Is it harder to become a top economist?

Mathis Lohaus writes to me:

Thanks for doing the Conversations. I greatly enjoyed Acemoglu, Duflo, and Banerjee in short succession after the Christmas break. Your question about “top-5 journals” and the bits about graduate training reminded of something I’ve had on my mind for a while now:

For the average PhD student, how hard is it to become a tenured economist — compared to 10, 20, 30, 40 … years ago? (And how about someone in the top 10% of talent/grit?)

Publication requirements have clearly become tougher in absolute terms. But how difficult is it to write a few “very good” papers in the first place? On twitter, people will sometimes say things like “oh, it must have been nice to get tenure back in 1997 based on 1 top article, which in turn was based on a simple regression with n = 60”. I wonder if that criticism is fair, because I imagine the learning curve for quantitative methods must have been challenging. And what about the formal models etc.? Surely those were always hard. (I vaguely remember a photo showing difficult comp exam questions…)

More broadly, early career scholars now have tons of data and inspiring research at their fingertips all the time. Also, nepotism and discrimination might be less powerful than in earlier decades…? On the other hand, you have to take into account that many more PhDs are awarded than ever before. I suspect that alone is a huge factor, but perhaps less acute if we focus only on people who “really, really want to stay in academia”.

A different way to ask the question: When would have been the best point in time to try to become an econ professor (in the USA)?

I would love to hear about your thoughts, and/or input from MR readers.

I always enjoy questions that somewhat answer themselves.  I would add these points:

1. The skills of networking and finding new data sets are increasingly important, all-important you might say, at least for those in the top tier of ability/effort.

2. Fundraising matters more too, because the project might cost a lot, RCTs being the extreme case here.

3. Managing your research team matters much more, and the average size of research team for influential work is much larger.  Once upon a time, three authors on a paper was considered slightly weird (the claim was one of them virtually always did nothing), now four is quite normal and the background research support is much higher as well.

Recently I was speaking to someone on the job market, wondering if he should be an academic.  I said: “In the old days you spent a higher percentage of your time doing economics.  Nowadays, you spend a higher percentage of your time managing a research team doing economics.  You hardly do economics at all.  So if you are mainly going to be a manager, why not manage for the higher rather than the lower salary?”

That was tongue in cheek of course.

On the bright side, learning today through the internet is so much easier.  For instance, I find YouTube a good way to learn/refresh on new ideas in econometrics, easier than just trying to crack the final published paper.

What else?


Whenever the demand for econ professors was exploding, which I would date around the late 1950s to late 1960s as the state university systems were being expanded and lavishly funded for the first time.

Yes, I think those large-scale demographic events swamp everything else.

At a secondary level, surely email and the internet have made it easier for distant researchers to collaborate with each other. Or faster anyway. It's far from clear whether that makes thing easier or harder or is simply neutral with regard to publishing research, but it's surely a factor behind the larger number of authors per article. (As well as the need to do so much data work, that Tyler already mentioned.)

I was going to say, demand-side factors went unmentioned in that post. You'd have to know which year many older generation top economists plan to retire (or failing to believe they will retire, look at the death tables). Moreover, the internet has opened new paths too. You can be a top economist without being an economics professor these days, for instance. You just need an influential following.

Parasites always need to find new hosts, as represented by data sets and funding.

Luckily, there is a growing number of billionaires more than willing to sustain an economics ecosystem that supports whatever of flights of fancy those billionaires care to indulge themselves with.

And honestly, did Keynes, Friedman, or Buchanan have research teams?

Sign up for China's Top Talents program and they will pay you millions of dollars. Don't tell Trump about it though. He criminalizes PhDs being paid their market rate.

Re: China: I think the state is implementing major portions of your so-called modern monetary theory. I'm no expert.

If an econ PhD was worth his "salt," he'd amass far more wealth than the market rate and wouldn't need China.

Trump 2020!

Sixties through the eighties. You had growing student numbers and not so many new Ph.D economists. And bureaucrats hadn’t taken over higher ed yet.

