The high-return activity of raising others’ aspirations

Yesterday I had lunch with a former Ph.D student of mine, who is now highly successful and tenured at a very good school.  I was reminded that, over twenty years ago, I was Graduate Director of Admissions.  One of my favorite strategies was to take strong candidates who applied for Masters and also offer them Ph.D admissions, suggesting they might to do the latter.  My lunch partner was a beneficiary of this de facto policy.

At least two of our very best students went down this route.  Ex ante, neither realized that it was common simply to apply straight to a Ph.D program, skipping over the Masters.  I believe this is now better known, but the point is this.

At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind.  It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.

This is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life.


Loved this story and I very much enjoy reading this blog. I did my undergraduate in Economics and am currently working on my masters in Information Systems. I to have had people who have encouraged me and who have supported me through all my crazy ideas.

All of us have a moral obligation to continue to encourage those around us to be better.

Anyways... study break over!


When their have their mouth fresh and clean, people don't like the idea of putting food within their mouths and getting unclean throughout again. Several who smoke will constantly get a cause
to smoke whenever they want to. There are countless benefits of stopping smoking, you must just go out and do that thing right this very

'One of my favorite strategies was to take strong candidates who applied for Masters and also offer them Ph.D admissions, suggesting they might to do the latter.'

And ever so coincidentally, there also just happened to be money available from a certain public policy institutes fellowship programs, a source of money that had nothing to do with GMU or needing to comply with the various sorts of rules that are involved with an actual taxpayer funded university. Other people's money is such a useful thing to be in charge of.

'that it was common simply to apply straight to a Ph.D program, skipping over the Masters'

I personally knew several GMU faculty who did this - I thought it was common knowledge that a Ph.D. does not actually have any degree prerequisites, per se. And even twenty years ago, using the Internet to gather information before an interview would not have been unusual, thus allowing the interviewee to see an example of the beneficial effect on such skipping in the person they were talking to.

Tyler Cowen makes a positive difference in the life of an individual.

Prior - It’s a Koch brothers conspiracy!

You must be great at parties.

Oh please, like anyone would invite him to a party.

A Ph.D economist will have more power to advance Koch policies than a M.S. Economist. The more Ph.Ds the better.

Just for the sake of argument how do we know this is a moral thing to do? In the particular case as the number of PhD slots is largely fixed as far as society is concerned it is a zero sum game. Also the candidates that did PhDs maybe ended up as frustrated wannabe academics rather than successful business people die to sunk cost fallacies. I wonder if the best people tp do PhDs might be those with passion for it rather than those persuaded into it?

the strategy probably worked well because Professor Cowen was good
at identifying the strongest ph.d candidates

Well, the ones most likely to meet the investment criteria involved.

Prof. Cowen has access to funds, outside of any university oversight, that allows a selection process that is much more wide ranging than merely accepting candidates into GMU's graduate programs.

Consider this just one spinning part among many in what has become a well oiled machine.

"Herr Hitler, your paintings are MASTERFUL. We'd like to offer you a professorship" may have been worth a shot.

I dont find your for-the-sake-of-argument argument worthwhile at all. Are you transferring a resentment of 'elites' onto this story?

All Tyler did was make a suggestion. If the guy had no passion he wouldn't have done all the follow through, namely: earn a degree and a position.

One can make a suggestion neutrally and drop it. What I see in this story is a perfectly timed distinction between, "You applied for gamma, and you're qualified and we'll take you, but if you were to be thrown into the pool from which we are selecting betas, you would be well qualified in that domain as well and we would also take you there. Your choice." and "Gee, you're a butter side up and meet the minimum qualifications for being sorted into the square things category. Which is AWESOME because we don't have a lot of butter side ups in the square thing category, which is a grave social injustice perpetrated against us all by toxic horrible Putin robots who want to anihilate you in particular because they are full of hate and privilige, which is itself another, deeper, insidious double plus ungood injustice and all of this would finally be rectified and Eden restored on earth if we could only get a uniform distribution in the categories we want to look at and in the manner to which we have grown accustomed to looking at them. You go, girl butter side up! If you were to claw your way into square thing, we would really show them. I would finally be able to cease crying myself to sleep at night over injustice. I would be so proud of you." (Ok, perhaps that was a little heavy handed.)

It's not zero sum. Slots rise and fall as interest rises and falls. And even within years, there is flexibility. But even if Tyler's student displaced another student, it would have been on merit.

A PhD does not hinders business success. How "knowing more" makes you bad at business? What are the sunk costs? Perhaps a bit older, but 4 years is shorter than it seems.

I'm a PhD working as employed consultant for now. The job is interesting, challenging and profit is a daily concern. No profit, no job. I read about startups losing money for years for the sake of growth.... and I chuckle: who is the wannabe business people?

PhDs when I was in programs were not 4 years. 7 years typical. 11-15 on occaision. For bio at MIT, 9 was the median for a while. A decade is not short except in geology.

Has anyone ever investigated the correlation between the number of years Americans take to get the PhD and the decline of (say) the US manufacturing economy?

