*Getting a Ph.D. in Economics*

by on March 3, 2014 at 3:46 pm in Books, Economics, Education | Permalink

That is a new and highly useful book by Stuart J. Hillmon, here is one bit from it:

Truthfully, majoring in economics is not really all that helpful for your admissions prospects.  This is true for two reasons.  First, knowing who does well in undergraduate economics is not terribly helpful in identifying who will be a good academic economist.  Unlike other fields such as chemistry or physics, what happens in undergraduate courses bears little relation to what happens in graduate courses.  For this reason, the committee cannot predict how well you will do as an academic economist based on your doing well in your undergraduate econ courses.  Consequently, they don’t give too much weight to your stellar performance in the usual undergraduate classes.

For this book, I would have asked for greater length, more discussion of government and private sector careers, and more discussion of non-orthodox paths through academic economics, or for that matter seeking employment at a teaching school or attending a Ph.D. program below the top tier.  You will note “Stuart J. Hillmon is the pseudonym for an academic economist who graduated from a top five doctoral program in economics and currently teaches courses in policy and economics.”  The book is structured accordingly and perhaps that will frighten some of you away.  If everyone were like Hillmon, I would not myself today be an economist.

Still, this is a good place to start if you are considering whether to get a Ph.D. in economics.

david March 3, 2014 at 3:59 pm

I’m going to guess that SJ Hillmon advises the student to major in Maths, as much maths as they can handle.

Rahul March 4, 2014 at 1:43 am

My impression is that Econ. is a major with probably the largest chasm between the difficulty & rigor between its undergrad versus grad programs?

Is this true? If so, why?

Brad Spahn March 4, 2014 at 3:32 am

Many political scientists (myself included) would say the same thing about political science. In undergrad polisci, there’s virtually no formal models, nor statistics, nor much discussion of causal inference. Graduate political science is focused on all three, and gives up the broad descriptive theories of undergrad courses for very technical discussions of identification strategies, estimators and data.

Rahul March 4, 2014 at 3:46 am

Interesting. I wonder why some departments turn out like this. As a counterexample I’ve seen Engineering, Physics & Chem. where, of course, a difference exists between undergrad and grad courses but it’s nowhere as close to what I perceive in Econ. & now, from your comment, in Pol. Sci. too?

Is it a commercial move to maximize undergrad patronage and resultant dollars?

Greg M. March 4, 2014 at 7:04 am

I don’t think it is a move to maximize undergrad patronage, rather the issue is on the opposite side in the grad pograms:

Journals and Ivy grad programs have an increasing case of physics envy and promote quantitative wankery that shows intellectual ability over experimental or applied results. So preferentially you get DSGE models, GMM and more complex econometric data transformation, lots of mathematical lemmas — but all applied on extremely low-frequency and error-prone macro data that gets looked at so much that any significance measure is unreliable, and with no attempt to verify/falsify past predictions — because that sort of thing wouldn’t be “ambitious” enough to get published.

Rahul March 4, 2014 at 9:40 am

@Greg M.

Maybe you are right. OTOH, didn’t you get an impression that the undergrad Econ. programs were sort of diluted & not very difficult? Maybe I’m wrong, but often seemed like it.

Brad Spahn March 4, 2014 at 2:11 pm

Honestly, it seems kind of reasonable to me. PhD programs are in large part about socialization into the discipline and teaching people how to do academic research, but this just isn’t what undergraduates need out of a degree. How to implement a regression discontinuity design isn’t that relevant outside of the academy. Maybe it’s to increase undergraduate enrollment, but it still serves the interests of undergrads.

That said, every undergrad in the social sciences should probably learn more statistics.

DavidN March 4, 2014 at 7:22 pm

I think you hit it on the head. For most ug econ major is treated as an business major therefore majority of ug aren’t going into it with the goal of going into econ research. Unlike a lot of hard sciences where skills learnt are directly relatable to engineering disciplines where the rigour is high, rigorous econ skills (at phd level) aren’t transferrable/relevant for most business careers (including finance).

If ug econ was made more rigorous those business ug would just substitute into other easier majors.

Mark Thorson March 3, 2014 at 4:16 pm

If it were “Tyrone Hillmon” that would be too obvious.

