Young “stars” in economics

We use a novel dataset of job flyouts for junior economists to investigate three aspects of the market for “stars”. First, what is the background of students who become stars? Second, what type of research does the top of the market demand? Third, where do these students take jobs? Among other results, we show that stars are more international and less female than PhDs overall, that theoretical and semi-theoretical approaches remain dominant, that American programs both produce the most stars and hire even more, that the private sector is largely uncompetitive, and that there is a strong shift toward stars having pre-PhD full-time academic research jobs.

That is the abstract of a new paper from Kevin A. Bryan, also known as A Fine Theorem.  Via Beth Popp Berman.

And here is a point on the stickiness of academic rankings over time:

In economics, among the 13 programs with the most published pages in a Top 5 journal by their faculty between 2002 and 2009, all 13 were among the top 18 in the same ranking for publications between 1974 and 1978 (McPherson [2012])!

“!” is right!  And this:

…almost 80% of the faculty at a top 10 economics department did their PhD in a top 10, compared to 58% in mathematics and 63% in literature.



'“!” is right!'

Money can buy stars to appear at a university, but it still cannot buy respect - as that consensus view demonstrates.

@clockwork_prior - did you actually read the abstract before commenting, in your lust to beat me as first post, like I didn't? The paper is saying reputation is sticky, once you are labeled a "star", the label sticks, like those sticky labels they put on plastic plates here in the Philippines that you can't easily wash off, annoying, they stay there for years. Very common in the Third World, it's almost like they expect customers shopping in stores to switch labels on products so they put the strongest glue available on labels.

Bonus trivia: those who wrote a few days ago that that US philosophy major loser with student debts now living in an Indian cave could have applied for debt forgiveness rather than flee the USA, dig this: "Nearly 90 percent of applicants who applied for the so-called temporary expanded public service loan forgiveness program have been denied, according to a letter from the Education Department sent to Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. The Senator's office provided the letter to CNBC." So typical of the US government: they always promise but don't really deliver, just whet the voters appetite. Saw the same thing with mortgage relief about a decade ago. And unfunded constitutionally protected state pensions are exploding, underrated! Where is the money going to come from?

I know this isn't what you meant but

The Fed will create it, been working since 1971.

That's why author and institution should be totally anonymous during the entire publication process.

With almost all papers, the full text or at least the abstract and title are easily googled, making blind refereeing almost impossible to achieve.

Citing one's own work is another give away.

Still, it is probably worth the effort, and referees can at least be told not to look up the authors on the internet. Sure they might cheat, but that is what the threat of academic integrity violations is for.

As I recall, many top 10 grad students publish in journals edited by their advisors or by someone at their universities. Maybe that should not be allowed.

> "many top 10 grad students publish in journals edited by their advisors"

In "Science as a Vocation", Max Weber discussed the disadvantages of a system where professors tend to only promote their disciples, and noted that "I have followed the principle that a scholar promoted by me must legitimize and habilitate himself with somebody else at another university. But the result has been that one of my best disciples has been turned down at another university because nobody there believed this to be the reason."

Thanks for the citation.

Perhaps this is but an anecdote of failure among an otherwise sound policy? One would think that Weber's glowing recommendation would carry the day. Perhaps there are other factors that Weber failed to see, such as his top student having a grating personality.

Aside from publishing, it seems there is a great deal of incest in hiring too. This may also create scientific and ideological echo chambers.

The problem is not at the reviewing level. It's at the working paper stage. Those at the top will have presented and discussed their papers with people who are likely to be editors and/or referees for the leading journals. They will know in advance if theirs is the "right" kind of paper and also have dealt with many potential issues in advance. Also, as the editors will likely be familiar with the paper they will make sure to send it to referees best suited for the paper unlike random papers from nobodies. Anonymity at the submission stage will have little effect on this. Put it another way, if the lead editors haven't already heard of your paper before you submit, the likelihood of publication is much, much lower.

Lead editors probably would, but not necessarily referees.

It wouldn't hurt to anonymize even if the potential for recognition is high. All upside and no downside.

