One loyal MR reader, Lee Beck, writes:
You handled love advice so well (Dear Tyler/Prudie)--how about career counseling?
MR is my favorite blog, and this is weighing heavily on my career plans. Is this foolish?
My idea is that economics can bridge the gap between my love of math (like real-analysis) and my love of political philosophy (like that of your man Hayek). Sadly, this hasn't worked out so far. I thought my micro and macro courses last year were bores. This confused me so much that I took my obsession with Richard Posner to be a sign that I should go into law instead of economics. Is that crazy?
How can I know whether being an economics professor is for me? What if I worked through Debreu's Theory of Value next semester and liked it. Would that be proof? What's the hard stuff that I should love before entering the field?
The answer, of course, lies beneath the fold...
It is not foolish to want to become an economist, but it is foolish to be attracted by this blog. Yes we have serious posts about the option value of gold. But graduate study in economics will not sample "Markets in Everything" (remember the Whizzinator?), not consider whether teenage Thomas Jefferson would have a crush on Veronica Mars, nor will it ask "Why Don’t People Have More Sex?". Liking this blog, on average, is a sign that you have broad interests and thus are ill-suited for graduate study in economics. There is also, dare I say it, a chance that you are simply a silly goose with time to kill. On the other hand, Greg Mankiw is now reading Jacqueline Passey, so anything is possible. Welcome, Bizarro Universe.
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 to get into a Top Six or perhaps Top Ten graduate school. Note that white Americans from this category have been partially preempted by competition from foreigners.
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.
There is a third category, although you will fall into it (or not) ex post:
3. You do not fit either #1 or #2. Yet you have climbed out of the cracks rather than falling into them. You do something different, and still have managed to make your way doing research, albeit of a different kind. You will always feel like an outsider in the profession and perhaps you will be underrewarded. But you will have a great deal of fun and in the long run perhaps a great deal of influence.
Sadly, the chance of achieving #3 is fairly low. You need some luck and perhaps one or two special skills other than math.
Did I mention that if you have a clearly defined "Plan B" your chance of succeeding at #3 diminishes? It is important to be fully committed.
Greg Mankiw is a classic #1. Brad DeLong started off as a #1, although he has been evolving into a #3. Maybe he was a #3 in hiding all along. I’ve been a #3, although with a dose of #1 from having gone to Harvard. Alex is a classic #3.
Another thing: Don’t expect any classes to be interesting. How should I put it? "Most professors suck." But a good professor can make almost any topic interesting. So your reaction to the courses is just a reaction to the instructors you have sampled. Treat that as noise, although I will ask why you are worse at picking teachers than at picking advice columnists.
Should you become a legal academic? You will have a greater chance to work with ideas and concepts. A greater chance to write books and also to read them. You are more likely to strut, wear three-piece suits, and speak in stentorian tones. If I were starting out today, perhaps I would take that route, although I would fail at the strut and the suits. The pay is higher and upward mobility is easier to accomplish. But overall the quality of intellectual debate is higher in the economics profession. In economics the return to rhetoric is lower and you can’t get away with blather. Your articles are refereed by your peers, and not by graduate students (well, it depends what journal you submit to…). The academic world of law has weaker quality filters, which of course also makes it more open to new ideas.
Your choice, but note that many would-be legal academics end up lured by the private sector or government work.
And by the way, buy her roses, ask her to marry you, and live happily ever after. The rest probably won’t matter so much for your happiness and life satisfaction.