How much does graduate school matter for being an economics professor?

There is a new paper, by Zhengye Chen, an enterprising undergraduate from the University of Chicago:

Of the 138 Ph.D. economics programs in the United States, the top fifteen Ph.D. programs in economics produce a substantial share of successful economics research scholars. These fifteen Ph.D. programs in turn get 59% of their faculty from only the top six schools with 39% coming from only two schools, Harvard and MIT. Those two schools are also the PhD origins for half of John Bates Clark Medal recipients. Details for assistant professors, young stars today, American Economics Association Distinguished Fellows, Nobel Laureates, and top overseas economics departments are also discussed.

There is much more here, and for the pointer I thank Lee Benham.  I’ll add three points:

1. It has been evident for a while that the former “top six” is in some ways collapsing into a “top two,” namely Harvard and MIT.

2. I was surprised that NYU beats out Stanford for the #6 slot.

3. Two Nobel Laureates, John Hicks and James Meade, did not have a Ph.d at all.


When I was an undergrad, I had excellent teachers (who were also good scholars) who didn't have PhDs. One of them, an older Brit, I think only had a BA (which then turned into an MA) from Cambridge. Now local community colleges won't hire you unless you have a PhD.

The acquisition of the PhD just signals how much misery you can endure, which correlates with later success as a scholar, but it doesn't cause it. At least not in every instance.

It's just that we don't have very many routes to "academic success" (let alone Nobel brilliance) that bypass grad school.

4. Several Nobel Prize winners with Ph.D.s did not have their Ph.D. in economics.

And then there are people like me, the majority of whose publications are in economics, but whose humanities Ph.D., English Master's, and recombinant gene technology Bachelor's degrees in no way indicate that that would be the case.

I'd like to know how many of the the total phds are granted by the top 15, 6, and two schools.

The narrowing intellectual base is both a symptom and a cause of the intellectual atrophy that has over-taken economics in the last thirty years.

And if you include control of major journals by those at the very top schools, you get a protected and insular intellectual community.

I wonder how much is talent and how much is social networks. From what I've observed, people who go to school together often joint author later. Similarly, profs who have research grants reach out to former graduate students to bring them into a project, even if they are at a different institution.

Are we measuring competency. How much is networks?

It's both and the interaction of the two.

Mentoring and professional networks are very important in academia (like all other professions)...knowing which hoops to jump through is key. But even with coaching not everyone manages it (or wants to). It takes a lot of talent, determination, and luck to make it in the elite circles. That said, the very top programs do draw the cream of the crop in terms of students too. Look at the fraction of NSF grad fellowships, look at the elite undergrad backgrounds, look at the number of students with top economist parents in these's striking. But there are good economists that pop up other places too and there's plenty of work to go around.

On a personal note, when I was weighing my grad school options (the 'best' of which was Chicago) I had one boss who told me not to go to grad school given my options (he is an MIT PhD) and my other boss told me to go where the scholarship money was and learn to embrace being a freak (he is a Michigan PhD too). I do not regret my choice at all and am quite content outside the faculty track, though I certainly appreciate my academic research connections. I guess I don't see many surprises in the paper or much of a take away either.

This is a really interesting study, but I don't know how helpful it actually is for someone interested in studying economics because the field is so broad. If you're simply interested in getting into a top school, then identifying those schools is important... and this study shows the success of their graduates and a trend line. So if the signalling model of education is 100% correct, then we should all just apply to MIT, Harvard, a regional top school, and a local fall back.

But what about people who have specific fields within economics that they're interested in studying? MIT and Harvard are surely great econ departments, but are they great at every concentration of economics? I think that when you're an undergrad, you should identify some aspects of economics that especially interest you and do papers based on those topics. I think you should try to identify which professors are currently working and teaching those topics and attempt to study with them. If specializing improves productivity, then this effort will help you specialize better.

In contrast, I think the principles of a strong liberal arts education apply to graduate economics education as well. Not every first-year econ students has, or indeed should have, already decided what to concentrate in. And having a strong foundation in as many of the core principles of economics as possible gives the student a wider range of research possibilities as they progress through their career.

