I was just reading a Twitter thread on “pre-docs”: people who go to work for a professor as a research assistant after college for a couple of years before applying to graduate school. This has become quite common. It’s a great way for professors to get good RA’s and students to get experience useful in itself and useful for getting into graduate school— particularly since you make contacts too.
I think it’s particularly useful because the experience shows you what you’re getting into. The pre-docs have a full-time job doing routine, nitpicky, often stupefyingly boring work at perhaps one quarter the pay they could have gotten if they’d taken a business job after college. (Maybe I’m wrong here, but I’m guessing they’re earning $25,000 and they could get $100,000 as a first-year at a consulting firm or investment bank—note that I’m thinking of top-quality college grads here; otherwise you would have earned $50,000 in your business job.) Being a professor— or, indeed, an econ PhD working for government— is much the same, except you at least get to be your own boss. On the other hand, as an ordinary professor, not the top ones who have the grant money to hire pre-docs, you are often going to see all your hard nitpicky work go to waste because your paper will never be accepted by a journal.
Empirical RA experience is useful to students to show them how careful you have to be and how much of research consists of data cleaning, setting up code just so it reads in data, does something, and comes out with results without stopping, exploratory graphs and tables, keeping track of what you’ve done so far and which file is which, etc. They also see how with a year of work, even someone as ignorant of themselves can potentially come out with a first-class paper if they have a good dataset and are diligent. Theory RA experience would be even more useful for students, who don’t realize how much drudgery and frustration go into theory— wrong turns, recasting models, countless errors, endless checking, and how at the end it may turn out to be totally useless and you throw it out, so after the year of work you have absolutely nothing, unlike with the empirical project, where you can often tell at the start whether hard work will be rewarded.
So why become a professor? Pretty much the only good reason is because you like economics a lot, with a big pinch of “I want to be my own boss” thrown in. It’s definitely not the best way to lead an easy life at comfortable pay or the best way to get high pay and it’s not a good compromise between the two either. Unless you actually like economics, it’s pretty stupid to become a PhD economist. I fear many people don’t realize that. Law works the same way. A lot of people become a lawyer either because it looks easy or, more, because it looks like a way to make a lot of money, but if you don’t like law, and even if you don’t like numbers, you can find much easier business jobs and much more lucrative business jobs. Biglaw lawyers earn a lot, but not as much as bigtime business guys, and they work just as hard. The only reason to go into law is because you like law.
It’s hard to know how much you like economics before you go to graduate school. In any field, the most exciting material is the basics, what you learn first. Those are the most striking ideas and the most useful, and the advanced ideas are derivative from the basic ideas. Also, in grad school you hit the Math Wall, and a lot of people find they liked the graphs and words of undergraduate economics, but not the equations PhD economists use. A distinct but overlapping group gets intimidated by the math, too scared to even try to get through it. Most of that group actually *could* get through it, but they don’t have the gumption or the hope they need— and in any case, if they also dislike the math their life is going to stay unhappy even after they make it through the two years of coursework and learn enough math to do satisfactory research.
I’m reminded of a story a pastor told me of taking Greek in college at Wisconsin. The old-lady professor told the class something like, “There are 45 of you. At the end of the semester, there will be 25. At the end of the second semester, there will be 10. I will separate the sheep from the goats.” Needless to say, this was the 1970’s, not the 2010’s. He went up, with this long hair and earring, to the professor and said, “Professor, I’m one of the goats. And I’m going to be here at the end of second semester.” He didn’t know what the accusative case was at the time, but he did succeed in passing the 2nd semester exam by translating a long passage of Plato. A friend of his told him years later that he’d been at the Wisconsin Classics Department Christmas party and heard the professor talking about how she thought she could teach anyone classical Greek— using him as the example. He actually does use Greek as a pastor, and just recently preached on the word Kephalos (Κέφαλος) and how its use in Greek literature sheds light on I Corinthians 11 (“the head of the woman is the man”). Just so, even if you are bad at math (relatively— this means you got A’s in college calculus so you have the minimal math needed for graduate economics, but you never took real analysis or linear algebra and math is your weakest point), you can still be happy and successful as an economist, but you need not to be intimidated.
It’s hard to know whether you really like Phd-level economics, but you do find out with a pre-doc or a couple of years of graduate school (the first two years of a PhD program, or an MA program). Here is where my most important advice comes. IF YOU DON’T LIKE ECONOMICS, DROP OUT! People won’t tell you this, and you won’t like the idea, which is why I put it in capitals and boldface. Everyone says to be strong and bull it through, and nobody can even conceive of the idea of dropping out if you’re doing really well at your RA job or getting A’s in your grad school classes. But you shouldn’t think, “Am I strong and good and brainy enough to get a PhD?” That is pure vanity, pure pride. It’s pure, because you get nothing out of it but pain and loss and people laughing at you if they realize what you’re doing. Running marathons is bad enough, but at least that doesn’t take away six years of your life in suffering to show how tough you are, and it’s probably a lot more impressive to the fair sex.
