Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Advice for economics graduate students

In the many years since I finished my graduate studies, I have dispensed a lot of advice to my students and others about pursuing a PhD in economics. My reflexive answer has almost always been "Don't!", usually followed with "Why on earth would you want to do that?"  This is my little way to help them to think really hard about it and to find out what it actually entails.  For example, back in 1984 I was extremely surprised to discover that an undergraduate degree in economics was practically useless for pursuing a PhD in economics.  If anything, this situation is even worse than it was then.

Once you survive the ordeal of the coursework, you then face the challenge of writing a dissertation, a task for which the coursework has not prepared you in the least.  I would have benefited from this advice from Ariel Rubenstein to "lost" graduate students who are searching for ideas and trying to write a dissertation. Here's the best advice, although it wouldn't have done me any good: Cafes didn't exists in Buffalo in the 1980s, and my bad back would have kept me out of the military. 
Q2. I tried my office at home, I tried the library, I tried the cubicle in the department. I can't find a place to be inspired in. Where can I get beyond just answering e-mails and really think? 
First, let me introduce you to the International University of Cafes. For many of us, this is the best place to focus on the one thing you really need to do during your PhD. studies, that is, to "think". Many universities try to go international but they can’t compete with cafes which are located in every corner of the world. Entrance is almost free, especially in America where refills usually don’t cost anything.
Even better, volunteer for reserve duty in the Israeli army. These have been my most fruitful periods of research. 24 hours of time to think, no worries, excellent food, isolation from the rest of the world -- an ideal situation to get some real work done. In fact, I typed the first draft of my 1982 paper on bargaining on the typewriter in the office of the battalion commander in Metulla (on the border between Israel and Lebanon). I truly believe that academic productivity would improve if all of us would do 21 days of reserve duty every year.