Bryan Caplan  

Another Reason to Get an Econ Ph.D.

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Bruce Charlton says that the hard sciences just aren't fun anymore.  The system now rewards workaholism and subservience a lot more than creativity:
Modern science is just too dull an activity to attract, retain or promote many of the most intelligent and creative people. In particular the requirement for around 10, 15, even 20 years of postgraduate 'training' before even having a chance at doing some independent research of one's own choosing, is enough to deter almost anyone with a spark of vitality or self-respect; and utterly exclude anyone with an urgent sense of vocation for creative endeavour. Even after a decade or two of 'training' the most likely scientific prospect is that of researching a topic determined by the availability of funding rather than scientific importance, or else functioning as a cog in someone else's research machine. Either way, the scientist will be working on somebody else's problem - not his own. Why would any serious intellectual wish to aim for such a career?
Back in the good old days, in contrast:
The whole process and texture of doing science has slowed-up. Read the memoirs of scientists active up to the middle 1960s - doing science then was nimble and fast-moving in texture and also longer-termist in ambition. Unexpected leads could be pursued. It was common for people to begin independent (really independent) research in their early- to mid-twenties. For the individuals concerned there was a palpable sense of progress, a crackling excitement.
This sounds like yet another reason to get an Econ Ph.D.  Want to start doing independent research in your early- to mid-twenties?  In econ, you still can.  So drop your test tubes and bunsen burners and get over here where the action is!
 
HT: Tyler


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Ryan writes:

Best places for those seeking PhDs right now are the emerging pharmacoeconomics and health econ programs. No post-doc requirements, immediate independent research, and lucrative opportunities outside of academia if you so choose. Plus, you'll be qualified to sit on death panels!

Jeff writes:
Want to start doing independent research in your early- to mid-twenties? In econ, you still can.

Although if you want to do research that actually makes a positive contribution to society, you're pretty much out of luck.

A few weeks ago, Paul Volcker made some news when he challenged a bunch of financial people to tell him a single recent financial innovation, other than the ATM, that was actually a net plus to society. I'm not aware that anyone answered his challenge.

Here's my challenge. Show me one piece of economic research from the last ten years that has actually led to better economic policy than whatever Milton Friedman would have advocated.

Eric Johnson writes:

Biomed profs are tenured by their universities -- they sure aint tenured by the NIH grant-meisters. A few, because of their stature, have de facto quasi-tenure as regards their funding. I would like to more of them grant-tenured -- fully so, and explicitly so. We would see work on more diverse hypotheses that way.

mike shupp writes:

In the 1960's, the US spent about 2.8% of GNP on science and engineering R&D, with most of that coming from government. Today we spend about 2.2% of GNP on R&D, with most of the money coming from corporations, and most of it strongly focused on near-term payoffs. Not suprisingly, science and engineering careers are less attractive than they once were and the "payoff" in new knowledge and capabilities has shrunk.

I have to assume the American people are getting PRECISELY what they want, and that science and enginering will continue to shrink in importance as time goes on. Fortunately R&D capabilities are increasing in other nations as the US declines. Our successors will have acomplishments and abilities of which modern Americans can only dream.

OK, we'll have bunches of economists.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"Here's my challenge. Show me one piece of economic research from the last ten years that has actually led to better economic policy than whatever Milton Friedman would have advocated." -Jeff

There have been advances in economics with policy implications in the last ten years, but (as current events demonstrate) they don't play a role in policy making (which seems to have reverted back to Old Keynesianism). This isn't only the fault of the econ profession, much of the blame lies with the politicians.

Doc Merlin writes:

Heh, I'm in the process of switching from a Physics Ph.D. program to Economics.

Tom West writes:

Show me one piece of economic research from the last ten years that has actually led to better economic policy than whatever Milton Friedman would have advocated.

Care to define better?

Economic policy is a trade-off between large numbers of different components. How these individual components are weighted is a function of individual utility functions.

I think it is when economists decide their utility function is *the* utility function and then start talking about the "best" economic policy that they go off the rails.

Robert Brown writes:

But in the hard sciences you learn to make stuff explode. It takes too long to blow up anything with economics.

