From the comments, on being a government economist

by on January 8, 2014 at 3:32 am in Economics, Political Science | Permalink

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.

1 Steve Sailer January 8, 2014 at 4:02 am

Naive young economists apparently believe that free market stuff they’ve been taught.

They’ll learn, because of course you want to get a government job and get close to the center of power. After awhile, you can quit and become an influence-peddler.

2 Max January 8, 2014 at 8:20 am

Very cynic but true on the money. Of you are pragmatic, don’t care about principles or be actually convinced that government work is productive and good, then yeah take a government job.

In my opinion this essay shows why I hate to pay taxes and finance these people. If your choice is academia, tax funded, or DC wonk-work, tax funded, then something is wrong with your subject of study.

3 Tom T. January 8, 2014 at 8:25 am

Oh, for the days when a young economist could hang out his own shingle….

4 So Much For Subtlety January 8, 2014 at 4:31 am

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.

I wonder if they have thought about the externalities and other associated costs to the public of well educated economists finding government employment better than academia?

This is a mile stone in the decline of the US. The fact that the only bitsof the US doing really well are within easy commuting distance of Washington, and wherever shale oil is found, is not unalloyed good news.

5 ummm January 8, 2014 at 5:23 am

Manhattan, silicon valley/bay area, long beach, aspen, south beach ..many area doing well in the US

6 We live in interesting times January 8, 2014 at 9:02 am

Is hollowing out the middle a good idea?

7 Govco January 8, 2014 at 1:04 pm

For donuts, yes! The hole means more delicious glazed crust.

8 prognostication January 8, 2014 at 1:31 pm


9 Ray Lopez January 8, 2014 at 5:24 am

Great comment by the economist boffin (a UK term indicating government scientist–and economics are still the dismal science)

I too would like to laud the DC area for being good to me, allowing me and my family to comfortably break the $4.5M entry point for net worth to be in the top 1% in the US.

Though I spend most of my time outside the USA (in the Philippines at the moment, dating a woman less than half my age), I maintain roots in DC since it’s a great place to get rent seeker income, in my case literally as a DC landlord.

I concur with the boffin: being a beltway boffin beats battling academic battles. Years ago there was a reporter in the Washington Post–I believe his name was Mike Causey, YES! my chessplayer memory is excellent, he’s still around I see at WTOP radio–who used to always complain how Fed workers were underpaid relative to the private sector. Of course we can lay this myth to rest.

10 Nathan Goldblum January 8, 2014 at 7:30 am

Do you also employ these run-on sentences in speech? Do you regularly enjoy amphetamines or a functional equivalent?

11 liberalarts January 8, 2014 at 8:11 am

Academia, dominated by government-owned universities, is hardly the comparison group for the relative pay of federal employees. First, I recommend a quick check of Ph.D. economist salaries for those working on Wall Street, Big Pharma, auto companies, etc.

12 Frederic Mari January 8, 2014 at 8:17 am

You’re dating only one woman? What are you? Some kind of failure?

You should enjoy your income/wealth advantage to the fullest. Get a squadron of them to beg for your attentions…

13 msgkings January 8, 2014 at 11:45 am

I have a hunch he’s dating prior_approval

14 Steve Sailer January 8, 2014 at 6:28 pm

Dennis Rodman’s father, Philander Rodman Jr., has found happiness in the Philippines fathering something like 26 children.

15 Ray Lopez January 8, 2014 at 11:11 pm

It’s true what SS says. He’s in the part of the Philippines where the Clark Air Force base used to be, and it’s very “American” over there (tidy front lawns for example). I’m in the south, where it’s more wild. The girl I’m dating is stunning. I won’t get into details here. I asked recently whether she would allow me to share her sister (as a sort-of joke of course, but just to see what she would say) but she said “no” emphatically, proving that girls here are not that desperate that they will do anything!

16 Frederic Mari January 9, 2014 at 3:03 am

You should seek more desperate ones. You’re missing on so much potential… And it wouldn’t make you a bad person at all, just one aware of supply and demand…. 🙂

17 dismissivewankingmotion January 8, 2014 at 5:36 am

Say, do any of you know a guy who’s brilliant, fit, wealthy, a sexual dynamo, and manages to deftly weave that into conversation? I heard he posts around here.

18 Frederic Mari January 8, 2014 at 8:17 am


19 Ricardo January 8, 2014 at 8:56 am

Typical of a 99%-er like you to be envious. It’s not his fault he’s brilliant, fit, wealthy, a sexual dynamo, and, most of all, modest.

20 Frederic Mari January 9, 2014 at 3:03 am


21 dead serious January 8, 2014 at 9:26 am

Hey now. Those underage dirty Filipino girls aren’t going to eff themselves.