I suppose one correlation sticks out: the correlation with Global Warming. What can it mean?

4 years is a huge opportunity cost in IT. You can be taking your first steps into management if you spend that much time in some companies. If not, you will be a senior engineer who has mastered his stack and is deeply embedded into his company. 4 years of fulltime webdev is enough to start a consultancy. You also miss out on the 6-figure amount of money that you would have earned over the four years.

6 figures is vague, 100K or 999,999? the lower boundary it's quite easy to accomplish over 4 years, even with scholarship income.

Its vague because it will differ from person to person. Perhaps not vague enough, even, as some people will get duped into working for failed startups and earn less than the scholarship income. But I think we can agree that:

(expected private earnings - expected academia earnings) * 4 > 100k

is plausible for an American IT professional?

More competition for the Phd slots would imply we as a society would have higher quality people filling those fixed slots.

Are the slots really fixed? Over time increased interest in PhD's for economics might increase demand for economic classes, publications etc. The # of slots might go up eventually.

If people increase the options they are considering, I suspect you will decrease the odds they will end up frustrated.

My aspirations were raised significantly when I was relatively young, and now I am 52-year-old divorced adjunct filth living in a one-bedroom rat-hole in a Mexican neighborhood.

In Memphis, no less.

Raising aspirations in a smart way, yes. With vision and some realism. I frequently suggest people not go for PhDs when they can do something even more grand.

Any examples of what’s greater than a ph.d in economics? Hard to imagine

The best career choices are not always obvious, the result of choices not always linear. As I approach the end of my career and look back at my career choices, I try not to assess them by comparing my experience with the experiences of my peers. What's best for thee is not necessarily best for me. But I don't really know because alternative history only works in fiction. The Road Not Taken is the famous poem by Robert Frost, in which the narrator chose the path that was "grassy and wanted wear": "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by".

"you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind." The best thing you've written in months, Mr C.

You could improve your writing, though, by purging unnecessary adverbs. Both "significantly" and "relatively" are candidates for the guillotine.

Nudging before nudging was a thing.

... imagine your life and our world -- if there were no PhD's at all

It's easy if you try....

And those who flunk their prelims are given Master's degrees as booby prizes. Thus degrading the degree for those who went into and actually earned an MS.

I think this is good advice, but I worry that the broad application of it may do more harm than good. For instance, I have a respectable white collar job that pays well and is satisfying, but it's also unstable.

I do wonder sometimes if I had been urged to aim "lower," and apprentice with an uncle in one of the trades, taken some college courses to better understand business administration, finance, and marketing, that I might be better off now and in the long-term.

I end up advising a lot of my nieces and nephews who are smart enough to get into college, but not prestigious schools to focus on programs like accounting or nursing where there are clear paths, certifications, and trainings, versus "business" which is useful, but unclear in its applications. Especially for people who are first-generation college students who have little social capital to leverage.

The advice is fine, assuming you're a good judge of talent, like Tyler, and you're already dealing with relatively high-skilled people, as you would in an MA application process.

Model of what might be going on here.

The young lack a lot of knowledge of how things work so they use older people to provide them with clues and model themselves on their behavior to 'fake it to they make it'.

The old, however, have a different optimization search problem than the old. The old are very deep into their choices so they have a lot more knowledge about their niche but because they have 'niched' themselves, their options outside are much smaller. They already own a dry cleaner on the north side, does it make sense to open one on the south side or should they invest in making their cleaner a 'organic green' one? But the young should consider less the merits of north or south side dry cleaners and instead the merits of owning a dry cleaner versus being a deep sea diver or fracker or solar panel installer or stint as a foreign mercenary.

Hence the young should get purposeful 'tweaks' to take the narrow focus they may be getting from older people and make it a wide focus.

I love the sentiment. I manage 30 people that we generally hire straight out of college. I am constantly telling people not to baby them and limit what they can do. People set easy goals with no chance to out perform and the good ones get bored and quit for other jobs. The good ones can figure out what resources to use and how to execute well beyond what others think they are capable of. I say good instead of smart because plenty of smart people get caught up in their own head and under produce, I have never been able to fix that, eventually they get frustrated and leave.

I had a professor like that - after I graduated she took me to lunch at the Faculty Club (which in 1977 was WOW) and suggested that I should consider going on to graduate studies. I had always been a so-so student, middle of the pack, but in my last two years of my degree I just soared and she saw that. I told her now was not a good time as I needed to earn money. She just left it as when I was ready (she assumed I would) she was ready to give me a recommendation. 5 years later I was ready and she did.

She now has dementia and is in a care facility (she is only in her early 70s) and the university is raising funds for a faculty position in her name which I donate to regularly because I can't tell her how much those words meant to me at the time.

And I try to do the same with younger workers - I'm nearly retirement and have been self-employed for 25 years. I get offered work that I really don't need and is not paying enough to interest me, but I will pass it on to those who are just starting out and need a boost.

"I donate to regularly because I can't tell her how much those words meant to me at the time." You old sentimentalist. Well done!

"At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous."