William Newman writes:

Jeff writes "Show me one piece of economic research from the last ten years that has actually led to better economic policy than whatever Milton Friedman would have advocated."

That seems like an awfully high bar. Policy changes slowly, and is seldom optimal even when some people can see what would be optimal. Would you like to suggest half a dozen other years in the past in which only-decade-old research in economics led to clearly-better economic policy? That a brilliant and sensible economist of two decades before wouldn't have advocated?

If you'd accept a less stratospheric bar, I don't think Milton Friedman could've told you everything we know today about design of markets. There's been a lot of work done on that recently, and I don't get the impression that all the results are useless or obvious. Such results can affect the optimal choices about the gritty details of policies that MF broadly favored (e.g., wireless spectrum auctions).

Bill Conerly writes:

I wouldn't have believed this post if it weren't for a relative of mine getting a Ph.D. in a life sciences field. After an excrutiatingly long Ph.D., in which she was basically a lab assistant for a principal investigator, she's now looking forward to several years as a post-doc. Once again, someone else's flunky, though a pretty sophisticated flunky. Nothing at all like the story James Watson tells in The Double Helix about how he and Francis Crick followed their own nose and discovered the structure of DNA.

agnostic writes:

It should be the other way around, with econ students undertaking much longer apprenticeships and science students getting into it ASAP. Science relies more on fluid intelligence and math, econ much less so.

It's trivial to look up famous mathematicians and scientists and discover that they were publishing some of their greatest works in their 20s. Not for economists, though. I don't know every famous economist to look up, but the only one who published a major work in his mid 20s was Coase (Nature of the Firm paper published when he was 26).

Economics relies more on collecting a whole bunch of facts and trying to make sense of them, more like history, another field where the greats peak in middle age rather than their 20s.

So it seems like pumping out econ PhDs so early might not be the best thing -- they'll be great at the math and modeling part, but won't have acquired enough knowledge to model. Not saying they shouldn't learn math early -- hard to do it later -- but just that their apprenticeships should be longer overall.

Fabio Rojas writes:

Agnostic:

Your are quite wrong. Once economics became mathematical, people could crank it out in their 20s:

- Samuelson's dissertation (established modern economic language)

- Becker's dissertation (the first hard core rational choice treatment of a sociological topic, discrimination in markets)

- Levitt's basic approach of exploting natural experiments was present in his earliest papers

Many other seminal economic land marks were done by peoople in their eary 30's: Lucas' macro; Black-Scholes; etc. And so forth. The idea of the older scholar building on years of mundane work is essentially gone in economics. I think only economic historians peak late in life.

Yeah, this is all well and good, but when I starting inquiring about getting a Ph.D. in economics, everyone discouraged me from doing so.

And with my inability to get work using evolutionary and systems approaches to literature, I'm looking for alternatives.

agnostic writes:

Well early 30s is pretty far away from mid-20s. It wasn't hard to find people doing good work in that stage. I never said economists will peak "late in life," more like middle age. You have trouble parsing other people's arguments, just to shout "gotcha!" It's tiresome.

And you've only provided two more counter-examples (exploiting natural experiments is not a revolutionary idea). Like I said, I don't know every person to look up, but so far there are few apparent counter-examples.

Remember that we're talking about good work -- any math-adept young person can crank out a mathematical model that may bear little relation to the real world. I do it all the time sitting in Starbucks. We're talking about worthwhile work, not Black-Scholes pricing or value-at-risk. Give me the framework of marginalism, division of labor, comparative advantage, rent seeking, The Problem of Social Cost, etc., any day over poorly informed math models or hurried regressions.

agnostic writes:

Let me add that I'm not against mathematically modeling what economists are interested in. It's just that the subject matter is easier to model in physics or chemistry -- or to just discover it in math -- whereas amassing all of the relevant facts and seeing the big picture is much more laborious for the subject matter of economics.

Again, if you don't have a solid command over the facts and patterns you're trying to model, what exactly are you modeling?

Old Man writes:

Economics is the only literature genre which (a) requires that the writer obtain a PhD and (b) pretty much assures the writer a decent income.