For example, I was in probably amongst the last group of econ students who didn't get a full blast of game theory in our core micro classes. It was just Varian in my day. Those who wanted to really get into game theory had to to the micro theory electives. And that's a gap in my econ education that I've felt ever since, given that game theory is now pretty much the foundation of micro and gets applied in just about every field.

Specialization has its place, but there's a reason why they have those core classes that every student has to take. And the stronger and better those core classes, the better for the student. Most intellectual and academic progress comes from combining ideas that hadn't been combined before. Someone who's got a strong grounding in a lot of different areas can do that more easily than someone who's strong in only one area.

There seems to have been a spike in this sort of research recently; the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ has had a couple of articles about similar research about political science PhD programs. I had thought economists (and law schools) were the most obsessed about ranking programs, but political scientists seem right up there too. Interestingly, they don't talk about a top 2 or top 6 or top 10 but instead a top 40.

It might be interesting to do some sort of social network analysis using those data. The comment about talent vs networking has some merit, but it's also precisely the reason why the best schools (both undergraduate and graduate) have the best students: a really smart student is usually better off going to Harvard than to Podunk State College. Because of all the other smart students at Harvard ... not just the old boy network effects, but the peer effects too. And yes the signalling effects.

Thinking some more about grad school ... it's another example of why bricks-and-mortar classes will continue to have a prime role in education while online classes will only fill specific niches. Online classes can work well if the student is motivated. But motivation is not a sufficient condition; I was a motivated student with aptitude in economics, and got into a top econ program. But there is no way that I could have made it through the core classes if they were online. How many students will be able to successfully slog through Mas-Colell et al (Varian in my day) simply by sitting in front of a computer?

MK, I was thinkingof doing a network analysis using Gephi to see how this worked out re networks (links to profs, institutions, co-authors, funding, etc.).

What was also interesting to me was a significant lagged variable of quality: the Nobel Prize in Economics, that could serve as a quality control.

If you look at some of the Nobel Laureates who taught at schools other than Harvard or MIT, and were not graduates of those schools, you would have to say that the graduate students of those Nobel Professors had great research training; afterall, they were taught or mentored by a Nobel Laureate. Yet, how did those graduate students fare relative to some other benchmark of MIT or Harvard training?

Similarly, you could do a cookie crumb trail using NSF grants and network analysis to see how lead researchers reach out to their colleagues and former students. Homophily?

Finally, and this might be the most interesting of all, since research output is a function of research dollar input and sourcing, you might look at how well connected Congresspersons push research money to their states, or districts, and whether the money pulls in named researchers, or whether existing researchers pump out more research. Not saying it is better. Just more. (There is a background storey to this: my nephew is a research academic whose institution is a big recipient of Federal research money in his area of expertise. The person who is most effective at getting the money for the school: John Boehner!) You might also want to look at research money in Alabama.)

If it is not clear from my comment above, the Nobel prize is presumed to have been awarded sometime after the economist's critical work or as a lifetime achievement award. So, had you been trained by a Nobel economist 15 years ago, and the person received the award this year, you would have been mentored or trained by a famous economist. Did the quality effect rub off on the graduate student. Was it recognized 15 years ago? Did the Nobel laureate create as strong of a research network with his students as others, etc.

Admittedly, there is a presumption that Nobel quality is equivalent to an institutions brand name.

I have a different take on signaling effects at Tier 1 institutions below.

I suppose that Mr. Chen will not be staying on at Chicago to do his PhD.

Did Coase have a PhD?

Yes. U of London 1951

Hayek didn't have a Ph.D either. Austria didn't have a Ph.D. system. Other folks without Ph.D.s:

Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, John Maynard Keynes, David Hume, Plato, Carl Menger, Aristotle, Ludwig Wittgenstein (Cambridge gave him one anyway, for work he did on his own many years before)


None of these people knew how to program Stata either. I'm certain that Aristotle and Plato couldn't even speak English!

Jesus didn't have a Ph.D in Econ either, and was able to overcome diminishing returns to scale with the loaves and fishes experiment.

he was able to employ the economics of magic

Animal spirits!