Love the handle.

22 msgkings January 8, 2014 at 11:46 am


23 finnterprises January 8, 2014 at 6:08 am

I very much like the idea that we have more and more macro economists in DC influencing my creativity (and ingenuity) when it may happen. I treasure them moment they unleash my potential through policy. Just give me that chance.

24 Adrian Turcu January 8, 2014 at 6:46 am

So it’s been profitable for him? It’s all good then.

25 Millian January 8, 2014 at 6:56 am

“You can make even more money in consulting”

Clearly profit’s not the only motive, but it reflects the over-supply of labour in academic job markets.

26 steve January 8, 2014 at 10:51 am

Is consulting a metaphor for lobbying?

27 steve January 8, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Or perhaps it’s a payoff for coming to the correct policy conclusions in a companies eyes.

28 prognostication January 8, 2014 at 1:35 pm

No, consultants do all of the tedious, unpleasant work that the government’s own employees “don’t have the resources to do” (i.e., don’t want to do). That whole thing about it paying more is highly dependent on your field though — defense and IT, probably true, health and environment, not necessarily.

29 James January 8, 2014 at 7:58 am

Summers off. Flexibility of hours. I don’t think it’s that hard to understand.

Plus, some people enjoy teaching.

30 JWatts January 8, 2014 at 10:03 am

A lot of attractive young co-eds, a familiar environment, short hours (let’s just admit the fact that very few professors are in their office before 8am and are there after 4-pm.), etc. Academic life has a lot of benefits.

31 James Too January 10, 2014 at 11:33 pm

Ability to choose your own research topic. Little chance of being stuck in a cubicle. The lesser academic schools offer easier tenure (assuming you do indeed like to teach). Larger amount of socialization: the pure research jobs just seemed stifling when I visited places back when I was on the market. When you teach, you get out of your office, and if your colleagues are around, you end up talking to them more than do people in many government (or other pure research) jobs.

32 AS January 8, 2014 at 8:06 am

Actual question: how much of this is due to differences in relative preferences for teaching vs research? The OP clearly is only interested in doing research and views teaching commitments as a thing that gets in the way of that. On the other end of the spectrum, I went to a small liberal arts college where the large majority of the faculty genuinely enjoy teaching for its own sake.

I wonder where most job applicants at events like the AEA fall along that spectrum? If most applicants see at least some intrinsic value to teaching ex ante, then the OP’s pitch may not be attractive (although if for some or even most of them that turns out to be youthful idealism, they may regret their decision). On the other hand, if most applicants are more like the OP and view teaching as a cost you pay in order to get a research position, then other explanations are more likely.

Assuming the latter, here is my hypothesis: PhD students have spent the last 4+ years in an academic environment (more if you count undergrad). Academia is what they are comfortable with. Moreover, their advisors and role models are generally tenured faculty, who a) have had demonstrated success by going into academia b) likely did not seriously consider government jobs themselves and/or c) will have a natural tendency to view the academic route as higher status, because everyone has an inflated opinion of his profession’s status (for psychological reasons if nothing else).

33 Tom T. January 8, 2014 at 8:27 am

“where the large majority of the faculty genuinely enjoy teaching for its own sake”

It says so right in the brochure!

34 AS January 8, 2014 at 11:05 pm

I can honestly say that, of the professors I knew well enough to judge (~15-20), the large majority did in fact enjoy teaching for its own sake. But thanks for the snark.

35 chuck martel January 8, 2014 at 8:42 am

The idea that the federal government has even one economist on its payroll is absurd.

36 dead serious January 8, 2014 at 9:28 am

Didn’t Clinton have an astrologer on staff? Same thing.

37 dead serious January 8, 2014 at 9:30 am

Update: Google tells me it was Reagan.

38 JWatts January 8, 2014 at 10:11 am

There was no astrologer on the Federal governments payroll during the Reagan administration. Nancy Reagan famously consulted for years with an astrologer in California after her husband was shot.

Oh wait, you were trying for a cheap shot. Never mind then. 😉

39 dead serious January 8, 2014 at 10:33 am

Don’t get your right-wing panties in a knot. I initially thought it was Clinton.

I guess the truth cuts like a knife, eh.

40 JWatts January 8, 2014 at 1:55 pm

LOL, still going with the cheap shots, eh?

41 dead serious January 8, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Still a humorless twat, I see.

42 JWatts January 8, 2014 at 4:00 pm

No, not really. Nor do I have to call someone school yard names to make my point.

43 steve January 8, 2014 at 10:54 am

That’s a good point. There are hundreds if not thousands of economists providing their viewpoints online. It would be far cheaper for the politicians to pick the viewpoint they like for free rather than paying someone to do research until they get the viewpoint the politician likes.