CD March 3, 2014 at 4:26 pm

On a quick sampling, most graduate programs today ask for intermediate macro and micro, and specify math background in some detail. When I was in school, the reason for requiring intermediate macro and micro of entering grad students was just that you might TA macro or micro your very first quarter, so you should have some familiarity with the pabulum undergrads are taught.

If you’re able/willing to do either an econ or a math baccalaureate, I’d argue math is the better use of your time for almost any purpose.

whatsthat March 3, 2014 at 4:26 pm

“To be an economist, don’t study economics at first.”

“What?”

“yes, do math instead. Or at least engineering. I’d say physics, but well, you’re probably not up to it.”

“…”

So Much For Subtlety March 3, 2014 at 11:45 pm

I can’t help feeling that this is just Physics Envy. Economists want to be taken seriously and so have to clutter up their work with complex equations no one reads or cares about so that no one will mistake them for sociologists.

This suggests to me that perhaps the solution is not to avoid the undergraduate economics courses, but to avoid the post-graduate ones? At least to scrap them. Adam Smith got by with remarkably little mathematics. Economics, from what I can see standing outside, has not improved a great deal by including it.

ww March 4, 2014 at 12:17 am

David Friedman (Uncle Milt’s son): Phd. Physics. But then again, not a good example, since he got a full econ education at the dinner table as a kid.

lalcott March 7, 2014 at 3:54 am

“I can’t help feeling that this is just Physics Envy. Economists want to be taken seriously and so have to clutter up their work with complex equations no one reads or cares about so that no one will mistake them for sociologists.”

As someone in a Sociology Ph.D. program, I disagree with this comment on several levels. Yes, I think there exists a general social science inferiority complex which tends to overcompensate at times by promoting legitimization through mathematical modeling. However, most of the time, these “complex equations” are what enable researchers to painstakingly, carefully, and empirically test ongoing debates that would otherwise fail to resolve themselves at the feet of grandiose, unsupported theorizing. Theory is incredibly important and unfortunately often ignored, but the best work uses both innovative theory and careful research design in tandem to answer questions that social scientists actually find relevant and interesting (e.g. Beyond direct racial discrimination, how have institutions in society legitimated structural racism over time? Is there really a motherhood penalty that directly results from gendered assumptions and the role of women in society, or is the motherhood wage gap the result of lower productivity? How do the long term effects of incarceration vary across races, including the influence of stigmatized identities on the individual’s ability to re-enter society?).

These are actually questions that your silly sociologists ask, and we, like in Political Science, do very different work at the graduate level than that taught at the undergrad. Casual dismissals of one social science discipline to legitimate another treats prestige as a zero sum game instead of promoting the importance of asking social questions, which themselves are entirely different in orientation from questions asked at the graduate level in Physics, Math, etc.

Marc March 3, 2014 at 4:32 pm

If Hillmon is smart, s/he will start a rumor that J.K. Rowling is the actual author.

JWatts March 3, 2014 at 4:40 pm

“Unlike other fields such as chemistry or physics, what happens in undergraduate courses bears little relation to what happens in graduate courses. For this reason, the committee cannot predict how well you will do as an academic economist based on your doing well in your undergraduate econ courses. Consequently, they don’t give too much weight to your stellar performance in the usual undergraduate classes.”

Aren’t these committees made up of Professors who teach economics? Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t this translate to, We wouldn’t hire anyone foolish enough to take our intro courses?

JWatts March 3, 2014 at 4:41 pm

I guess ‘hire’ is probably the wrong word, I should have said enroll.

Brian Donohue March 3, 2014 at 5:02 pm

‘Courses’ is also the wrong word. I think you want ‘pablum’- see above.

The disdain with which Econ grad students view undergrad econ is…illuminating. I now have a clearer understanding of the attitude the grad students who taught undergrad classes brought to the table.

OTOH- I had Sam Peltzman for 200-level micro- he must be a magician, because somehow he made the pablum interesting and meaningful. Funny that. Maybe he didn’t take enough econometrics, but I suspect there are a truckload of Econ PhDs who coulda learned a thing or two in that class.

CD March 3, 2014 at 5:45 pm

To be clear, I think undergrad econ *could* be taught very well – it’s just not, in most places, and hence not a good use of time. As an undergrad I did a Classics major, FWIW, a half dozen math courses, and only a few econ courses. Worked out fine.

