Formal pre-doc programmes have burgeoned, especially in elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago and Yale. Participants clean and analyse data, write papers and do administrative tasks. In exchange they may receive free or subsidised classes, a salary in the region of $50,000, potential co-authorship of the papers they work on, and, most prized of all, a letter of recommendation to a top programme.
In part pre-docs show how economic research has changed. “Economics has become more like the sciences in terms of both the methods and the production process,” says Raj Chetty of Harvard, who directs the Opportunity Insights team, a group with a reputation for working its pre-docs hard. When analysing tax records that gave access only to a certain number of people, he switched away from using part-time research assistants to a lab-like team, inspired by his own family of scientists. As bigger data sets, new techniques and generous funding made such collaboration worthwhile, others followed.
Here is much more on pre-docs from Soumaya Keynes at The Economist. I suspect this development is inevitable, but I see at least two things going on here. First, letter writers are internalizing the very high value of those letters in the form of personal services received. Second, this will push out “weirdos” and make the profession more homogenized, more obedient, more elite, more dependent on school of origin, and less interesting. I do understand the value of the training received, and don’t propose any mechanism to “stop this,” but overall it does not make me an entirely happy camper.