DC Economist writes:
I am in this cohort of economists (although ashamedly a non-responder to the NSF SED survey – I filled it out but neglected to mail it). And I did chose a government job over an academic offer and I’ve never been sorry that I did.
All my academic offers (2002) were from public institutions, mostly on the west coast and mid-west. For the next five years of my career, almost all of those departments had pay freezes. Meanwhile, I was quickly promoted in my government job. While the cost of living in DC eats a comfortable share of that salary differential, it was decidedly better financial move in retrospect to take the federal job. (I did not know that ex ante; my federal starting salary was actually lower than the starting pay for my best academic offer, and I assumed I was making a financial sacrifice to take a job I genuinely preferred.)
You can make even more money in consulting, but it’s a different world, and I’ve known a fair number of economists who move back and forth between consulting and government, depending on their relative preference for money vs. interesting work. Colleagues that have moved back and forth between academia and government have often voiced to me their extreme surprise how interesting and rewarding the work can be.
I just got back from recruiting at the AEAs and as always, I remain truly surprised how strongly candidates prefer academic jobs to government work. Academic jobs often have serious drawbacks — geography, teaching, collegiality (the incentives are stronger for us to all get along on this side of the market), the gut-wrenching uncertainty of the tenure track. Government jobs often offer better opportunities to do research (especially empirical work) and find similar co-authors. DC is also a great place to be an economist – lots of jobs, lots of interesting work – and the policy work is often more rewarding than teaching can often be. The one serious drawback is a lack of sabbaticals and summer research time. I often groan at the inevitable co-author email flood in May – let’s get back to our paper! – while I’m still working as hard in June as I was in March. But that’s not enough to tempt me back to academia – I’m much, much happier here.
But every year I offer a job to a junior candidate who turns me down for a really marginal academic job. I understand being turned down for a good-to-great academic offer, but turning this job down for a really marginal academic department makes no sense at all to me. And yet so many junior candidates can’t seem to imagine themselves in another line of work that they torpedo their own research opportunities to take a lower-paying, high-teaching load, academic job. Maybe they are just not that into research, and would rather have their summers off than be placed somewhere where they will work harder but have better opportunities for research. Or maybe they worry that all government jobs are being some boring government bureaucrat and they can’t see past that initial bias (those jobs do exist, but those agencies aren’t often looking for Ph.D. economists at AEAs to fill them).
Graduate students really should be more strongly considering some of the great government jobs in the DC area. You really can have a great, rewarding career here.