Over the years, I’ve read several “advice” posts for economics grad students. Most are written by professors and focus on how to get into, or finish, grad school. In this post, I offer some perspectives that might been useful for those just starting their Master’s degree in economics.
- It can be discouraging, particularly at the start.
You may enter your MA thinking that you’re a great student — and you probably are to make it this far. However, you’ll soon discover other excellent students in your class. Some may even be smarter than you, better at math, or they may just “want it more”.
This is part of the usual re-sorting process that happens in the first semester (often by mid-terms). You may have been at, or near, the top of your class in undergrad, but now you’re being graded alongside other students who were also the best at their schools.
As a result, most students inevitably move down the pecking order, and that can be hard on your ego. The good news is that the other students in your class are a great learning resource and working with them will make you a better student.
- It’s hard to do really well…
Grad school is harder than undergrad, more intense and stressful. You’ll need to study longer to understand the course material, and given point 1 above, you may find that you’re working harder only to get worse grades than you’re used to.
While the material is harder, it gets easier the more you study. So you’ve just got to study proactively and regularly — that’s the hardest part.
- .. but you’ll graduate, if you stick with it.
Because of points 1 and 2, many students feel like quitting at some point along the way. Know that you should make it through your program — as long as you don’t give up. Do the work, and the university, your professors and your fellow students will genuinely want you to succeed. Relax a bit about your grades (even if you want to do a PhD) and ride that wave.
- Yes, it’s abstract…
Hopefully, you chose to major in economics because the subject genuinely interests you. You see it all around you, in the media, in political discussions and in people’s everyday lives. But you might feel like there aren’t many concrete policy recommendations in your courses — like it’s all math with very little intuition or real-world relevance.
That’s normal. It’s not you, it’s them. But don’t worry, now’s the time to build your analytical toolkit. If you get a job in econ, you’ll have plenty of time to apply these tools to explain the world around you (whether or not you’re in academia).
In the meantime, get your fix of real-world economics discussion by following some Canadian economists on Twitter and the hashtag #cdnecon. This is where some practicing economists grapple with emerging issues in real-time. The back-and-forth will give you a sense of some issues that people work on after they graduate.
- …but it’s still enlightening…
As you build your toolkit, you have a unique chance to do lots of reading and thinking. This is one point in your life where you can ponder the meaning of some theorem that no one outside of your program will ever care about.
Eventually, you may want to transition from being a consumer of economic research to a producer. To do so, you need to understand how things work before you improve upon them. So attend the research seminars hosted by your department. This is a chance to see research-in-progress from those publishing in academic journals.
- … and freeing.
This is probably as wide open as your schedule gets. Be especially grateful if you don’t have to wake up early every day of the week! You have the time, so now’s your chance to try something you thought you’d never do.
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- Work on stuff that you care about.
Doing good research has a lot to do with identifying important topics and asking well-posed questions. But there’s no substitute for the motivation you have when you truly want answers to your research questions.
Choose a research topic that excites you, one that keeps you working late into the night — because eventually you’ll have to convince others that your work actually is important (if you want to publish).
- Choose a good match for your thesis advisor.
Your advisor can and should be a great resource to help you in your work. Choose him or her wisely. Try to find someone whose personality you match well with even if they aren’t working in the same narrowly-defined research field.
- Don’t lose sight of the job market.
Some people are so busy with course work that they don’t apply for jobs. This can be a mistake. After all, a big point of getting your degree (for most people) is to land a job in your field. The best time to do that is while you’re on campus, with the benefit of formal recruiting programs that visit your school, professors who can write recommendation letters, offer suggestions and help you make connections.
Take your job interviews seriously. Prepare for them like they’re exams. You only have a short period of time to impress the interviewer and to assess whether this employer might be a good fit for you. Do sufficient background reading before the interview.
Working outside of academia, I’ve found that many of the skills that employers in economics really want are unfortunately not those that universities spend much time developing — such as: clear writing, good presentation skills, the ability to analyze data and quickly distill diverse information into useful advice, and even networking and idea promotion and dissemination.
Therefore, if your program offers classes with a major writing component and/or that require work with data: take them. Writing your own econ blogs is another way to improve your writing skills and raise your profile.
- It’s over fast.
Enjoy your MA. Try to keep some perspective and balance in your life during your studies. Doing well is important, but don’t stress yourself out and study all of the time. Your program will be over before you know it. And thankfully you’ll have made many life-long friends in your program who will help you with your career and enrich your life.
 Greg Mankiw has complied a nice list here.