Arnold Kling  

Why Get an Econ Ph.D?

My Fake Economist Artic... Online Textbooks...

Tyler Cowen writes,

Two core groups of people are well-suited to be economists:

1. You math GRE score is over 800, you are totally focused, you love working long hours on your own, and you have good enough letters of recommendation...

2. You could be happy as an academic without much of a research career. Working at a teaching school is a rewarding life, albeit a poor one relative to your investment in human capital.

I would say that #1 is only a necessary, not a sufficient condition, to head in the direction of becoming an academic star. I would say that #2 should come with the caveat that many of the small colleges that value teaching are in small towns, which puts limits on spousal career opportunities and may otherwise constrain your lifestyle. Also, the caliber of students at small colleges may be declining, for a variety of reasons.

Speaking at an Institute for Humane Studies seminar, I talked about my love-hate relationship with academics.

I see academics as very much a status game. You worry about whether or not you have tenure, the reputation of your department, the reputation of the journals in which you publish, and so on. I would rather play a game where I can gauge my impact on people's lives than one where position on the pecking order is everything.

A non-academic might have major investments in a family, friends who are not colleagues, hobbies, and voluntary organizations. Academics instead tend to have very concentrated emotional portfolios.

When you choose a career, it is important to consider the people with whom you will be spending time. Those suited to academia may be invigorated by the cocktail party chatter and lunchtime banter of professors, and they have a hard time engaging with ordinary people. I am more the opposite.

Another way to look at economics graduate school is, "Compared to what?" I think that compared to a Ph.D in philosophy, an economics degree is likely to give you better opportunities. But my guess is that the right sort of engineering or biology degree would create even better career choices. I think that law is likely to be more career-broadening also, if for no other reason than it puts you into contact with practicing lawyers.

If you are attracted to econ as an undergraduate because it combines math and philosophy, be aware that in graduate school the philosophical part pretty much disappears. In that sense, economics at a graduate school level is not as far removed from engineering as you might think.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Education

COMMENTS (11 to date)
eric writes:

If you have a GRE score above 800 you should focus on the Fields Medal.

Horatio writes:

It's impossible to score above 800, 800 is the maximum.

Omer K writes:

I keep reading that Economics has become too mathematical to its own detriment... last place was P.T Bauer's "Equality the Third world and Economic delusion".

How much of that stuff has any practical applications worth its salt anyway?

Lancelot Finn writes:

I'm here to tell you: it really does require a math score above 800 to get into good PhD schools these days. I got an 800 on the math GRE, with a Masters from Harvard under my belt, too, and none of the top schools let me in.

liberty writes:

1. Must you be able to get into a top program and be an "academic star" for you to decide to pursue a PhD in economics?

2. As to necessary but not sufficient, I can tell you that some math-whiz types get really confused as soon as they need to apply the maths to concepts that most economists find easy. I could never understand how some very mathematically minded could get confused over simple graphs and concepts - but some do.

I would say that the first condition ought to be "loves economics" then "can spend hours reading economics texts on a sunny afternoon" and finally "finds most economics concepts and graphs straightforward to consider and analyze" and maybe "gets passionate about whether an economic theory is correct or not while others in the room snicker and call him a geek."

liberty writes:

I should add that per #1, the point being made was that you'd be stuck at a sub-par teaching insitute if you don't go to a top tier school, "without much of a research career."

I cannot agree, although I am not really qualified to know. I have seen many an interesting book and paper written by PhDs from third run schools and professors at top tier schools that attended 2nd tier schools, and profs at 2nd tier schools that attended third tier schhols, etc.

And there is plenty of work in the private sector for economists with PhDs. Once someone has a PhD, he is respected as a researcher and can write books and articles while not affiliated with a university, while working in the private sector and can then begin to accept research fellowships and teaching positions a bit later in the career, expanding his opportunities.

Just my 2c

aaron writes:

A GRE of 800 implies a score above 800, it simply doesn't measure any higher.

An 800 GRE is no great feat. I got one, and I'm no genius.

aaron writes:

Clarification: I was referring to the quantitative section, not the whole GRE.

Dog of Justice writes:

It's impossible to score above 800, 800 is the maximum.

Tyler is probably referring to the GRE Math subject test, which has a higher maximum (that even varies between test administrations, since they try to correct for variations in test difficulty). Too many people get 800s on the math portion of the general GRE for that to be a strong filter.

Dog of Justice writes:

Hey people, that line about > 800 was a joke!

Well, never mind my hypothesis, Tyler clarified his intent in his comments section.

Robert writes:

I'm currently a software engineer, age 52, who will be able to comfortably retire in a few years. Was thinking about what to do with my third career (the first was military). Spending a few years in school seems fun, but if I pursued a Ph.D., I would likely be eligible for Social Security when I finished.

I do have a strong math background through differential equations which I even used in my career. I scored the requisite 2390 on the GRE. Have a couple econ courses from my 32 hour MBA program.

What are the up sides and down sides? How long should it take?


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