Jeff writes:

William Newman: I admit that it's a high bar, so let's try a lower one. Milton Friedman published "Capitalism and Freedom" in 1962, nearly 50 years ago. I found it easily accessible when I first read it in 1975 as a 17-year old dropout in the Army. I went on to get a PhD in Economics, but have not seen anything in the intervening years that could beat it as a guide to what economic policy should be.

Making good (defined as "much better than what we have now") economic policy does not require much training. What it does require is integrity, and that is what is most lacking in our public officials. The voters really don't care, as most of them don't have much integrity either. There was an NBC News - Wall St Journal poll a couple of weeks ago that asked a random sample of registered voters a bunch of questions, including one that asked if the respondent had voted in the 2006 off-year Congressional election. Some 67 percent said they had. Actually, turnout for that election nationally was about 40 percent. So at least a quarter of the population thinks nothing of lying to an anonymous pollster even when there is nothing at stake. Is it any wonder that the Congress elected by these people is, as Mark Twain famously maintained, "America's native criminal class?"


Fabio Rojas writes:

Agnostic: It's not about "gotcha," it's about assessing when people do their best work. A few responses:

- Professors (such as myself) usually consider someone to be "young" when they are doing their PhD or a few years out. For most folks, that's around age 25-32 or so. The article that Bryan linked to correctly notes that independent work in biological and physical sciences only can start when someone is about 5-7 years past PhD. For most folks, that's about 35+.

- This is what you wrote: "It's trivial to look up famous mathematicians and scientists and discover that they were publishing some of their greatest works in their 20s. Not for economists, though. I don't know every famous economist to look up, but the only one who published a major work in his mid 20s was Coase (Nature of the Firm paper published when he was 26)."

I was just pointing out that this is mistaken. The examples I pointed out (Samuelson, Becker, Levitt) all did major work in their 20's. If one takes the "young = a few years after grad school," then many economists have done their best work in that age of life.

- You also wrote: "Remember that we're talking about good work -- any math-adept young person can crank out a mathematical model that may bear little relation to the real world. I do it all the time sitting in Starbucks. We're talking about worthwhile work, not Black-Scholes pricing or value-at-risk. Give me the framework of marginalism, division of labor, comparative advantage, rent seeking, The Problem of Social Cost, etc., any day over poorly informed math models or hurried regressions."

There's the rub! People can honestly disagree on what counts as good work, but we could probably agree on what counts as high impact work. And if you look in economics, a lot of high impact work is done by young people.

Even consider Bryan Caplan. I remember when he first told me about this idea about irrational voters, which is probably his best and most high impact work. It was a few years after he started teaching at Mason. That would have made him about 28-9 years old. Economics produces a lot of young people who do good work.

- If you I were to place a bet on the age of when economists publish the most high impact work, I'd bet it would be a few years out of grad school. That's about 28 or so.

- I'll agree with you on one point. It's a good thing for people to gather facts, synthesize, etc. It's also bad to focus too much on math. I find it distressing that economists are often too focused theorem proving than building economic insight of the type you describe (e.g., rent seeking; comparative advantage). But in an academic world that values fast publication, it's a rare person who can survive the academic system and produce that kind of research.

Chris Long writes:

I'd have to disagree that economics is a hard science - it's a combination of philosophy and very soft science. Economists argue that it's a hard science as a debate tactic, of course. As a group, economists talk far more and say far less than do hard scientists.

If economics would use systems math and time series exclusively, meaning they made models and stopped pretending that the math currently being used says anything at all about the economy or peoples' behavior, it would go a long way toward becoming a true science -- a complex science (vs. a simple science like physics and chemistry -- the so-called "hard" sciences). But it should never give up on philosophy, as that will keep it honest and human.

In fact, I would like to here propose that new defintion:

rather than "hard" and "soft" science, how about "simple" and "complex" sciences.

Simple = physics and chemistry

Complex = biology, ecology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics

Increasingly philosophy is brought into the complex sciences. My dream is that one day literature will be as well. (Maybe then I will be able to get a job.)

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