On a slightly related note, how many people who have scored 180 (that is the top score) (or vintage equivalent) on the LSAT (and presumably have gotten a JD from a top law school)
have won a Nobel, performed admirably on a High Court, or come remotely close even to the
doubter's version of Jesus of Nazareth in explaining the world?
Much less have actually earned a Nobel, or not only performed well but made their country a better place by wise High Court decisions, or - well, you get my point.
I'm sure they are out there, but I have never ever met a contemporary of mine (broadly defined as being born in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, or 80s), or even heard of one, who has done the best he or she can...

While it might be formally true that Hayek didn't have a PhD, this is clearly hairsplitting. As you surely know, PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy and Hayek actually gained two doctorates from University of Vienna, one in law and the other one in economics (doctor philosophiae). Just because Austria didn't use the abbreviation PhD back then, this doesn't mean that Hayek didn't have a PhD.

It's really impossible to compare the credentials process of today's MIT the the process at the U. of Vienna in the 1920s.

Hayek essentially wrote a masters thesis for Weiser to gain his second degree.

Ironically, Hayek's thesis for Weiser counts as something closer to a traditional Ph.D thesis than anything most graduate students in economics produce today.

Has Chicago really lost its edge?

I was wondering the same thing. Is it a coincidence that Harvard and MIT are (geographically) closer to NYC and DC than Chicago? Money and political power seem to be migrating back to the east coast.

They must not have enough faculty from MIT or Harvard.

Chicago is (or was recently) very shorthanded in a number of areas. Not many macro people (and those that are skew towards model building) and barely any in development. Those two areas seem hotter in job market/awards terms right now than micro/applied micro/quantitative models.

Plus the obvious point that efficient markets has become a very unpopular perspective in financial economics.

From what I've heard, the treatment of graduate students at Chicago overall is pretty terrible. Apparently, they accept a huge class size, don't fund a bunch of them, let attrition take hold, and then faculty still don't pay much attention to the ones who stay. I heard this from a few people, and when I was choosing which schools to apply to, I didn't bother even applying there. I can't imagine I was the only one.

Did you not just describe graduate school? Or is there a more reliable way than scuttle-butt to find outliers?

Paging Scott Sumner...

I dislike one of his conclusions.... He says that the higher percentage of elite institutions suggests that they survive better. You can't conclude that from the data, unless you look at past history. Where were the junior faculty from 20 years ago?

The small sample size also makes it hard to draw hard and fast conclusions.

Shouldn't this be the entry in the encyclopedia for "endogeneity"?

Sure. But then the author seems to be pretty careful about not making any causal claims in his paper.

That obviously won't stop readers and commentators (see above and below) from making causal claims based on these statistics.

On second thought, he really, really needs to change the title of the paper.

His evidence has close to nothing to say about "what difference graduate schools make."

Here is a bit more data, from 2004:

"Of all the faculty at the top 10 economics departments, 79.6% received their Ph.D. inside the top 10. For mathematics this figure is 58.3% and for comparative literature 63.2%."
("Top" meaning having the best PhD placement records.)

Funny that economics appears relatively "elitist" in its hiring.

"Two Nobel Laureates, John Hicks and James Meade, did not have a Ph.d at all."

The fall after his graduation from University College (I think), Oxford, former English prime minister Harold Wilson taught economics to Rhodes Scholars who had graduated from American universities the same year as him.

That was the English way. It was a very rare don who had a PhD (outside the sciences).

Do you think Tyler would be making these statements if he didn't graduate from Harvard?

Do you ever see Alex (Ph.D GMU) make these observations?

Trying to drive a wedge between them, are you?

The wedges have been obvious. For one, Tyler throws up his hands and blames the lack of low-hanging fruit for TGS while Alex proposes policies that could help gets us out of this morass.Tyler explicitly dismissed Alex's concerns about the FDA slowing pharmaceutical and biotech development.

How many decades has it been since an economists getting a Ph.D from a Ph.D program in economics actually produced a proper Ph.D. dissertation, anyway?

Really interesting study. I'm a lab scientist and clinician. Similar breakdowns regarding faculty jobs come are present my field. In my small dept at a Tier 2 institution, currently there are 65% of the faculty members come from the "top 4" programs in the country.