Don’t be proud. Be like entrepreneurs. Their career consists of failure after failure, with a few successes that make up for it all. If something fails, they drop it. They aren’t proud. At least not in the usual way– they probably are quite proud of being tough enough to try things that are likely to fail and of being smart enough to drop them when they do fail. You don’t have to pursue high-risk projects like they do. But you should at least be willing to drop a project when it turns out not to be the low-risk project you thought it was.
People are way too reluctant to jump off tracks. That is a major reason we go to graduate school and law school. Someone comes to senior year at college, and rather than starting life, which is scary, they decide to keep on taking courses, which they’re pretty good at doing and presents no threat. Well, no threat that they see. Actually, they systematically overestimate how smart they are relative to other people in their graduate or law school, and they so it does end up being traumatizing. And they systematically underestimate how smart they are relative to people in the real world, so the real world often ends up bolstering the recent graduate’s ego. So they keep on being a student. And if they find they hate what they’re studying, but they’re still getting A’s and B’s, they keep on studying it rather than stop halfway through and admit they made a mistake, or rather than boast they found something even better to do. This is particularly common among law students, who are often (usually?) people who didn’t want to get a job after they graduated, don’t like math, and find that they hate legal reasoning and find the subject matter of law boring. On the bright side, although they hate legal reasoning and law, after they graduate they find legal jobs which don’t involve much of either— a lot of law consists of applying a few basic rules to different sets of facts— filling out forms, essentially— and that can be a pleasant and interesting job, though it is not the lucrative area of law and doesn’t really require law school. They would, however, earn more money, and perhaps more pleasantly, if they switched to business jobs instead of staying on the law track and narrowing their job search to law, a field they hate anyway.
Because of all of these Track Followers, there is ample supply of lawyers compared to the demand, and this has been true for at least 50 years, even though it is getting more extreme since 2008.
My own story is interesting. I don’t know if I made the right choice for my vocation or not. As an undergrad at Yale, I took enough graduate courses to get a combined BA/MA degree in economics, which raised my salary at my government summer internship post-graduation to GS-9 level as I did basic computer stuff for them. More importantly, it gave me a strong taste of graduate economics and Math Terror. I took graduate econometrics, albeit the slow track, never having taken linear algebra, not even having done matrices in high school. I took graduate Mathematical Economics with John Roemer (the Marxist odd duck who did real modelling) and Herb Scarf with my most advanced math being shuffle-it-off pass/fail multivariate calculus. To be sure, I audited the first month of Kakutani’s Real Analysis class, out of youthful nerd machismo, and even stayed up late doing problem sets, but I was bad at it and dropped out early, never imagining it would be relevant in economics. So I suffered quite a bit trying to decipher econometrics articles in the journals and thought I’d flunk Scarf’s course (but he was a kind and merciful man and gave me an A– I think I did a special project coding his general equilibrium algorithm in Fortran or something like that). At any rate, I was not confident about how well I’d do in graduate school— which is one of the benefits of being an undergrad at a research university rather than a liberal arts college, where you don’t get exposure to PhD students and graduate courses.
I applied to both law and economics programs. In the end, I got an NSF fellowship to pay for it, deferred Yale Law for two years, and went to MIT economics. My thought was that I might hate doing all my coursework in economics rather than just half of it, or I might do badly, in which case an escape hatch would be nice. Also, my original plan was that if all went well at MIT, I’d take a year off to do the first year of Yale Law School, since I’d heard (accurately) that the first year is where you learn most of what you learn in law school, and Yale Law sounded like a delightful place where I’d meet lots of interesting people in my classes and study a fascinating subject. As it happened, I loved studying economics 100% of the time and did okay at MIT (middle of the class, fighting hard to survive the deluge of material like all of us but getting through fine) and told Yale thanks and good-bye. I thought taking a year off to do law was too frivolous, since law had no relation to economics. That is ironic, of course, since I later found that a field called “law and economics” existed and I did most of my work in it, spending three different years of my career as a visiting scholar in law schools, one of them at Yale where I audited Ellickson’s first-year Property course and Kronman’s first-year Contracts. But I think I followed the right principles, even so. It is still an open question as to whether I ought to have gone to law school instead, and whether if I’d done so I should have been a law professor, a litigator, or a corporate lawyer instead of an economics professor. I considered switching in mid-career too, since I had a hard time publishing at first and an unusually rocky road to tenure. I could feel how hard it is to jump off a track, so perhaps it would have been better if I’d been turned down for tenure and had gone to law school. But it worked out fine for me.
See also Parenting Tips.