Rethinking the first year graduate economics program

The job market for economists is revving up again, and I’m thinking about the gauntlet of graduate education that the rookie economists have just survived to get to this point. I want to raise a few questions—typical academic navel-gazing about “the state of the field”. Basically my message is that I think the time has come to retire and replace the first year graduate economics “canon”. Hopefully I can justify myself with some (leading) questions.

Naturally this is all informed by my specific experience. I survived the gauntlet and grabbed a rung on the academic job ladder, so there is some survivorship bias. I’ve been around graduate economics programs for years as a student and an instructor in the first year “core”, so I have experience to draw from. But, I certainly don’t have a bird’s eye view of many different programs, so I’m speculating from limited knowledge. I’ve been in the U.S. exclusively. I will skew towards microeconomics in examples since I know that context better. And so on.

I also have a somewhat atypical background since I came in to grad school with relatively low math training. My perception is that the average level of preparation has risen in recent years and is very high. It isn’t unusual to see first year Ph.D. students who already have Master’s degrees in economics or mathematics.

By contrast, I’ve written before about how I learned “on the fly” what economics was at the undergraduate level, and then again had another huge culture shock in the first year of grad school. That culture shock relates to my main point here but might be pretty specific to my own experience. So I realize this might be off base on average.

Anyway with that said here are my thoughts.

1. Does the typical first year program teach us economics?

I think it might not. Here is my prior: for someone entering at the level of a good undergraduate economist, the first year of a graduate program does not add enough understanding of economics to justify itself.

What I mean is that a big chunk of the first year canon, especially in microeconomics, repeats topics and ideas from the undergraduate canon, at a higher level of mathematical rigor and formality. Repeating material can be valuable, especially for those entering years removed from college, but I don’t think this counts as just a simple repetition or refresher.

I’m skeptical that a person’s intuitions about general equilibrium are meaningfully advanced by moving to higher dimensionality than two individuals and two goods. Or that a person’s intuitions about consumer choice are meaningfully advanced by replicating a proof that continuous preferences lead to continuous utility functions.

I think there should be more new economic ideas from first year grad economics, relative to undergrad.

2. Who is the “ideal” candidate for admission?

Someone who is really good at math.

This is the industry consensus. The stock advice for undergraduates interested in applying to graduate programs in economics is to study mathematics, not economics. At a minimum, the advice is to take as many math classes as you can. Real analysis “is highly valued and indeed almost expected of a strong applicant.”  I’m not sure there is a strong connection to our research methodologies.

This relates to the previous question too. If the “ideal” candidate is a good undergraduate mathematician, then I can almost see the justification for first year micro. I still think it doesn’t teach economics, but at least it is a defensible progression from preparation to result. It teaches how to turn math skills into publishable “economics”.

I think it is a shame that there is such a disconnect between the undergraduate curriculum and the graduate curriculum in economics. It seems perverse to have to dissuade a prospective economist from studying economics.

3. Is the profession served well by the “ideal” applicant profile?

Maybe not. The advice to study mathematics has an analogy in the world of hyper-competitive college application preparation, helicopter parenting, strategic extra-curricular activities, and student disillusionment. It also has an analogy to the erosion of intellectual freedom for college students, as studies must be geared to outcomes.

I got through the first year relatively fine with a decent-not-great math and statistics background. I think we don’t necessarily need to be asking for the moon in math preparation, even if we keep teaching the first year the way we do. The potential cost is that someone interested in economics but not interested or confident in real analysis, for example, might be dissuaded from going to grad school, and we might be losing some variety in personality or perspective because of it. Among other things, there is a gender equality component to this question, since there are declining but still significant gender imbalances across undergraduate fields.

We all bring different things to the table. Since economic problems are not math problems, I think we could benefit intellectually from having more variety in possible entry paths to grad school.

4. Is future research served by “mathing” students who want to be economists?

Mostly not, I think. The most charitable reading is that our profession has moved on. See the diversity of tools and approaches used across the bewildering number of sub-fields of economics. To a greater or lesser extent, we are not doing mathematical theory as much as we used to.

I wonder what proportion of professional economists do you think wrote a proof in the past year that required graduate-level mathematical techniques. Do you think that proportion is high enough to justify teaching math instead of economics to our first year Ph.D. students?