I would point out that there's diversity across the top tier, and diversity within the top tier. Outside the top tier, not so much; indeed, successful programs outside the top tier often owe much of their success to an absence of diversity.

That 80% come from the top 10 schools isn't surprising or informative. What is informative is what the other 20% look like.

How did Elizabeth Warren with her Rutgers law degree get on the Harvard Law School faculty much less department head? Even Lani Guinier has a Yale degree. Politics has infected academia like a virus.

Elizabeth Warren was not a politician at the time she became a faculty member. She specialized in bankruptcy and consumer law and only became political later when Republicans rejected her apointment to be head of the Consumer Protection. She had tenure at the Univ. of Houston law school before being a visiting professor at UT's law school. As professors do she moved around, teaching as a full prof. at UPenn before Harvard, where she first went as a visting professor, a typical way for a school to look at someone. She worked on the commission involved with reforming the federal bankruptcy laws which is what brought her to the attention of politicians.

One of her big issues was allowing student loan bankruptcy. She doesn't talk about it much anymore

Re: stickiness of academic ranking

Says more about politics in the field of economics, rather than the depth, breadth, and insight of its ideas.

"… almost 80% of the faculty at a top 10 economics department did their PhD in a top 10, compared to 58% in mathematics and 63% in literature."

That it's probably easier to identify sheer talent amongst mathematicians than among economists sounds plausible to me. And if it's maths rather than theoretical physics that they mean, it's probably also easier to appoint on talent. (Which would also make it easier to import them.)

But literature - meaning presumably lit crit - there you got me.

I see two potential explanatory factors why other fields would have more penetration into the higher ranked institutions:

1. Raw, undeniable talent (which you've correctly identified). Either you've got it or you dont.

2. Politics: the field is inherently not meritocratic, and rising to the top ranks is based on having the right set of beliefs, not talent.

The observation of higher mobility in math and literature is consistent with these two factors. Perhaps a wider range of observations would shed more light.

I don't know anything about the supply side for mathematics and literature, and without that I can't tell what those percentages mean. Perhaps the ratio of top 10 PhD program graduates to faculty spots at those top 10 departments in those fields is lower than it is in Economics. Maybe 58% and 63% do not reflect "mobility" so much as lack of supply. Maybe the top 10 departments would take in more top 10 PhD graduates but there just aren't enough of them so they have to drop down and take people from programs 11-25.

Or maybe they do represent mobility. It's just hard to tell what they represent without more information about supply in the different fields.

I do know there are a lot of economics PhDs. Someone in another thread mentioned that a faculty member told them that there were 150 applications for an open faculty position in philosophy. Where I am we have had between 250-550 applications every time we have had an open position in economics - and the "stars" from those top 10 programs aren't applying (we rarely get applications from the "semi-stars" from those programs either). So we're not getting the universe of candidates.

One possibility is that it's about selection, but the other possibility is the treatment effect of the programs. It could be about training, but I'd wager it's about resources.

In both math and literature, doing good work requires few external resources (save those few areas of math that require access to super computers). In economics, however, publishing empirical work increasingly depends on access to unique datasets that is difficult to obtain.

You either have to create your own data (which is quite expensive), partner with an outside institution (which requires networks and is greatly helped by having a "prestigious" brand behind you), or borrow someone else's non-public data (much easier at a "top" department). It's virtually impossible to publish today in top journals merely by analyzing public data.

I think this greats a great deal of rich-get-richer path dependence that's just not present in other fields where your own creativity is the limiting factor.

Reminded me that I had an economics professor who said the toughest part of studying economics is finding good data.

Do PhD's in Economics have more options in the private sector if they choose to skip second tier schools?

When I was a student, new PhD's were expected to go elsewhere for a few years before they could return home. Not sure how widespread that practice is.

The top economics departments are also very large and very well funded, and are therefore able to scoop up the cream of the applicant crop. My guess is that talent in phd programs in other fields is more evenly distributed.

It may be more accurate to say there is a top-US university universe of academic economics with powerful journals, and a policy / lower-tier US / international universe that makes the policy, and these don't intersect much nowadays.

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