It strikes me as a bit odd (both for Lohaus and Cowen) that being a "top economist" is associated solely with tenure at a university. I would never associate being a "top lawyer" (or doctor, architect, engineer, etc) solely with teaching (and other activities related to being a professor today, such as blogging). In fact, I suspect that those most skilled in those professions do not go into teaching as a profession, but rather apply their knowledge directly to real world problems rather than academic pursuits. Is the field of economics different in this respect?

Good question. Given that the predictive power of an economist, ex ante, is almost nil (not unlike somebody in finance trying to predict the stock market), I suspect the answer is "YES", that being a top economist is the same as being a top economics professor, not somebody in the private sector (except maybe being in the World Bank, IMF, which is in the business of handing out money).

Bonus trivia: TC asks "What else?" and my answer would be, the same question the OP asked is relevant in chess: 'Was it easier to get the grandmaster title years ago than today?' I suspect so, given it's much harder to compete in chess today, given the explosion in talent (same in track & field as well; Olympian Jesse Owens fastest record was beaten a few years back by a talented high-school sprinter)

Lawyer, doctor, architect are all professions in their own right. Economists are in the same class as mathematicians, linguists, physicists, literature experts, historians where the academy is where they do most of their work.

Teaching others to be teachers? I agree with your list with the exception of physicists where I suspect that most are applying their knowledge outside academia. I don't mean to be totally dismissive as I grant there is some benefit to basic research done on important subjects. I suspect that many "top economists" as here defined are not contributing much if I look to the research done by most PhD candidates as reported on this blog...

@VDB - you seem to be searching for some answer...what is your counterfactual? Your priors? You think perhaps being a teacher is not becoming for a top economist? Then lay out your dream scenario for an economist, what is it, giving advice to government and having them follow it? In the USA that might be the Counsel of Economic advisers, about a dozen or so people, hardly worth having thousands of people go to college for. What else? Perhaps you think top economists can help businesses grow or make more profits? Given that marginal costs and revenue is hard to measure in real time, that's hard to believe. What then?

Bonus trivia: top economists concluded more than a couple of decades ago that patent attorneys and agents have not just the ability to redistribute the economic pie, like most doctors and lawyers do, but to make the pie larger (by, in theory, encouraging inventors who might not otherwise invent, to get patents; I find that hard to take too seriously though I concede about 1% of what patent types do has the potential to increase GDP via their efforts).

"@VDB - you seem to be searching for some answer...what is your counterfactual? Your priors? "

Yes, I 'm looking for an answer. I'm also searching for a counterfactual. It wasn't me that posited being a "top economist" is equated with being a tenured professor. The question and answer above might well have been "how do I game the academic system to get a job and tenure at a university". If that's your sole idea of what constitutes a "top economist", the answer as to how to become one might largely be here:

I'm not saying that being a tenured university professor does not disqualify one from being a "top economist". I'll repeat here that I'm surprised at the suggestion that it is the only criteria.

Counterfactual? That presumes that there is a good alternative use for the training that PhD economists undergo. I'm not an economist, so I'm looking for others (e.g., "top economists") to provide the answers. My general observation here and elsewhere, is that economists, even many self-styled "top economists", are searching for a purpose. If they had one, why would they waste so much time opining on things that are outside the realm of their training and expertise? Politics, films, sports, literature, food, international relations, etc., etc. That's not to say that economists can't have multiple interests and hobbies like the rest of us; but, it is to say that they seem to regard a much greater area of turf as part of their are of competence. Perhaps that's why many self-styled "top economists" now tend to use the term "public intellectual" rather than "economist". I've also noticed the attempt recently to introduce the term "influencer", but that doesn't seem to have taken wings yet...

Reading between the lines - ok, reading the lines - there seems to be more than a hint of disdain for poseurs.

One hopes that such mannered disdain remains acceptable in this dawning age of cancel culture.

Neither mathematicians (with a long history of work involving mainly military matters) nor linguists (think work involving the Bible) are exclusively academic in nature.

Turing comes to mind as a well known example for mathematicians,. Linguistics, particularly in regards to philology or translation, has a major religious framework (which may or may not be considered academic), though no well known examples are as clear cut as Turing.

