Things are getting real: Personal education update

Life has not been kind to my ability to blog. I am riffing this post out without bothering to check when the last time I wrote something was, but I am pretty certain it was >6 months ago or thereabouts.

Having a child definitely sharpens the mind with respect to allocation of time. It is my most scarce resource by far now. Primarily because much of it is given over willingly to my 4-month old daughter, but work, school and my wonderful wife are always there to spend the remainder on.

Of school, things have become much more clear during the last months. I chuckle when I think of what I imagined an undergrad degree in economics to consist of. I thought it would be an ultra-rigorous battery of courses that would leave one quite well versed on the ins and outs of non-specialized economic practice. In reality, this is probably more the case at some other institutions, but overall the UG degree is little more than a moldable jumping off point for a) grad school in Econ or policy, b) an MBA, c) some job with general analysis duties or other less-than-accountant-level demands d) maybe pursuing a law degree.

I am pretty far along on the grad school preparatory path. You can take the course 'Calculus for business' class and be done with mathematical requirements at UIC. Conversely, if you would like to attend a reasonably useful grad school, you would be well-advised to take Calc I, II, and III (multi variable calculus) and then at a minimum, Linear Algebra, Introduction to Advanced Mathematics and Real Analysis. I am doing this “minimum,” which, FWIW, will also get me a math minor. This I will accept as a little gold star for taking far, far more math than I ever envisioned I might in my life. Per below, it is also a little plus on the signaling front.

Another giant piece of the puzzle is crushing the quantitative portion of the GRE examination. Most grad school websites give lip service to the verbal portion, but judging from the deeply English-challenged student instructor pool at UIC and a more general finger in the wind, this is not terribly important. In fact, a professor well-placed to know about issues involving GRE scores and admissions told me a certain score (the equivalent of roughly a 95 in normal 100% scaling) would not likely be good enough to be considered for most competitive programs “but since you're American you might get by with that.” So there is apparently some elasticity of substitution with respect to the sections of the test. This could be looked at as a sop to underprepared US students but I think it is more fairly looked at as ALSO a sop to foreign students who perform often terribly on the verbal portion and must certainly be deeply compromised in the cultural savior fairer that is a hallmark of good economists (you have to know enough about the nuanced complexities of the world to notice the interesting things to research). The GRE is a weird sort of pure sorting mechanism in that the level of math is really nothing beyond a solid HS level math curriculum. It is as more about the ability to take a stressful test well than it is about the material, as most anyone who is applying to Econ PhD programs has taken math years and years beyond the level present on the test. It is an unfortunate mechanism for these who lack strength in high stakes test taking but might otherwise be apt future economists, but them's the breaks. Summer mission: learn how to ace the GRE quant section.

The GRE is also one component of the signaling part of grad school admissions. There are large, busy forums discussing Econ grad admissions and much of what is discussed is how to look like a good candidate. My current semester features some calculations based on such considerations. I eschewed taking a course on the history of economic thought that I have been waiting for the university to offer for the last three semesters in favor of a course on Game Theory. I thought that would look much more compelling on a transcript in the end, not only because of its content, but also because of the pure signal of “STAT 473,” a monikor that denotes a “grad-level” course. 400s and 500s good, 300s….meh. The course has turned out to be really good and engaging, but my primary reason for taking it was to send the right signal. There is much overlap of course between some of these signals and engaging learning opportunities, such as the research work I have been doing and the next research gig I am about to start, but forget to consider the signaling value at your peril. Letters of recommendation, publishing credits, etc. etc. all are critical in the marginal battle to get noticed in a sea of candidates, many of whom are tossing a Hail Mary pass with their applications in the first place. Hence the need for such crude first order sorting mechanisms as the GRE.

The trick for me as a pretty fully adult person who should be (is?) in the prime earning years of my life will be to:

1) Be accepted into a reasonably well-funded program so I can have a baseline income that will keep me afloat with a kid, mortgage, etc. to think about.

2) Figure out how to manage a functional transition with respect to my role in my business that works for myself and my partner and my employees.

3) Have that program be in Chicago or a very short list of other locations that revolve around a combination of family support structure, cost of living and job market considerations.

4) Get into a program that is a good fit with my academic interests.

No big deal, right?…

Speaking of academic interests, I have also undergone an unlikely (to me at least) transition in academic interests. I was pulled into the field by my hobby-ish interest in macro and I groaned about my Principals of Microeconomics course (which was admittedly pretty meh… “taught” by a disinterested masters graduate as an online community college course). Whether it was going on to a school with a strong applied micro focus (and with only one macro prof on faculty who lectures in a pretty dry way), or the really engaging and enjoyable Intermediate Micro course I had (with the best student instructor I have had by far), or maybe it was just the way things worked out… But the result of whatever is that my focus has entirely shifted to things micro. Particularly, I am really compelled to work in education policy, a Gordian knot of epic proportions, but one that a) matters profoundly for the future of the US and b) one where a good idea or an important finding might actually turn into some direct policy results. My upcoming research work is as a research assistant for our dept. head doing a study on educational issues in the CPS and I am really over the moon about this. The signaling value is there of course, but I am fortunate to have it converge completely with what I would be most interested in working on (and it pays a little bit to boot).

Anyway, that's a ramble. More sometime?….



About theunlikelyeconomist

theunlikelyeconomist is in the midst of the long slog to attain a PhD in economics.
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