Bryan Caplan  

How Lucky Was I?

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Returned From Europe... Catching Up...
When I talk to economists who earned their econ Ph.D. in the 70s and 80s, they paint a grim picture: 70 hour workweeks, followed by truly comprehensive exams where everything's fair game and lots of students fail.

When I talk to economists who earned their econ Ph.D. in the 00s, they paint a different but equally grim picture.  Near-impossible admission hurdles, followed by grueling labor (though probably more in the 60 hour range).

My experience was totally different.  In 1993, Princeton accepted me from Berkeley with a 3.8 GPA, GREs in the high 90s, and a few strong letters of recommendation from semi-famous economists.  No publications, no research experience, no extra-curriculars.  During my time at Princeton, I never worked more than 40 hours per week, and I finished in four years.

All of which leaves me wondering: How lucky was I?  Could it really be the case that I wandered into grad school during a brief golden age of easy admissions and light workloads?  Or are my seniors and juniors simply exaggerating to raise their status?


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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Joe Torben writes:

They are simply exaggerating.

yoshi writes:

One wonders if these economists would of survived in the real world where you actually have to deliver something for those 70 hour workweeks.

Willem writes:

N = 1 from the Netherlands: Among my friends the Ph.D.-students I know work harder (at least more hours, more weekends including sundays) than me and my friends following other careers.

The only people I know that make the same kind of hours are lawyers at big lawfirms and M&A-bankers.

All the rest of us are in awe of how much the Ph.D.-guys work for what they earn (you get a salary over here for being a Ph.D., but it is lousy and the prospects for a Ph.D. aren't in anyway better financially). There must be some big hidden utility somewhere.

Eric writes:

I think they are exaggerating. I am in a phd program currently at a top 3 school and I work 45-50 hours a week on average. The distribution of work time is different than a standard job in the private sector as I work late nights and weekends frequently. On the other hand, I can take much longer vacations than I could were I employed in the real world.

It does seem that admissions has become more competitive. I think it would be hard to get in to Princeton now with your academic record without some research assistant work or a publication.

Hi, Joe.

Facetiousness aside: Nah, we're not all exaggerating. However, it's also true that the ultimately successful students from the most difficult programs--those who worked hardest--probably bias Bryan's sample because they are the ones with whom Bryan likely still has contact.

Getting one's Ph.D. is a goal and a reward in and of itself. To be required to work 70 hour weeks in tedium for years on end would probably be too much to require. But not all that work should be counted as hard labor. Some of it is consumption.

On the hard labor side, my own experience at Chicago in the late 1970s was absolutely marked by many 70-hour weeks. Passing the Core exam was every bit as arduous as rumored. It made no difference that top-notch prior students like Tom McCurdy and Alan Stockman assured me over coffee in my first year that I was a shoo-in. With 70 entering students in my class and a 40% pass rate for the Core, much less any hope of financial aid riding on passage in the upper half, I'd have been a fool to not work every waking minute.

That said, and despite the rigors and exhaustion, it was a personal choice and a glorious one in which I and many of my fellow students reveled not only in the first year, but continuing into subsequent years. By hook or by crook, I and my fellow-students recognized we were privy to what were clearly the best of the best--teachers and students creating an environment of incessant excitement and challenge. Day or night, walking to class, in class or working on homework, studying for tests, writing papers, at Reg in the bowels of the library, over breakfast, lunch, dinner, or drinks, we were immersed in working on economics.

Who would not want to read and study every waking minute when surrounded with the challenges of survival coupled with the opportunity to sit in class and even at the table in workshops with teachers (many of whom didn't surprise us when they became Nobelists or otherwise rewarded and respected) like Gary Becker, Dierdre McClosky, Jim Heckman, Bob Lucas, Jacob Frenkel, George Stigler, etc.?

And who would not be enticed to spend time working with peers as thoughtful, dedicated, and exciting as those with whom I was surrounded? In my entering class and the class years just tangent to mine people worked in study groups and socialized together. We lived and breathed economics. My study groups and friends from that era not only inspired each other but have been astoundingly successful and ambitious, one after the next. When the Core was under our belts, we often chose to make it even harder and more time-consuming. For example, Craig Hakkio (a class or so before mine) and I, who shared a walk-route from our apartment building to school, agreed to read 20 pages a night of books like Smith's Wealth of Nations and later Friedman and Schwartz's Monetary History of the United States and discuss our readings over breakfast each morning at a McDonald's along the way.

My question to Bryan would be: Were you really that lucky if you weren't so inspired by your teachers and fellow-students that you wanted to live and breathe every waking minute studying economics? Sure, it was hard work, nothing to be romanticized. But we kept it up by choice, not by force. Whether it was a product of the times or the circumstances, there were some benefits as well as costs.

Jason writes:

I went to a lower to mid level PhD program. (My undergrad was from a 3rd tier big state school 3.3 gpa. My GRE percentiles were 66 ver, 82 Mat, 90 ana.)

It took me 5 years to finish. I rarely worked more than 40 hours a week. But generally when I worked, I worked. I don't think I could have worked a true 70 hour week for very long without my brain turning to pudding.

I think the stories of the 70 hour work weeks are either exagerations or the 70 hours included much goofing off.

Scott Wentland writes:

Some students have to work a lot harder because they have to compensate for their undergrad background. I didn't have as much math as I would have liked going into grad school, so I had to spend more time with assignments and readings.

I suspect some non-native speakers didn't have enough English language classes, which means they have to spend more time with the assignments and readings too.

If you're a native speaker and had plenty of math, grad school isn't bad at all.

