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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the mission or purpose of the Ph.D. program in Economics? 

The Ph.D. program is designed to bring students to a high level of sophistication in their understanding of how the economy works, so that they can conduct independent, original research on the economy, can teach economics to college students, and can provide advice to policy makers. Accomplishing these goals requires a mix of theoretical and applied courses. You will take a core curriculum which includes economic theory and quantitative methods, and you will choose two fields of specialization. The fields are international, health, monetary, public economics, regional and urban, and resource economics.

What determines the balance between theoretical, empirical, and institutional material in the curriculum?

We strive to achieve the balance of material that the profession is going to expect you to know when you graduate. This means that, while this program does not specialize in advanced theory, you do take the standard complement of two micro and two macro theory courses. In addition, all of the fields require some additional theoretical understanding, although how much may vary from one field to another. In all fields you will encounter a substantial amount of empirical work, and your econometrics courses are designed to help you understand how this empirical knowledge is discovered. You should acquire institutional knowledge as you go through each of the courses, even when a section of a course is not explicitly oriented in that direction. If you feel that your knowledge of particular institutions needs to be improved, you should discuss this need with your professor.

What determines the number of fields offered, and when they are offered?

Our program offers six fields. The list of fields that we offer has changed very little over many years, and they correspond to the research strengths of our graduate faculty. We seek to provide our students with a wide variety of quality field choices. On the other hand, our program admits only a small and select group of students each year, so we limit the number of fields to assure that each field's required courses attract viable enrollment numbers. For this reason, each year the department asks the first-year students for their field preferences, and we schedule our courses for their second year accordingly. If a student finds that he is the only one interested in a particular field in a given year, he may explore opportunities for independent study with a faculty member who usually teaches in that field. Make sure you tell the department chair about your field preferences; you don't have to wait until we ask!

How to get help:

Who can I go to see if I feel lost in the program?

You should feel free to stop in to see any member of the faculty. If you don't already know the faculty member, you can knock on his or her door and introduce yourself, and ask about what is on your mind. It is an especially good idea to get to know outside the classroom each of the professors who teach your classes. Discuss with them anything that is on your mind. You should also stay in frequent touch with the graduate coordinator and with your research mentor. The department chair is another good person with whom to discuss what's on your mind, as is the professor for whom you are working if you have an assistantship. In addition, first-year students have "buddies" assigned to them - advanced students who can help them in a variety of ways.

How does the mentor system work?

The graduate course advisor assigns you a faculty research mentor soon after you first begin the program. You should go to see this person soon after the assignment is made. The roles of the research mentor are to provide general advice, to explain how the research process works (in part by using examples from his or her own research), and to provide advice on how to choose a dissertation area and dissertation advisor and eventually a dissertation topic. You should take the initiative in meeting with your mentor and with getting the most you can out of the mentoring relationship.

Almost all students will sooner or later want to change to a different research mentor, for any of a variety of reasons. Maybe you feel you get along especially well with one particular faculty member, and would like to have that person as your mentor. Maybe you come to realize that your research interests coincide most closely with those of a particular faculty member. You should feel free at any time to change to a different mentor-simply discuss it with your new mentor and inform the graduate advisor of the change. Eventually you will acquire a dissertation advisor, and that professor will henceforth be your research mentor.

The Student Experience

What is the typical student's path through the program? 

The majority of students enter the program ready to take the standard sequence of courses. In the first semester this includes micro, macro, and math for economists.

In the second year you take two more econometrics courses, and two courses in each of your two fields of concentration (chosen from among financial economics, monetary economics, public economics, international economics, urban and regional economics, and resource economics). When taking these field courses, you should put a lot of thought into choosing a faculty advisor for your dissertation and a preliminary dissertation topic. Field comps are given about the second week of June.

In year three you take two economics electives, as well as one or more independent study classes and the research workshop. While you should have thought a lot about a dissertation topic by the beginning of year three, the purpose of the independent study class is to move you to the point of actually working on a dissertation. Under the guidance of your dissertation advisor, you should develop a dissertation proposal, have it accepted by three to five faculty who agree to be on your dissertation committee, and present your proposal at an open forum by the end of year three.

You will enroll in the research workshop in every semester from the beginning of year three until you finish your dissertation. In addition, right from your beginning in the program, you should attend all or most of the departmental seminars, in which faculty members here or from other universities present their research. It is important for you to attend these seminars even if the subject matter is not related to what you plan to write your dissertation in, because they help you learn how research is conducted and how it is presented in addition to giving you information about the particular subject matter covered in the seminar.

After you have presented your proposal, with guidance from your dissertation advisor and committee you go ahead and finish the dissertation. This requires you to be self-motivated, because, while the faculty will help you, setting and meeting goals and deadlines will be your own responsibility. When your committee (now consisting of five faculty including one from outside the department) agrees that your dissertation appears to be complete, you schedule a dissertation defense. This is an open forum in which people in attendance, especially those on your committee, ask you questions about the dissertation. Once your committee decides that you have unconditionally passed the defense, you make final revisions. Then you're done!

Why is Math for Economists "frontloaded" in fall of year one?