You can easily assumes that many truly top economists are not in the public eye - at least until retirement from private industry when they may continue as a hobby online what they were paid for as a professional.

Of course, how one defines economist is part of how the game is played to gain status. Academics are often shameless in their insistence that only academics represent the top of their profession, but this posture is much harder to maintain in any field where actual results matter - law, architecture, medicine, engineering as you pointed out.

Maybe the problem for the younger economists is the "tons of data and inspiring research at their fingertips". How often do commenters at this blog complain about research linked by Cowen as being useless (which I interpret to mean too narrow to have importance). Back before the "tons of data" were accessible, economists (and social scientists generally) often focused on the big questions as opposed to the minutiae. Besides the notoriety within the profession, the leading economists back then were read (and admired) by a much wider (and larger) audience. Indeed, many economists back then had expressive and appealing writing styles, whereas today the writing style of most young economists is, well, not so appealing. Of course, I need not go far to identify an economist today who has many of the attributes and broad based appeal of the well-known and widely-read economists of years past.

"On the other hand, you have to take into account that many more PhDs are awarded than ever before. I suspect that alone is a huge factor"

Does that point to a failure at the production of PhD level (the universities)? My take is to some extent:
1) Universities maximize its return from tuition separate from the real demand for PhDs causing a glut.
2) Universities are selecting and training poorly so too many of the PhDs are thinking their future is academic and not outside that world.

Clearly some complexities in both, for example, just who is the consumer of the university output and what would then constitute a condition of over production.

This is correct of course. It's one of Eric Weinstein's complaints: the university system is organized for unsustainable growth, false-promising careers to researchers that can't exist, in order to obtain cheap research labor (and cheap immigrant research labor) rather than paying researchers and doing less and better research. This problem is exacerbated by the withdrawal of the military as the primary originator of basic research funds given that military epistemology is competitive, and our failure or inability to direct research funds without military priorities, to competitive advantage.

I expect this will be corrected rather shortly (and painfully) one way or the other.

To attempt an answer to that question, there are around 2x new PhDs (total, but let's say economics is average) every year than in the 1980s, according to the NSF. Then there are around 1.5x? more tenured positions in the US as economist. On the face of it that would make it around 33% harder, but China and many countries have much better higher ed than they used to, so that would presumably enough to mop up the surplus talent? So it's probably as easy as it always was in academia. In non-academia, it seems that many companies have discovered the merit to have a chief economist and team, and also governments seem to want less lawyers and more economists, too. I would contend that being in a ministry drafting new laws or improving the daily leisure experience of millions of gamers and movie-watchers qualifies as influence, too. So I think that all told, it's probably easier than in the past to become an influential economist if you think hard about it. By the way, that highlights my own failure to become one after my PhD.

Weird question. In the 21st century, when there are no small ponds left, being regarded as "top" at anything is first and foremost a function of your networking and self-promotion skills more than anything else.

When I was young, I went into a ritzy bookstore, and one of the featured books was just called "self-promotion." I was really taken aback, which is probably the reason I remember it to this day. In my Anglo-Saxon upbringing, self-promotion was never a good thing. But flipping through, I had to admit that was a somewhat limiting view.

"finding new data sets"

I think this is bigger than economics.

I've been trying to convince the young people in the family to do data science. "I've done R and Python math packs" I tell them, "I can help you." So far only one taker. He was going to major in pure math, but is now doing a "sports data focus.". That sounds kind of screwy to me (there is a major or minor for that?), but at the same time I'm pretty happy. I think the "sports data" kid can be hired by a hospital too. Same skill set.

I think the pressure to publish well before finishing your dissertation rewards certain types of scholars and disadvantages others. Specifically, it's harder and harder for late bloomers to make it. That's a shame because disciplines likely benefit from having a mix of scholars and talents.

