology in general (including econometrics) and in a particular area within economics. This is part of the reason why you should go to the best school you can. You can find good professors anywhere, but the professors at the very best schools will tend to be better connected and more likely to be helpful to you in building an expertise. You will be able to find very smart very good students at any school, but they (much more than good professors) are highly concentrated at the best schools. Since at least half of what you learn you learn from your fellow students (more at the better schools) this is very important. It is important to know mainstream economics even if you have no intention of working in the main stream. Whether your heresy is leftist, rightist, or not classifiable, if you want to influence the discussion in the profession there is no substitute for learning to speak its language and address its concerns.

(ii) Speaking of heresy, the second major requirement for a successful career is a unique perspective. If you don't have one you're work will not be original and you will be very unlikely to make the sorts of important contributions that get you tenure at a research oriented school. Nurture your discomforts. If something doesn't seem right to you it may not be wrong, but there may be more there than others have recognized, and that is the basis for an original contribution. If you are a libertarian (or a socialist, or a Naderite,...) there are a lot of things in mainstream economics that will chafe. Good! Use it. If you think long enough and hard enough about something that doesn't seem right you will either: decide you are wrong, develop the perfect argument to explain why you are right, or you'll come to a new understanding of the issue that is probably not only new to you but will be new and interesting to others as well. Any way you have something to show for your effort.

(iii) Be sure to nurture your professional relations. This is important for many reasons -- some good some bad. On the honorable side, there is only one thing more valuable than a friend who will carefully read your papers and give you thoughtful criticism of them -- an enemy who will read your papers and give them thoughtful and careful criticism. Don't assume that people who disagree with you are venal or stupid. Chances are they are neither. Talking with them may not be a pleasant experience -- you may find it frustrating (and occasionally humiliating since none of us is right all the time) -- but it is well worth the effort. Also, people are people. As much as we might like to think that we are judged only on the basis of our ideas and our professional contributions, never underestimate the importance of personal relations in determining how people will judge you or how it might influence your career. Of course everyone would rather have a friendly colleague than an obnoxious one all else held equal, but it goes beyond that and it matters a lot.

None of these three ingredients is essential. There are very good theorists who could never write an empirical paper. There are crackerjack applied people who couldn't write a model to save their lives. There are even some successful economists who have no technical tools what-so-ever. Don't suppose that you will be able to get away with it. Yes, there are people who have done amazingly well who have never had a really original idea in their lives. You don't want to be one of them. And of course everyone can cite examples of absolutely horrid people who have managed, none the less, to become distinguished academics. That doesn't mean that you won't have an easier time in life if you treat your colleagues not just with respect but care.