Both the micro and macro theory courses start using various math techniques very early in the course. You are probably already familiar with some of these techniques, although it is likely that you don't remember them as well as you wish you did; it is also likely that you have never encountered some of the math techniques at all. It is important that everyone in the first-year class be comfortable with all the math techniques which will be encountered before they come up in the theory courses. That's why the early weeks of fall semester contain disproportionately many meetings of math for economists, while micro and macro have only a few meetings in the early weeks.

Graduate Assistant Information

How are graduate assistantships awarded?

Virtually every student admitted into the program is offered a graduate assistantship or fellowship. A graduate assistantship is an employment contract that obligates you to perform certain duties (up to 20 hours per week) under the supervision of a faculty member. In return you will receive a stipend and tuition waiver. The continuance of your assistantship offer from one semester to the next will depend on your satisfactory performance of the duties you are assigned, as well as your satisfactory progress toward your degree.

How are graduate assistantship assignments allocated to particular graduate students?

The Economics Department’s Graduate Coordinator assesses what assignments are available (grading and holding office hours for a professor, teaching a class, doing research for a particular professor or for the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, etc.), and assesses the degree of experience and expertise of each of the graduate students who have assistantships. The Graduate Coordinator then matches students to job assignments, also taking into account to the extent possible any preferences expressed by faculty or students. If you have any preferences in this regard, tell them to the Graduate Coordinator and seek the support of the faculty member to whom you would like to be assigned.

How can I obtain a classroom teaching assignment? 

The department tries to make sure everyone who plans to pursue a teaching career obtains some classroom teaching experience. To make sure that you qualify, obviously you need to do as well as possible in your classes and in your work as teaching assistant for any professors you are assigned to. When working for a professor, make sure you observe everything about how he or she conducts the class-teaching style, course organization, choice of course content, method of presentation, testing, etc. Ask for the opportunity to give a guest lecture in one or more class meetings. Discuss teaching philosophy with your professors. When you are ready, ask the department chair to give you a class to teach in the next semester or as soon as possible.

If English is not your native language, it is very important that you develop a good enough accent so that undergraduate students will not have difficulty understanding you. Your English as a Second Language classes are very important for you in this regard-you should work hard in them, to ensure that you will eventually qualify to teach in the classroom.

How can I get a research assistantship?

Research assistantships are in limited supply. To qualify, you need to do very well in your classes, and you need to express an interest to a professor who will be having a research assistant in the future. Of course, you also need to inform the Graduate Coordinator of your preferences.

How else can I get involved in research projects with a professor?

You need to seek out a professor with interests similar to your own, and convince him or her that your interest and your expertise, demonstrated in part by your classroom performance, would make you a valuable partner on a project. You might build your relationship with your research mentor into work on a joint project.

Dissertation Information

How can I find a dissertation topic and chair? 

You should start looking for a dissertation topic early in year two of the program, when you are taking field courses. Your dissertation will be in one of your two fields of concentration, so you need to read everything on the course reading lists; but don't stop there! If an article interests you, but you think there's more to be done in that area, look through the article's bibliography to find some other relevant articles to read on that topic, look through their bibliographies, etc. Always ask yourself: is there something here that I would have done differently, some different direction I would have taken with the ideas, etc. Discuss your ideas with your professors.

By the start of year three, you should have substantially narrowed down your area of dissertation interest. Use your independent study class in fall of year three to turn your ideas into a concrete dissertation proposal. In the research workshop, pay attention to how other students, even those not in your area of concentration, got their dissertation topics. Your searches for a dissertation topic and a dissertation chair are really a joint search: a particular professor would be the natural choice to supervise a particular dissertation project. Keep this in mind when deciding which professor to ask to supervise your independent study course.

What funding is available for my dissertation work?

The department has funds available to support students' purchases of data sets, trips to conferences, etc. If you have a particular need, you should ask the department chair. Also, some professors may have funds available from their grants with which to support your needs; you should consider taking this into account when conducting your joint search for a dissertation topic and dissertation chair. Information on external funding opportunities is sometimes posted on the bulletin boards outside the economics office or outside the college graduate office.

Employment Information:

How does job placement work?

The job market for economists is centered around the meetings of the American Economic Association, which occur each year in January. Job applicants apply for positions advertised in the AEA’s Job Openings for Economists website, and interested employers contact their most favored applicants to arrange interviews at the meetings. Employers then contact successful interviewees and invite them to fly in for further interviews and to present their research at the prospective employer’s location. Your dissertation advisor and our department provide support for your job search in many ways, including practice interviews, practice research presentations, letters of reference, and advice on writing your cv, application letters, and other materials. The primary goal of our Ph.D. program is to prepare you for a successful career as a professional economist. Your success is therefore our success, and we will do everything we can to assist and advise you in your efforts to succeed.

How can I succeed on the job market?

Do well in your classes, impress your professors, choose and complete your dissertation promptly, do a good job in your teaching and research assistantships, and if possible get something published, perhaps out of your dissertation in progress, before going on the job market. Do not get into the market prematurely. If you do not have your Ph.D. in hand at the time of application for a job, your efforts are less likely to be successful.