Arnold Kling  

Ph. D Curriculum in Economics

A Farewell to Alms: Ove... Reader Survey...

Reader Chris Morgan asks,

Your frequent, insightful critiques of the weaknesses in mainstream Ph.D. curriculum's has made me ponder this (you do have this question coming): if you were to put together a Ph.D. program, what would be (1) essential courses--topics and skills--that you would emphasize in the core, (2) areas of specialization and research paradigms you would have in it. What would you consider a good dissertation?

Taking as given the way that publishing, hiring and tenure decisions are made, I do not think that there is much leeway to alter the curriculum. If the basic unit of measurement is the journal article, and what the journals value is mathematical models and econometrics, then it makes sense to focus teaching on mathematical models and econometrics.

Before you change the curriculum, you have to change the incentive structure. For empirical research, we need to figure out how to measure and evaluate reliability of results--statistical significance is not an adequate metric. The standards for rigor in theoretical work have to focus on clarity of writing, rather than the use of mathematical notation. Maybe 50 years ago there was a strong positive correlation between clarity and formalism, but we've reached the point where that correlation is reversed.

Also, the weighting scheme among books, journal articles, and "other" (e.g., blogs) needs to change. Right now, a book counts for no more than a journal article, and perhaps for less. I think that a blog that demonstrates an ability to articulate economic concepts might even deserve a positive weight at some point.

With a different incentive structure in place in academia, one would be free to reform the curriculum. I would move some of the more mathematical parts of the required micro theory sequence into a separate elective sequence called "mathematical economics." I would eliminate the required macro theory sequence. I would instead require "history of economic thought," and I would put a lot of macro into that sequence. I would certainly let someone get a degree without having to master the mathematical grinding that masquerades as contemporary macro theory.

I think that a course in "communication of economic ideas" could be useful, provided that it were rigorous. The goal would be to have students be better able to think, explain, and write more clearly. By rigorous, I mean that it should have some philosophy of science perspective, so that students stop and think about when math helps to discipline thinking and when it does not. It should have some cognitive psychology perspective, so that economists can learn how they might better communicate to broader audiences. If such a course were of high quality, I would make it required.

I would be inclined to require a course in economic history. There is much to be learned from trying to understand events like the Industrial Revolution or the Great Depression. There is much to be learned from more detailed analysis of lesser issues, as well.

I would like to see economists know more about how businesses really operate. Perhaps they could benefit from business school courses, but I am skeptical. Maybe they could gain insight from blogs, such as Marc Andreessen, Jeff Cornwall, or Organizations and Markets. I certainly would recommend reading Paul Graham and Amar Bhide.

For most courses, if not all, I would require fewer exams and problem sets. Instead, I would require more papers, and perhaps blogs. The papers can be critical summaries of part of the existing literature, for example.

For econometrics, I think that the focus should be on the proper handling of data. Often, we take data from other sources, and the construction of that data affects how it can be used. Sophisticated estimation techniques should be taught if and only if they address unavoidable quirks in data construction. In this respect, however, I think that economists do rather well in comparison with other disciplines.

Speaking of other disciplines, it might not be a bad idea to have a required course or two in "other social sciences." Relevant psychology, sociology, and political science, all at a graduate level of sophistication, would be included.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Education

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Robin Hanson writes:

For empirical research, we need to figure out how to measure and evaluate reliability of results--statistical significance is not an adequate metric. The standards for rigor in theoretical work have to focus on clarity of writing, rather than the use of mathematical notation.

The actual standard of evaluation is that you have to get a referee to like your paper. So why do you think referees don't like papers with clear writing or reliable results? Until you address that it is not clear you have a feasible alternative to propose.

Mike writes:

At the risk of being too much of an opportunist, the question from the reader, and Arnold's response to it, relate exactly to what we are trying to do at AIER.

We have run a summer economics education program since 1946. It was originally envisioned as a full-time graduate program in economics (which I hope to possibly resuscitate in the near future if things go right). Today, we use it to train 15 or so entering PhD students (and law students) in the things that traditional undergraduate and graduate programs in economics do not cover. We emphasize thinking and communicating like economists; we emphasize the methodology of economics; we emphasize the role of property rights and sound money; we study a great deal of economic and macroeconomic history; and most important we emphasize that economics is not merely a positive science to be placed in a box, but rather something that is a more wholistic discipline. The program is extremely heavy on writing and reading, and leaves the text-book theory and hard-core math to the existing graduate schools.

Many GMU students have come through our program. Many disntinguished students and scholars have been a part of it. This past year Rick Stroup, George Selgin, Anna Schwartz, John Cawley, Bill Ford, and many others were scholars and guest speakers. Past students include Judith Chevalier (Yale and new NY Times author), Ben Powell (now at Suffolk in Boston), Bruce Meyer, Doug Irwin, John Cawley, Scott Bullock and more.

Students take part in an intensive 4 week program and at the end receive fairly substantial scholarship awards to continue their graduate studies.

I would be more than thrilled to field questions and provide more information to interested students and scholars - I am in the process of freshening up the program and expanding it. You can visit the old web site here:

The other advantage of a graduate program like we are envisioning is that our program is independent of any political interest; it is independent of any government interest; and it is independent of any interest from a concentration of wealth or business. Plus we have been operating independently since our founding in 1933.

-Mike Rizzo (Economic Program Director)

D Case writes:

I agree with your view about revising economics graduate programs. I am in the midst of finishing my dissertation now and often feel like much of my time during courses was spent doing math problems rather than thinking about substantive issues. For example, I know well many of the most advanced econometric techniques available but actually applying them in a meaningful way- as opposed to just an intellectual excercise-has been difficult. I believe if we spent more time studying and discussing economic approaches to problem solving and understanding what the big questions are, most students woud be better prepared to push the literature as opposed to filling in small technical gaps.

Kimmitt writes:

Seconded, on all counts. Also, given that the vast majority of most of our contributions will be either in the classroom or in educating policymakers, it seems to me vital that we include at least a course on presenting economics to non-economists (or mere undergrads).

Troy Camplin writes:

Are you suggesting that someone needs to put together something like an interdisciplinary journal of economics? Or a journal of ecomomics and complexity? Or economics and the social sciences? Or evolution and economics? Or economics and philosophy? (I would personally welcome a few more examples of the last one -- I have an article on philosophy -- specifically, ethics -- and economics I would love to get published that is not quite appropriate for the only journal I could find that is interested in the combination of the two -- the one put out my the Acton Institute.)

omh writes:

My impression is that lot of "thinking" students have the same experience as the commenters here. But some journals are interdisciplinary, though, like "Economics and Philosophy" and "Politics, Philosophy and Economics".

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