A simple theory of which economists cultivate Ph.d. students

If your contribution as an economist is very fundamental, other people will use that contribution whether or not they were your students.  Lots of people use, or critique, the assumption of rational expectations.  So the inventors of RE don’t need students to propagate their fame.  Alfred Marshall’s fame today is mostly independent of the students he had (or did not have).

Having fundamental contributions is correlated with quality but within the top tier of quality there is considerable variation.  Arrow and Lucas had relatively fundamental contributions but in contrast Milton Friedman, Larry Summers, Robert Barro, and Olivier Blanchard are all more applied.  Their demand for students should be higher.  If you are an empirical economist, but invented an econometric technique which is fundamental, your demand for students should be relatively low.  Students might also prefer advisors who are less "fundamental," for fear of being overshadowed or from wanting to avoid the winner-take-all tier of the market.

Since at top schools the percentage of "fundamental" economists is declining over time, we would expect the distribution of doctoral students, across faculty, to become more even.

I thank Amanda Agan and some of her friends for a useful conversation on this topic.

Comments

Tyler,

If you are ever hurting for a topic, I just want to say that I love all of these "inside baseball" ones. Sort of like, part of the reason a lawyer or cop show is interesting, is to see the day-to-day operations of this "glamorous" professions. So in the same way, I bet a lot of people would be curious to know more about the day-to-day life of a tenured college professor.

For example, what criteria do you use if a student asks you to be his/her advisor? When there is an obvious star in the 1st year of a new PhD class, do you and the other professors start angling to be picked by this student as an advisor? Stuff like that.

Tyler- I picked my (law school research) adviser based on the fact that he was unknown- he's a teaching fellow, not a tenured prof. Further, my friend worked for him, and told me that while he was a bad teacher in front of large groups, working one on one with him was incredibly rewarding. So, demand for him was very low, and he felt really great that his former employee recommended him highly, particularly at a time of the semester when the big name profs were turning down students left and right- he felt kind of left out, in a sense.

Of course, my research topic is pretty obscure; I didn't have the choice of picking the professor who knows the most about the topic, or an expert in the field at my school. Although that can be a benefit for me- if I can explain it to my adviser, who knows nothing about it, and a concern of mine is that I am so involved in this topic, I am running the risk of not explaining myself clearly in drafts... the benefit of someone who has only a limited knowledge of the topic is clear.

Also, as a fellow, my prof. has the added incentive of "if Genevieve gets published/does well, I can claim some of the credit, which helps me out more than it would a tenured professor."

My sense is that the impact of theorists work is more concentrated by researcher then empirical work. The theorists with impact are very concentrated at the top schools and thereby comprise a larger proportion of the faculty at top schools than at others. Empiricists with impact are so rare that even students from top schools rarely succeed and are smart enough to recognize the difference between themselves and the couple students each year that have a chance. Accordingly, at top schools the empiricists have more student than theorists. At all but the top schools theorists professors are likely very lonely. Someone please enlighten me with the name of one who has 2 or more AER, Econometrica, JPE, QJE theory pieces who is not from a top 10 school?

As advise...I chose Tyler as my chair, and the rest of my committee of Congleton, Heiner, and Tullock because they all took an interest in me and I respected (and currently respect) all of them. The importance of complementarity in ones dissertation team is critical. One does not want clashing styles or egos. Tyler's willingness to read papers quickly and respond honestly with concise comments explains, with good reason, some of why he is a favorite.

If your advisor has already made their fundamental contributions isn't it likely that you will be viewed as only making marginal extensions to their work? I.e. your thesis will look puny by comparison?

Isn't the ideal to glom onto an advisor just before (two years before!) their work becomes famous, so that your own thesis will seem cutting edge? Like a surfer trying to catch a wave at just the right moment.

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