44 Ted Craig January 8, 2014 at 9:19 am

Lots of jobs is an interesting factor and often overlooked in many professions. If I lost my job tomorrow, I’d be hard-pressed to find another position in Detroit. But friend who live in New York and work in my field can usually find another gig locally.

The academic path could often mean relocating.

45 whatsthat January 8, 2014 at 9:57 am

Yes, grad students won’t take up a policy job, but will go to extraordinary lengths in their careers as economists in a university to claim “policy relevance” for their latest bit of research.

46 dearieme January 8, 2014 at 9:59 am

There’s always a case for working in a city where there’s likely to be a decent job market for your spouse. I left the job I enjoyed most because there was nothing there for Herself. My policy was that it’s easier to find a good job than a good woman, even for the sort of tall, handsome, witty fellows who populate the comment threads here.

47 Willitts January 8, 2014 at 10:54 am

I’ve always liked you. Now I know why.

48 msgkings January 8, 2014 at 11:49 am

Careful….with that revelation the Roissy-ites will be laughing at your beta-ness

49 govt_economist January 8, 2014 at 10:59 am

I work as an economist for the government — two tours, with a stint of private consulting in-between. Every agency is different, and some are quite awful. But, there are many great positions within the government where you can make a decent living and do meaningful work. Yes — I made more money in the private sector; I was very good at the consulting, but not-so-good at the marketing. I could have kept it up, but frankly the money inside the Government was good enough and the ability to work on interesting and useful issues has proven very satisfying. The ability to point out to policy makers that there are unintended consequences to their actions and that sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing is highly satisfying. I save the taxpayers more money than it costs to employ me, so I have no apologies to make.

Sure DC is a company town, but it’s a very good company town. The schools are good (not great, good; the quality of inputs is great, but the added-value of teaching is just okay). You certainly won’t get filthy rich as a career civil servant. But, if you can live within your means, work well with others, and not take it personally if the policy calls ocassionally go against you (and they will), there is a satisfying career to be had here. I definitely would encourage PhD economists (particularly free-market economists) to consider a career with the Federal Government.

50 steve January 8, 2014 at 12:14 pm

“The ability to point out to policy makers that there are unintended consequences to their actions and that sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing is highly satisfying.”

Seriously, policy makers listen to that? There is no external sign that any part of the government believes a word of it. Everyday regulatory agencies and law makers themselves generate unintended consequences from minor to horrific.

It must be hidden internally. And it must be really bad if they listen to you in these cases but not the others. What are you saving us from? Plans to relocate Alaska south, or maybe guaranteed minimum incomes of $100,000 paid through monetization.

51 Some Random Economist January 8, 2014 at 12:22 pm

I left a government research job for an academic job a few year ago, and I’ve been very happy with the move. My dealings with people in the government outside of my research office where never as satisfying as teaching is.

I agree that government jobs are not as bad as some job candidates might think, but I don’t believe DC Economist is painting a fair picture of the differences between government and academia.

52 Jethro January 8, 2014 at 6:06 pm

It is hidden internally. For every bad idea that gets implemented, there are several others which are stopped before it gets that far. On the flipside, for every good idea that gets implemented, there are several others which get thwarted too early.

53 another random economist January 8, 2014 at 5:59 pm

There are job market candidates who actually (strictly!) prefer policy-government over academia. Unfortunately, as the general attitude of applicants seems to be ‘apply just everywhere’ and therefore especially decent places receive a few hundreds of applications. I would say it seems difficult for employers to extract those applicants with such preferences. I am an such an economist and though I have got quite some interviews that fit, I wish I could have been able to signal my preferences better.

54 edwardseco January 8, 2014 at 6:51 pm

“And I did chose a government job ” sic

I guess this makes the point that the weaker candidates go for the government jobs generally. The exceptions who know how to use English include a very nice lady who went later to the Fed.

55 oon2ooo January 9, 2014 at 1:54 pm

As a non-economist, reading economist’s comments on this post, it is hilarious how biased and self-aggrandizing the academic posters are on this topic. You all come off much worse than the federal government, I assure you. Enjoy your unequivocally correct choices you have made in life.

56 James Too January 10, 2014 at 11:41 pm

And enjoy your pomposity as you flagellate us. I’m not saying it’s worse one way than the other: both have their ups and downs, and I’d say people are matching their preferences. Many government jobs don’t get the respect they deserve, and that’s unfortunate. On the other hand, I don’t get a lot of respect for working at a low-to-mid level school where teaching is a big part of my job. It works for me, though, so hey! Same for government folks: it can be really satisfying, and people should visit workplaces and see what feels right.

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