Reflections on my first year and a half as a grad student…


I’ve still got a long way to go to the degree, but as for coursework, I’m actually mostly finished. I have only two more prescribed courses, a couple of electives, and a pair of preliminary exams between me and the end of all the tests I will ever take and all the grades I will ever acquire. Not to downplay the astonishing amount of stuff I still don’t know or understand well enough, but I am finally genuinely starting to feel like I’m acquiring a reasonable grasp on the primary tools of economic analysis. With this break in the action, I thought it would be fun to reflect a little on the experience thus far. In particular, I would love to impart a few things that might be helpful to grad students who are in the shoes I was in a year and a half ago and also to share some resources and practices that I have found helpful as I’ve learned to survive and perhaps even thrive.

Here’s how I would characterize my situation as an entering grad student:

  • I was woefully underprepared for graduate school by my undergraduate economics coursework. It was at a level appropriate for pretty lazy students minoring in econ and the level of intensity of the curriculum reflected that in a profound way. Not that I didn’t have some good classes that introduced me to ideas and motivated me to learn more, but I would characterize my undergrad experience as someone telling you in a general fashion about how wonderful swimming is while you stand some ways off from the ocean looking out over it then you start grad school and a bunch of hardcore swim instructors tell you to jump into very choppy water and start swimming. My undergrad econometrics course literally never veered from OLS under original Gauss-Markov assumptions and had no discussion of causality or endogeneity whatsoever. My intermediate micro was sans calculus, there was no discussion of duality, compensated demand, etc.
  • I took plenty of math but it was a struggle to do well and in my econ courses the math was never married to the concepts. As such, learning to look at problems through the lens of mathematical models was a difficult task. In particular, it was quite difficult to intuitively extract the meaning from the mathematics.
  • I also had difficulty understanding the real value of boiling complex ideas down to very simplified models in order to gain both insight and testable hypotheses for research. I imagine this stemmed at least in part from the way I backed into the field as a sort of leftish history buff with a lot of half-baked (one-quarter baked?) ideas about the value of various economic frameworks and  the work of various scholars. While a few of my prior dogmas have survived half a grad school education intact, many others have given way to a more nuanced understanding of work I was dismissive of and to a keen awareness of how much is lost in translation from a scholarly work to a popular media characterization of it.
  • I showed up to grad school with a very full-grown-adult point of view with respect to most of my cohort in terms of work history, world travel, knowledge of history and institutions amenable to economic intuition and especially in terms of self-motivation to learn. On the one hand, this made it a lot easier for me to interact with faculty, both in a I-need-to-know-this-for-coursework way and in an I-want-to-know-this-because-I’m-trying-to-become-an-economist way. Both of types of discussion are meaningful for a grad student, but I think the latter is especially so. The other, less positive effect, which I suppose is mostly an assumption on my part, is that I have been somewhat out of step with some in my cohort in terms of both a gap in life experience and also in terms of just the daily life of a grad student (I have a wife, kid, and home and have to split time between grad school and other responsibilities related to earning the outside income that, added to my grad student income, allows me to get by). Particularly after first year, where the type of bond that exists is as much like shipwreck victims clinging to a common piece of floating debris as it is like some deep scholarly bond, I had a difficult time getting otheres in my cohort to study together (at least those I think I could learn much from). This has, I think, been a common detriment within my cohort (a suspicion strengthened by comments from some professors over common weaknesses in our work) and my program more generally.

Yet I’m getting by. Maybe even better than getting by to hear a few people tell it. So for the interested, I’m going to share a bit of what I’ve learned about life as an econ grad thus far. Here, in no particular order, are various quality sources of learning, key pieces of advice, etc. that I’ve found meaningful/insightful/helpful:

  •  Nolan Miller’s microeconomics notes. These notes were indispensable for keeping from drowning in MWG during first semester grad micro. Essentially they are a translation of MWG into plain English (he mashes in some Varian too).
  • Macroeconomics notes by Dietrich Vollrath. I actually found these wonderful notes later than I needed to. These are chock full of basic explanations of canonical macro models and what they mean in very approachable prose and also using very reasonable uncluttered notation. But the BEST THING about them is a brief admonishment to new graduate students in the preface that seems to have been exercised from the link above (it’s in an older version). This little bit of wisdom is equal in value to anything in the notes proper (which are great). It goes like this:

    From your perspective, the goals of this class are to learn enough macroeconomics to pass the comprehensive exams, and to understand the material well enough that you can begin reading journal articles. I have several words of advice for you.

    1. This is your job. You are a poorly paid or unpaid intern in the economics profession, but you are a member of this profession now. Act professionally and take this seriously.
    2. This is not at all like your undergraduate classes. In those classes we were trying to get across a small number of very general concepts. In graduate school we are trying to get across a large number of very specific concepts. This requires you to study more evenly throughout the semester, as opposed to cramming everything in just prior to tests.
    3. Work with your classmates. You’ll all see different aspects of the problems you’ll be working on, and you’ll learn from their insights while they learn from yours. Also, it helps to have other people who like to make fun of the professor.
    4. Ask questions and interrupt class. If you aren’t getting what I’m saying, stop me. Sometimes all it takes is for me to explain things in a slightly different manner for things to click.
    5. Don’t compare yourself to your classmates. You all have vastly different backgrounds and preparations for this. I am perfectly happy to give all of you superior ratings on your comprehensive exams. There is no competition going on here.
    6. Do not ask “will this be on the test?” The answer is always yes. If your attitude is that you want to pass with as little effort as possible, then I’d suggest you find another line of work. If you really want to get a PhD, you should want to know everything.
    7. Do as many problems as possible. Do the homework problems I assign, and then do the extra problems you have access to. Do old midterm and final questions. Do old comprehensive questions. After you’ve done all these problems, do them again. They are the best way to understand this material and the best way to study for your comprehensive tests.