When I was at Harvard, there was an incredible burnout rate for aspiring clinician-scientists. Despite dominating the field with more trainees in faculty positions, I hypothesized that based on the talent it attracted and available resources, Harvard actually UNDERperformed in churning out trainees because the culture actually stifled the development of so many.

In any case, a temporary phenomenon. There's a whole world of econ departments out there, and they all do math the same way and nowadays speak English, ofen better than in America. No one knows where the next discovery will take place, nor who it will attract into a new network.

Is any of this easy or obvious? Underlining Quigley, decidedly not.

I'm at a prestigious research institute and affiliated with a top 5 (arguably top 2) university in my field. In graduate school, I'd say there was a clear difference (on average) between the students in our top 5 program and a related top 15 program. Of course, there were students just as good in the top 15 program as in the top 5, just far fewer. Although there were plenty from "top" undergraduate institutes, there were many equally talented students from many nonprestigious state schools.

In terms of faculty: they tended to come from top postdoc labs, but not top schools per se. In terms of coming just from another top 5 school I'd say there were actually very few.

So why is economics so different? Are the most interesting thinkers really that clustered in 5 (2?) universities? Are there so few good students that half of them really go to those universities? Are the university admissions programs REALLY that efficient? Especially as compares to a hard science?

Hmmm. I'm in a non-top anything lab and when I came in as a grad student someone from MIT came in as a post doc (straight to tenure track). I helped her (and her subsequent students) a good bit and she was able to (or willing to) help me basically none other than offering lots of unsolicited advice and contradiction.

What strikes me is that as far back as one can go, the typical Phd-granting economics department has never hired a descendent of American Negro Slaves. Of course, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have at least one---but this is the rare exception. The bottom-tier schools seem particularly adverse to hiring black economists.

How much the graduate school where one obtained a PhD matters for getting a job as an economics professor and how much the graduate school where one obtained a PhD matters for being an economics professor are two very different questions. Clearly, it matters when getting a job. The relevance to actually doing the job is probably not very great.

disagree. the skills and networks that got you into a top grad program and then into a top faculty position are the SAME skills and networks that will get you tenure. tenure at the top is all about publications, so it's very similar to how you got your job. journal editors are not that different than hiring committee members and for those at the top they might even be the same people.

In theory...

do enlighten us ...

The most relevant ability when it comes to being an economics professor, certainly for 90%-95%+ of all economics professors in the United States, is an ability to teach, something that the training associated with a PhD, the hiring process, and the promotion process barely consider.

Networking, likewise, simply isn't all that important for either teaching or doing research (and the networking that really matters for cutting edge research is networking with people outside the profession providing first hand insight into how the business world works, not networking with other economists whose views are easily discerned and benefitted from by reading their published works).

Attendence at elite graduate schools are probably a decent proxy for the ability to do good research. But, even here, most of the effect is a sorting and signaling effect and not a value added in the educational process effect. Suggestive of this reality in the field of law is that people admitted to both a top law school and a less prestigious law school who attend the less prestigious one (e.g. due to family ties or finances) do as well or better in their later careers as those who actually attended the top law schools. Economics has been studied less rigorously in this regard, but I strongly suspect that the same is true.

There is some benefit conferred from rubbing shoulders with the living greatest scholars and people who make up most of the ranks of those who will repace them. But, this is counterbalanced by the risk of falling into group think that can discourage brilliant ideas in favor of mere mediocre ones. (This is a huge problem in theoretical physics where a very large share of the entire theoretical physics community is deeply invested in what experiments are showing to be a dead end called "supersymmetry" leaving alternative lines of theoretical investigation short of fair shares of the brightest minds; economics, particularly macroeconomics, shows similar group think problems.)

I don't see where claim 1 comes from. The Harvard and MIT share fell from 33 to 27 for profs under 45. Also the share along the top 6 fell from 33/54 to 27/50.

Someone earlier in this comment thread suggested this study go under endogeneity in the encyclopedia. I would suggest "lagging indicator."

claim 1 - look at the John Bates Clark medal vs the Nobel in table 4, wow...that's where the field is headed.

confirmation bias?