Yeah, trying to think of a whole occupation that does this, particularly in high school.

I had exactly this experience, but the outcome wasn't great. At 22 I was offered a PhD scholarship after finishing my bachelor's at one of Australia's best universities. I accepted, but the institutional support was awful and I simply didn't have the maturity to manage a 100% thesis PhD on my own. Subsequently I withdrew after four years after producing nothing of note.

I suspect this is/was a problem with Australian institutions; the completion rate for PhDs at that time was apparently very low.

I agree entirely with the sentiment of 'raising the aspirations', but the guidance needs to be in place. There's a difference between throwing someone in the deep end of a pool and throwing someone in the middle of the ocean.

What was your field? I know that supervisor support for PhD students in the humanities, and parts of Social Science, used often to be lousy in the UK. The scientists and engineers were scandalised (but did nothing about it, of course, except to warn their own children against such things.)

Humanities -- Continental philosophy (I like to tell myself I dodged a bullet, but still regret not finishing.)

My understanding was that supervisors would receive additional funding for taking on candidates, hence the incentive to take on more.

I think they did make some improvements, e.g. introducing PhD courses that weren't 100% thesis.

If the student is interested in getting a tenured position it depend very much on the discipline concerned. In a study from MIT, it will be very bad for Engineering where on average only 14.5% will get tenure even when they might earn more in private industries. Polar opposite of that for Legal professions with odd of 500%. 29.4% in Computer and information sciences.

It is surprising that it seems very easy to get tenure in liberal arts, plenty of undergrads but not that many PhDs. For example in Liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities the odd is 125%, i.e. under-supply of PhDs for those tenured positions to teach the large under-grad populations. 71.4% in the discipline of Area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies. 55.6% for Social sciences. 21.7% for Psychology. No data for Economics.

At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.

And yet, the damage to them could also be enormous given one can't predict how a PhD will turn out - if it didn't work well, the person would've wasted 4-6 years of her/his life. Academia gives a great life to a few hundreds of people and destroys thousands of lives.

More abstractly, *never* judge a policy by only its potential upside, also worry about the potential downside.

Nice. A couple of other examples:

Caroline Hoxby and other researchers found that low income students with high academic promise tend to "under-match": they don't even apply to selective institutions, often applying only to local colleges instead. So she persuaded the College Board to mail those students information packets telling them about opportunities at selective colleges, along with a waiver of the application fee to encourage them to apply

At the personal level, as with Tyler's admission story and several commenters' stories, Richard Light found that students often made key decisions in college due to offhand remarks from a professor. A good grade or a positive comment on a paper was rarely the catalyst, instead it was typically a remark out of context (e.g. a chance meeting in a hallway) where the professor said something encouraging (quite possibly just making chit-chat) and the student took that remark and suddenly had a new vision for their future.

I've had a couple of former students tell me stories like that (although in one case the student was already thinking seriously about grad school, they were mainly wondering which ones to apply to, so it's not as if I changed the course of their life).

And here's the thing: I don't remember those conversations at all. It was so slight, so off-hand, that I didn't even think about it at the time.

But those students sure remembered, and told me about those remarks years later.

What Richard Light didn't ask about was: what about negative comments, and their impact on students? I could imagine the same effect, in a negative direction. So I try to be positive and encouraging in my interactions with young people.

Personally, I was doing well and headed toward grad school anyway so I didn't have any of those life-changing conversations when I was a student.

But I do remember when I was a senior doing an end of term research project for a statistics class taught by a big-shot statistician. After the quarter ended I went to his office to see if I could pick up my paper (seniors' grades were due early so I figured he'd have graded mine by then). He said he still had a couple of hours before the grades were due; he was still reading my paper and said he already knew he'd give it a good grade -- but he said he'd rather not give it back to me yet because he thought it was interesting and he wanted to finish reading it.

That was not enough to sway me from economics to statistics, but decades later I sure remember that term paper and his evaluation of it.

Survivorship bias?

Maybe you should have encouraged them to apply to Harvard.

As a Masters in Urban Economics student at UCSB in the early 70's I took an Urban Economics class with PhD. students. Having done relatively well on the exam, Professor Perry Shapiro come up to me and simply said "You should get a PhD". I finished the Masters program and did continue on to complete my PhD. While, I didn't wind up at Harvard, I have had a wonderful, rewarding 36 (and counting) year career at Saint Mary's College of California.

The premise of the example is that doing PHD instead of Masters is somehow more valuable to both the applicant and the world. Both are questionable. If the guy had the intellectual juice to do competitive PhD, he should be able to do better for himself in business- say technology or finance. Additionally, Econ PhDs have essentially net negative societal impact. They have the same value and societal function astrologists once enjoyed.

I took the story in broader context, not specifically about PhD versus MA. As I neared the end of my college days, I contemplated doing a double major that would have required an additional semester in college. An older colleague suggested that I might consider putting that time toward a planned master's degree instead. He simply have me an option to consider beyond my own thoughts. Ultimately, I took the path he suggested. I think it's helpful to share one's years of experience to give others alternatives to consider.

Comments for this post are closed