But look, I’m not closing my mind to the idea that being able to write proofs is A Thing that we want all economists to be capable of. Instead I just want to make an observation. In my experience, one of the biggest sources of anxiety in the collective consciousness of first year students is MATH.

It dominates your preparation the year before, your thinking in the program, your day-to-day life in doing problem sets, studying proofs, solving mathematical models. That might not a healthy socialization process for becoming a researcher in economics.

There may be lost strands of research as a result. I’m not super concerned about the effect on methodologies and fields that use data, experiments, and simulations. Someone who is intrinsically motivated in that direction may well be fine with wading through math to get there. I’m concerned about future research in fields that are just as technically sophisticated but driven as much by verbal arguments and historiography.

Standard economic methodology does not depend exclusively on mathematical formalism. Neither does modern economic research.

5. Don’t we need all economists to know the fundamentals of micro, macro, and econometrics?

I think that we do. But I think that the fundamentals would be quite well conveyed by either a history of economic thought sequence and/or intermediate undergraduate level courses in each field. Is there enough critical relevance—in either future research or future teaching—at the bottom of a differential equation? We can “tool up” for work in a field independently of learning its ideas, or alongside.

I’ve written before about the dilemma at the introductory undergraduate level between teaching “what economists (think they) know” and “what economists do”. What about the introductory graduate level? I don’t think we’re teaching either of those things. We’re asking for proof that you can do proofs.

I guess we might fall into a semantic discussion here about what “fundamentals” actually are. I think fundamentals are concepts, conclusions, and the progression of ideas. To me, knowing how to prove the Gauss-Markov Theorem, for example is not fundamental. I realize I am entering dangerous territory here so I will turn around and run away in a second, just after I apologize by saying I’m not trying to claim there’s no value in knowing how to prove the Gauss-Markov Theorem. Don’t @ me!

6. Are you just going to complain or do you have anything productive to say?

Ouch! But OK.

Here is one suggestion that prioritizes (i) the history of ideas and (ii) tools.

2 x history of economic thought
2 x working with data and coding
1 x mathematics concepts
1 x probability and statistics concepts
1 x experimental methodology (field, lab, natural)
1 x theory modeling methodology

This adds up to four classes in each of two semesters. Or however you want to slice it up for whatever context.

No doubt some of that would be a reshuffle of the existing curriculum, not a replacement. No problem. Reframing would be good.

Basically what I think should happen is that we should divorce economic thought from tools for doing economics. I think neither of those is well served by them being smushed together in the “micro, macro, econometrics” core curriculum. I think the status quo makes it harder to understand both economics and math.

I also think that this would allow a more diverse set of perspectives and students to succeed in the first year of the program, and that it would feed more naturally into the typical fields at the elective level of the program.

Bonus question lucky number 7! Do your advisors understand your academic job market?

Don’t count on it. Every moderately well-known document giving advice on the academic job market to graduating Ph.D. economists is relevant only to the small proportion of students who are graduating from the top 5-10 departments. It’s an exercise in tone-deafness and humblebragging to engage in hand-wringing over how to juggle too many interviews at the AEAs. Give me a break. Cut it out.

I am not breaking new ground when I say that, on average, your advisors had much better prospects on their job market than you do on yours. The two reasons are:

  • Macro trends. Higher education is different now. You don’t need me to explain adjunctification or the trends in the number of doctorates awarded over time.
  • Micro context. Your advisor is your advisor because they were good enough and/or lucky enough to get a job at the caliber of school you are graduating from.

On average your advisor had more interviews and more campus visits than you may get. They may empathize, but they may not have a lived understanding of your struggle or your hustle. I think you already know this. You are not stupid after all, and you have a healthy nose for bullshit. So trust yourself and your instincts. You are not “missing something”. Your feelings are normal and your concerns are valid. You do you.

I think this might be true in research too. Write for yourself, because your average reader is more like how you feel than they are like how you think your advisor feels.

If I have any decent advice at all (I probably do not) then try this: fit between candidate and a department or school’s needs matters a lot more than you perceive it to matter, especially once you move beyond the “major league” job postings by and for the Top Schools. The academic job market for economics is a lot more like a generic job market for whatever and a lot less like the Academic Job Market for Economics that is written about and obsessed over.

If you’re on the job market, good luck. If you write to me with questions, I may not be helpful but I will be sympathetic. And consider applying to Providence College!

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