Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Why get a Ph.D. in Economics?

One take from Andrea Waddle, a first year University of Pennsylvania graduate student, talks about a passion for international development fostered from living in Bolivia. But many other fields study economic development (Sociology, History, Anthropology, and Political Science). Dani Rodrik, a Harvard Economist, chose Economics over Political science based on this epiphany (link)

“One day in the library, I picked up copies of the flagship publications of the two disciplines--the American Political Science Review and the American Economic Review--and put them side by side. One was written in English, the other in Greek. I thought that if I did a PhD in economics, I would be able to read both journals, but that if I did a PhD in political science, it would be goodbye economics.”

I think a similar thought went through my head. Although there is a large opportunity cost to learning all the Greek (i.e. Math) associated with Economics. Is it worth it? Perhaps to help people the best route is a Masters in Public Policy. Chris Blattman, a student of Rodrik’s compares, masters programs with Ph.D.

I agree with Blattman, if you want to be a professor get a PhD. If not try a masters program and see what you think.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I think a good way to think about it is whether you want to be a producer or consumer/applier of original research. If you want to be able to write for the APSR or AEA, or even lesser journals, the Ph.D. is the union card that allows it.

But if you want to be able to consume/understand those journals (including the math) and apply the lessons either in policy analysis or a field like journalism, the professional masters (I differentiate from the academic masters because their curricula are very different; I have on of each so I know something about this), the MPP/MPA route may be more for you. And of course MPPs/MPAs go on to top Ph.D. programs all the time. (Probably a quarter of my MPP class is in or has completed a Ph.D. program).

But -- and here's the kicker -- the variance between MPP programs in terms of emphasis and skills taught is much wider than it is in Ph.D. programs. Most Ph.D. programs in econ from what I understand have a pretty similar course load and you will come out knowing the common language of the field, with of course some variation. (A UChicago education will probably be very different than a Northwestern education, and both Ph.D. economists will speak the same language, just having no idea why the other would want to do what they do.)

But MPP programs vary much more widely. Some emphasize economics-based quantitative, program evaluation skills (such as my alma mater, the Ford School at Michigan), where everyone takes calculus and calc-based stats, no exceptions, and an overwhelming number take econometrics or program evaluation. Others emphasize courses that come more from the political science curriculum and have less math. Some have excellent programs in particular areas (such as the Maxwell School's technology policy program or the Kennedy school's ID program -- top area programs in top policy schools).

Some programs are more malleable than others and some allow more coursework outside the school. At the Ford School, for instance, I took graduate seminars with Ph.D. students in both the econ and history departments, and my friends took graduate classes in poli sci, social work, sociology, business, and other schools. Other schools don't allow this.

So for Ph.D.s, I think the general advise is to go to the best school that funds you. For MPPs, consider funding but also look particularly hard at curricula, strengths, and the skills you want to walk away with.