Patrick L writes:

Makes sense. We've been seeing downward pressure on the return from higher education for a while. While this could be explained with the return on investment being captured by universities, there's probably an easier explanation. In initial conditions the supply and demand of economists is low, but then you have a period where demand rises but supply is sticky, and now we have too much supply of economics for the current demanded.

Real Wage levels must decline. Wages are mostly sticky, so the quality of labor must adjust to compensate. I don't have the data to back the above up, but it shouldn't be too hard to prove.

I had a teacher who said he should fail his students because we were competition. That doesn't seem too solid of a strategy though. Maybe we should focus on increasing demand? Perhaps a marketing solution is in order?

Eric Falkenstein writes:

I think it depends on the school. My school failed about half the class on our prelims in the early 90's, but as a second tier school (Northwestern), I think the professors were afraid such students would embarrass them later, or waste everyone's time. Princeton is a top tier school, so perhaps they figured they didn't need to be so hard on their students. Rumor has it, once admitted to Harvard, you basically get your PhD if you want it.

I agree with Wentland, that if your math isn't above average you have to do more work to catch up. I would take several hours to do problem sets some better prepared students would do in an hour.

But at that age, learning a field you think you will apply the rest of your life, it's probable that such kids will be thinking about the discipline most of the day. So, if you distinguish between time on problem sets vs. time thinking about econ, I bet it's always been the same.

Tracy W writes:

People do tend to over-estimate the number of hours they work a week.

steve writes:

judging by some of your writings, a few more hours and tougher standards in grad school would've been to your benefit.

JLA writes:

I'm a first year in a mid-range program. Based on my experience, those reports are not exaggerated. Of course, the amount of work in a given week is highly variable. During the month before an exam period (midterms or finals), I worked substantially more than 60 hours a week. At other times, I worked substantially less.

BenG writes:

Ignore the hours worked, the place where you got really lucky was a professorship. Education is a Malthusian environment, lots of grad students, few professors. You were a good undergrad (good gpa from Berkley) and if economic grad schools at the time would have expected more, then Berkely would have provided those opportunities. Enough people go to grad school, that its generally pretty fair, the best people get a legitimate opportunity somewhere. In contrast, professorships are much harder to get and much more random / path dependent. The good economic conditions in the 90's definitely increased your odds.

Les writes:

I am reminded of the saying that: "If your work is work, you are in the wrong line of work. If your work is like play, you are in the right line of work."

Zac Gochenour writes:

I can't speak to PhD program workloads, but admissions really are brutal, especially for those coming from lower-ranked undergraduate schools and/or lacking a transcript with A's in a wide variety of math courses. I have heard tales of a bygone era where you could get into a top grad program without real analysis. Nowadays, conventional wisdom is often to skip the econ undergraduate degree and pursue math or physics, which will be more impressive to adcoms. Near-perfect grades and an 800 quant GRE are practical requirements for top programs.

David Jinkins writes:

I am currently studying for my end of August qualifying exams at Penn State. I keep pretty good track of how much I study. I will begin between 7:00 and 7:30 AM and work until noon. I am back work between 1:00 and 2:00PM, and usually quit for the day between 6:00 and 7:00PM. This is my schedule about five days a week, since i have to schedule around other events that come up. I do study a good amount on those days too. So on my standard days, a low estimate would be 8.5 hours, and a high estimate 10 hours. I probably put in 55-60 hours a week.

Of course i did just waste 15 min writing this reply...

David Jinkins writes:

typo: the high estimate should have been 11 hrs not 10

Jack writes:

First, I agree with Scott: many students enter with a less-than-ideal background and have to catch up. Also, Prof. Caplan as a near-top Berkeley undergrad you were probably one of the best entering in your cohort, so you could succeed at 40 hrs/week.

Own experience in a top-15 program: Yes, 70 hr weeks during the entire PhD, but I had a relatively math-weak background and I wanted to finish in 4 yrs, while my peers finished in 5.5 years (median).

Finally, my experience is that those who do Theory work longer hours than those who do Applied, and I suspect many did Theory at Princeton. But I could be wrong.

jc writes:

Good points all around.

Yes, there's a natural tendency to overestimate hours worked - especially when work is sometimes a grey area, e.g., if I'm thinking about a paper while eating or browsing econlog, am I working?

And yes, I have heard that less prestigious schools sometimes overcompensate and work students harder. And, of course, if one is deficient in certain areas, be it math or language related, one may have to work harder.

Personally (as alluded to already by some posters, e.g., @Lauren Landsburg) I see a large amount of variance in hours worked by PhD students. Those that wish to skate by sometimes can, working a ridiculously low amount of hours. The price they often pay is taking longer to finish, being placed at worse schools, and not acquiring all the skills, knowledge, and experience necessary to thrive as an accomplished researcher. On the other hand, there are students who, if they're awake and aren't doing something necessary like laundry or grocery shopping, are working. And their prospects, from graduation to tenure and beyond, reflect this.

I, personally, was told by older professors that the PhD process was a living hell full of long hours and lots of hazing. Younger professors seemed less apt to hold, or at least express, similar views. Regarding the hours, at least, my own experience suggests that it is a self imposed hell - and, actually, if one is interested and experiencing a fair amount of success, it's really not hell at all; it's just long.

(I also agree that lots of schools seem to try and underwrite more efficiently at the front end.)

Norman writes:

At the lower tier school I attend, I have to say my first two years were about as you describe: grueling work about 60 hours per week. But as many have pointed out, my math was weak and my entire first year was basically me playing catch up. After the second year quals, though, I got a lot more efficient and probably put in about 40 hours a week. I'll be finishing in five years instead of four, though.

John Fast writes:

Luxury! You lived in luxury!

"Cardboard box? Oh, you were lucky!"

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