    I really wish I had a class with this guy. Some of these things I really needed to hear last year and some classmates of mine REALLY needed to hear these things as well.

  • Solving many comprehensive exam problems that have answers! This is the best way to study for comps, period. Solving problems without solutions is valuable too, but the problem with this is that you always think what you wrote down is right, that’s why you wrote it down. Two things are worth noting about studying for comps. One, there are canonical problems that crop up again and again and if you solve enough problems you will run across them. Two, many people directly reuse problems from others’ tests and once in a while you will simply get a lucky break and be presented with a problem you exactly solved during study (I did).
  • Gentzkow and Shapiro: Code and Data for the Social Sciences: A Practitioner’s Guide. Writing and distributing this is a great service to the profession. Save yourself from terrible coding and data storage/management habits and get your act together early.
  • LEARN LaTeX RIGHT AWAY! It is a modest upfront cost but the payoff lasts for a long time (maybe forever if you end up working as a research economist). Once you can work quickly in LaTeX, it really is not any slower than writing. Professors appreciate problem sets that can be read without special training in your crappy style of handwriting and on the margin, it may get you a grade bump to just have presentable work even if it is incorrect.
  • I was told this a number of times, but it is really true: Grades don’t matter (much) in grad school. If you get the PhD, no one is going to ask you about your GPA at an interview. Caveat: grades may matter as an internal signal early on in your program, especially if you are competing for funding, but for the most part you can be done sweating your GPA. Worry about really knowing the material. It is actually worth the worry. The greatest value I have gotten from many tests is learning what I am weak on and being able to go back and reconcile those weaknesses. If you get a shit test grade, learn what you need to learn and move on.
  • If you get imposter syndrome, keep your chin up and keep plugging away. It should happen numerous times. Finding out how much you don’t know just means you are really learning.
  • Read the myriad guides for surviving grad school that are out there. Almost every one of them has a few gems for any reader. Plus, it is just nice to know that others have been there too.
  • Go to your departmental seminars. This experience easily constitutes half of the usefulness of grad school. See how research designs are picked apart. See how people disagree about a lot of ideas your particular professor was quite comfortable with. Watch people have to defend their identification strategy on the fly. Also: meet with the speakers. Sometimes you will be the only person there. In this case, you can ask an economist about anything you’d like to know. Did you struggle in grad school? How did you arrive at your current research program? Can I run an idea by you? If you are lucky, you will get a very brilliant economist to spend 15-20 minutes discussing your research ideas with you.
  • If you are a grad TA and have the means, try to borrow and extend past work from TAs before you. At great schools, there is literally a line of scholarship within TA assignments. Fostering and contributing to such a tradition makes it easier for you as a TA and can greatly improve the quality of your graduate program. I was exposed to some section notes from a grad course and a very well-known school via a friend who apparently scoured them from the internet in some way that is well beyond my capability to understand and it was simply astonishing. The insights into MWG and basic modeling and problem solving would have saved me hundreds of hours of pain. This feature of graduate education is what, I think, separates good programs from great ones.
  • Finally, if you are in grad school anyway MAKE THE MOST OF IT AND FEEL GRATEFUL YOU HAVE THIS OPPORTUNITY. If you aren’t feeling it, it is a really major waste of time. Learn, learn, learn!

And a lot of other stuff I’m sure. But that’s enough procrastination for now. Back to work…


About theunlikelyeconomist

theunlikelyeconomist is in the midst of the long slog to attain a PhD in economics.
This entry was posted in advice, epistomology, grad school, microeconomics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reflections on my first year and a half as a grad student…

  1. Imrul Huda says:

    “I also had difficulty understanding the real value of boiling complex ideas down to very simplified models in order to gain both insight and testable hypotheses for research. I imagine this stemmed at least in part from the way I backed into the field as a sort of leftish history buff with a lot of half-baked (one-quarter baked?) ideas about the value of various economic frameworks and the work of various scholars. ” – I am currently in this stage. How did you get out of this stage? I am starting from Fall 2016. What can i do in next 5-6 months to be better prepared to neutralize these dogmatic views.

    • Imrul,

      I think that it is just something to try and keep yourself aware of as you go into grad studies. I might suggest a book like Becker’s “Economic Theory” as a good way to see how far you can get with very simple and general models. In that book, which is fairly readable for anyone with a decent calculus background and a few undergrad theory classes, he makes it pretty clear how you can boil down many complex choice problems in the real world to a pretty insightful neoclassical partial equilibrium problem. In some cases, this approach is insufficient, but I think I really underappreciated the way that you can characterize many choice problems as composite goods problems. In other words, “choose x” or “choose y = all choices not x.” In grad studies you will also likely cover discreet choice models that offer a large number of ways to characterize hierarchies of behavior, choice, etc. where each outcome is modeled in some explicit way, but with modeling choice problems in general there is always a tradeoff between insight and complexity. So more insight usually implies less complexity and vice versa.

      Hope that helps and good luck.

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