Chicago better get it together.

The paper has a problem.

I just read it, and here are some problems with it:

1. It is self-referential. If one of the top 6 retains hires its own graduates to become professors at the same institution, this increases the percentage of persons coming from the top 6!

2. The existence of tenure and the practice of "working" long after the normal retirement age may skew the distributions within the top 6, reflecting the past, and not the future. Tenure is not present in most workplace environments, so when you see a person staying in the same job in the outside world, you infer that person must be continuing to perform, because there would have otherwise have been replaced. But, not so in academia. So, if, say, MIT or Harvard were one of the few top schools in the 1960s, and their students were placed as faculty elsewhere, and remain faculty today, that doesn't necessarily mean those schools today produce top faculty given that your measure includes a population of old tenured faculty from the top 6 schools.

3. The paper presumes that the top firms, or rather schools, have high market shares. Not really by industry standards. MIT has 16%, Harvard 14%. That's nothin.

It is very rare for the top schools to retain their own grads. More typically they are first hired by other departments and then reacquired later. Other studies have shown that inbreeding is strongest in U.S. law schools (something like over 70% of Yale Law are Yale JDs and ditto for Harvard Law and Harvard JDs).

In econ inbreeding is among the top six to nine or ten programs and less from just one or two. But Tyler asks whether econ is moving closer to the law equilibrium.


It's an empirical question on whether Harvard employs its own: so, I went to the Econ Dept directory and counted where people got their Ph.D's. 21 got their Ph.Ds from Harvard; 31 from other schools.

Doesn't match your statement: "It is very rare for the top schools to retain their own grads." You left an out, however, that they may be "reacquired later"--did not do a deep search on this, but it doesn't matter, because the point: that the study is self-referential.

Another network aspect I didn't think of, until last night, was that graduate students who want to stay in the same locale might teach at another school in the same locale: if you graduate from MIT, and like Boston, you teach at Harvard; and, Harvard reciprocates with MIT. You could also do a similar analysis for other top 15 schools that are co-located, say, and hour or so from each other. If there is a geographic network affiliation that could also explain preferential attachments.

It would be interesting to compare this statistically to, say, what percentage of NFL Pro Bowl-quality quarterbacks come from elite college programs and what percentage don't.

My very first thought was "I never thought I'd say something was worse than college football recruiting." My question might be "what percentage of Harvard and MIT grads become solid research professors?"

...which still doesn't get at the screening/signaling question. Do they 'coach them up' like Bill Snyder or do they do what just about every one of them criticizes private schooling for (cherry-picking winners like Nick Saban)?

The way to look at is recruiting rankings vs draft. Pro Bowl doesn't work for the reason listed.
The correlation is rather weak if you look at QB's drafted in the top 3 rounds and separate the top 10 winningest programs from the rest (ND, USC, Bama, UGa, Tenn, UT, OU, Mich, Ohio St, Neb).

Doesn't work because same players are selected repeatedly. Draft would be a better readout.
Regardless, it is much smaller percentage.

There is a rather large literature on this matter, basically none of which is cited in Chen's paper. So why does the subject get attention when an undergraduate at the University of Chicag...oh.

Friendly reminder that it is the Nobel MEMORIAL prize. In the sciences, its given to pure and real science that matters, not unverifiable guess work pseudo science with lots of Physics envy. Great news aggregator blog though, keep it up!

Obvious disclosure that I am a non-academic Chicago grad...

1. Could it be that Harvard and MIT produce the finest research entirely uninteresting to the non-academic world? Thus, the only margin at which someone may advance their career is along academic research lines?

2. Could Harvard and MIT most successfully brainwash/indoctrinate students into academic life? (Is this the core of the "endogenous" comment earlier?)

3. Do other schools better encourage risk taking, or select for risk taking? Again, earlier comment eludes to Chicago's very large classes with very low graduation rates (my PhD class started at around 50, and I believe fewer than 20 completed) may indicate students who choose Chicago may fundamentally be more willing to take risk, which may have longer term implications for where they find career satisfaction.

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