JWatts March 3, 2014 at 8:39 pm

“‘Courses’ is also the wrong word. I think you want ‘pablum’- see above.”

LOL, I stand corrected.

JCE March 3, 2014 at 5:51 pm

hahahahaha great point!

Charlie March 3, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Undergraduate economics courses don’t teach people to become academic economists, which is entirely logical because only a very small percentage of undergraduates will go onto academic careers.

That said Econ + Math or stat double majors are still quite common. It doesn’t hurt you to take Econ.

liberalarts March 3, 2014 at 5:15 pm

What happens in undergrad courses bears little relation to what happens in grad school, yes. But I found the intuition developed in undergrad classes to be very useful in contextualizing the highly mathematical material of my Ph.D. program.

Charlie March 3, 2014 at 10:15 pm

I agree. It may not help you get into a top program, but it will help you talk to economists and come up with ideas. That said Econ undergraduate has a downside, as my first phd micro professor said, “Most of you are probably here because you took Econ as an undergrad and learned lots of interesting things. In this class, we don’t learn interesting things; we learn math.”

Marc March 3, 2014 at 5:26 pm

On a more serious note, undergrad economics deals in geometry and static models that may be considered reasonable approximations. Graduate economics deals in calculus and general equilibrium models, which may also be considered reasonable approximations.

I think the questions are really about precision and formality. (In the tradition of citing one’s own work, you can ignore the rest of this discussion…) As an undergrad, I did research for Herbert Simon around how economics training leads one to solve economics problems. Problem solving techniques are completely different. Undergrad trained economics students draw pictures move curves then give you an answer. Graduate trained economists give you answers, then write first order conditions to demonstrate their answers. I find it totally reasonable that doing the former well is no indication that someone will do the latter well.

Rahul March 4, 2014 at 11:11 am

Real question is why is undergrad taught the way it is? Why do they stop at drawing pictures? Why isolate the undergrads from a bit of serious model building.

DavidN March 4, 2014 at 7:15 pm

Business majors wouldn’t be able to handle the rigor. They would substitute into ‘management’ or marketing instead.

As per commentator, most undergrads taking econ aren’t going into econ research, but going private. Even for ug going to finance the rigour provided at grad level would be overkill/not relevant.

dearieme March 3, 2014 at 6:09 pm

Is being an economics research student anything like the situation in science, described here?
http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2014/03/03/sydney_brenner_on_the_state_of_science.php

sp6r=underrated March 3, 2014 at 7:14 pm

When will professional libertarians end their silence on the great price fixing performed by Jobs, Schmidt and others on the salaries of engineers. If libertarians are going to have any credibility with the general public that they aren’t just mouthpieces for the interest of the rich they can’t just ignore flagrantly illegal actions committed by corporate america to focus on the minimum wage.

Cameron March 3, 2014 at 9:33 pm

I’m sad that the author couldn’t come up with an anagram for John Stuart Mill that didn’t include “Stuart”

Brian Donohue March 4, 2014 at 9:41 am

Extra genius points!

Rahul March 4, 2014 at 11:12 am

There’s no fun in it if the chance of discovery tends to zero.

M.Batard March 3, 2014 at 10:46 pm

Brillant, Cameron. But then, he is, presumably, an economist, so we mustn’t expect too much…

prior_approval March 3, 2014 at 10:56 pm

‘If everyone were like Hillmon, I would not myself today be an economist.’

Well, Fink is a notable talent spotter with deep pockets, and you were still an undergraduate at the time, so there is no reason to sell yourself short – you probably could have run some other equally well sponsored center with elan.

Live-Evil March 4, 2014 at 12:48 am

Greg Mankiw here, how ya’ll doin

RPLong March 4, 2014 at 4:22 pm

The more I think about this, the more it sickens me. Most of the good points have already been made above. All I have to add is vitriol. This essentially means: You should learn economics – just don’t learn it from an economist, because we can’t teach you what you need to know! Disgusting.

Ryan March 6, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Tyler – For those interested in more applied research, do you have any thoughts on pursuing a PhD in a Policy department (e.g. Chicago Harris, Harvard Kennedy, UC Berkeley, etc)? Do these programs give students enough economics training to be called an “economist” who does applied policy research, or are they considered a jack-of-all trades policy researcher?

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