How to get a PhD *and* save the world

Great article!  Many suggestions here apply to me in many ways, though I’m not an Econ major.

  • Use graduate school to tech up. You’ll have time to learn how save the world later, when you’re actually in it. Learn all of the theoretical, statistical and other difficult-to-acquire skills you can while in grad school, because you won’t have the time later on. You, your cause, and your job prospects will be well-served by the technical skills you build.

  • Hang in there. In the first year of any grad program you will encounter a lot of required material that will feel too theoretical, too divorced from social change, and (occasionally) like too much nonsense. Much of it is good for you (see point 1), even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. After a year of metrics and micro theory, I was ready to run to the real world to do what I thought I really wanted to do. The best advice I ever got (from one of my pre-PhD advisers) was, “Shut up and hang in there; by your second to third year you will discover all the people doing interesting applied work soon enough and be free to work on whatever you want by your third year.” He was right.

  • Take chances. The second best piece of advice I ever received came from my dissertation chair, shortly after my oral examinations committee told me that my prospectus was poorly thought out, uneconomic, and overly risky. They were 100% right, and I benefitted from hearing it (although at the time I was miserable). Where I think they were wrong is that they told me to abandon my plans for risky and expensive field work. They favored the less risky route that could get me to a completed dissertation faster. My chair’s response: “Hey, if you really want to do this, why not? Give it a shot. If it doesn’t pan out after three months, then come back and work on something else. Worst case scenario: you lose a few thousand dollars and a summer, but you have a great experience.” I plan to give the same advice to my students.

  • But minimize your risks by being prepared. Don’t embark on a big project, especially field work, without a solid hypothesis, research design, and plan. Think through the theory beforehand. Write down your assumptions, your logic, and your econometric regressions before you collect data. Especially write out your regressions. I am still guilty of rushing to the field too quickly, and am continually reminded of the costs.

  • Do what you love. You can try to game the system and do something that’s hot, conventional, or orthodox. But if you don’t love your topic and your research, it is probably not going to be interesting to anyone, let alone you. Plus you’ll be miserable. Did you really work this hard and come this far to be mediocre and unhappy?