As a young professor on the tenure clock, I might be biased but, I think that now it is certainly much harder to publish: In the 1970s the acceptance rate for the Top 5 was 16%, now it is around 4%. As a result that extreme difficulty for publishing in prestigious journals generates incentives for economists to do more "standardized" research based on a large amount of data collection and teamwork that is less likely to be rejected rather than highly risky conceptual research. For instance, the fraction of theory papers in the top 5 was 53% in 1983, by 2013 it had fallen to 16%, while the type of theory paper published changed from conceptual papers expressing creative ideas to papers that mostly just generalize or extend existing results using very difficult math. That is, they are more "proof of hard work" rather than expressions of individual ideas.

Overall, my impression is that there has been a decline in the overall quality of research despite the increase in difficulty publishing. Just because recent papers show that more "work" was done than old papers does not mean they are more valuable or insightful.

So, being a "top economist" now means something very different than 40 years ago. The type of people that won Nobel prizes in the 1980s today wouldn't be able to get tenure in a top 50 place.

He also slept there on a futon, balancing a lamp on the corner, where at night he wrote a list description for the next day. Die Sonne scheint das Regnet. Die Schwarzen streuen. Lauwarm, der Tag wartet. Besides the futon, there was a line of tires extended to the door from a silver sink with two knobs. Harry shaved his head dressed in a pair of overalls and wore a red and black handkerchief around his neck. He ate fruit and honeyed bread, flipping through Nature or Casabella, then he listened to La Belle Helene, and stretched his arms and legs, exercised his breath and used a jump rope until his skin was covered in sweat. He went behind his shed and picked out tin and iron sheets from the blue garbage bin out, usually half astray and dripping with water, sometimes perfectly jig.

Talk about navel gazing...but hey, it's still the dismal science, nicht wahr?

I’m in the process of applying to economics graduate programs and if I’m successful I have no expectation I’d be offered a tenure track job that would be worth my time unless I get into one of the top 5 programs. For better or for worse, many baby boomer age people have captured the job market and don’t really seem inclined to retire anytime soon.

The answer to Mathis Lohaus’s question depends on what he means by an average Ph.D. student. There are something like 140 Ph.D. programs in economics in the United States. A recent Ph.D.’s first academic job will almost certainly be somewhere lower ranked than his Ph.D. program. For instance, graduates of George Mason University (whose program is ranked maybe 60) who want academic careers start in second- or even third-level campuses of state universities or similarly ranked private universities and colleges. If he is bright and has a practical orientation in finance, business, or economic policy, he will go farther, faster in terms of earnings and influence with a master’s degree and three years of job experience than with a Ph.D. at the end of the same period.

Thanks Tyler and everyone who has weighed in! University funding cycles, cohort effects, the bigger international markets, and the stratification of the academy in the US all seem important.

By the way, I never wrote "top economist" ... my focus on the ivory tower is due to my day job, which is 50% sociology of science right now. (Also, as a political scientist, I see fewer outside options in business and entertainment...)

In contrast to lawyers and physicians, only a few economists widely viewed as "top" have gone totally into the private sector, Hal Varian being an example. Most of those advising governments and also many companies at the top level have an academic base.

I would say the best econ academic job market, really academic job market more generally, was in the late 1950s and the 1960s, as noted above. The 1970s had several recessions and was a much worse job market, although there was some improvement in the 80s. In any case, the Silents had it much better than the Boomers, for those of you into playing stupid generational war games.

Yeah, it's a hard question

It depends on many factors. Especially it depends on where you work and in which niche. In marketing, I often came across professionals in my field who studied a lot or received a second education. I used to buy research paper on the topic of employment after university. And in most cases second to the most successful were those who started working at the university and started with internships.

It depends on many factors. Especially it depends on where you work and in which niche. In marketing, I often came across professionals in my field who studied a lot or received a second education. I used to buy research paper [](navigate here) here on the topic of employment after university. And in most cases, the most successful were those who started working at the university and started with internships.

It depends on many factors. Especially it depends on where you work and in which niche. In marketing, I often came across professionals in my field who studied a lot or received a second education. I used to buy research paper [navigate here]( here on the topic of employment after university. And in most cases, the most successful were those who started working at the university and started with internships.

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