Bryan Caplan  

On the Clock

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The excellent Fabio Rojas offers bluntly excellent advice for grad students in the latest Inside Higher Ed.  He begins by distinguishing "short-clock" from "long-clock" disciplines:
Some disciplines kick people out in four to six years. I call these "short clock." Engineering, economics, and biomedical sciences fit this mold. Others are more extreme. In many cases, you can stay in graduate school for 10 (!) years and still be considered "fresh." I call these "long clock."
For short-clock disciplines, Fab's advice is short and sweet:
Short clock disciplines do not expect much from grad students. You don't need a long list of publications or even a terribly well-developed paper - because you've only been working on it a year or so. These disciplines tend to rely heavily, almost exclusively, on adviser recommendations and Ph.D. program reputation because there is not much else to go on. The bottom line is that most students who make it to candidacy will soon be kicked out, whether they like it or not. So get smart: get an adviser with a good track record and make sure your job market paper is great.
For long-clock disciplines, he's got more to say:

Unlike short clock disciplines, you will not be kicked or nudged out after X years. You will be allowed to drift indefinitely. If you don't finish your dissertation, no one will remind you. If you dedicate all your time to teaching, no one will care. Even if you do finish your dissertation, people will sit on it for semesters and nothing will happen. To blunt, the graduate school system is not designed to help you graduate in a reasonable amount of time. It's designed to waste your time.

The ten million dollar question:

So how on earth do people graduate in departments where no one lifts a finger to help you? A few paths:

  • Get published: Once you get published in real journal, then many faculty will let you graduate. Why? Publication is often a prerequisite for a job. If you are published, no one feels bad about letting you go on the job market. It also shows that you are serious about your career. The higher ranked the journal, the better.
  • Demand it: Sometimes you simply have to be pushy. I've seen cases where a person has published, written their dissertation, and still nothing happens. You just have to say (politely), "What else can I do to complete my degree?" If that fails, see the graduate chair or dean. Be a jerk. If people aren't letting you graduate, they are costing you money and wasting your time.
  • Get a job: In some programs, they don't let you graduate until you get a job. If that's the case, graduation is actually simple. Publish first (or write a good job market paper in short clock fields). Then go on the job market. When you get the job offer, you'll see that the dissertation hearing gets scheduled fairly quickly.
My advice for long-clock disciplines is a little more radical: Stop before you startGet an econ Ph.D. instead - and call your interests "economics."  Odds are, you'll have tenure in econ before you would have found your first job in history.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Two Things writes:

What about the (hazing/ competitive-entry-restriction/ non-tariff-trade-barrier) requirement of tensor calculus and/or other esoteric chicken scratches for an Econ Ph.D.?

gabriel rossman writes:

that essay was reprinted from a longer series at fabio's blog
http://orgtheory.wordpress.com/grad-skool-rulz/

most of the other essays have similarly good advice

Troy Camplin writes:

I didn't have this experience at all in getting my Ph.D. in the humanities. I got my Ph.D. in exactly 4 years, and the dissertation was written and defended within a year. Of course, I don't have the publications I need, and I don't have the benefits of the short-clock degree mentioned, so I'm writing this at the hotel where I work.

N. Shah writes:

How does the advice for any social scientist to get an Econ PhD cohere with the other advice I get, namely, to take all the math you can to get into a good Econ PhD program?

It seems like the pre-requisites for getting into a decent Econ program preclude knowing much else (including Econ, often), and bridging that math gap seems like it would be a massive effort of questionable worth for someone who just wants to use the better structure of and market for Econ PhDs.

Anyone who gets a Ph.D. in economics but who is not a mathematician and does want to understand the real world, as opposed to unrealistic models of it, AND who wants to teach at a top-tier liberal-arts college or research university, is making a mistake.

Try political science. It is eclectic, it is reality-friendly but model-tolerant, and several students I've mentored are now tenure track at Yale, the University of London, the University of Illinois, etc. You can study political economy or you can study politics and policy making. It is a glorious field unhindered by the self-importance conferred by (faux) Nobels and uncommitted to any dominant paradigm, so it gives you lots of intellectual elbow room.

Contact me for more information. Edcritrev@gmail.com

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