Almost Starting a PhD

Blogging has slowed down so much that almost every post starts with a list of excuses. This time I feel like it's legitimate. Last Saturday I got married to the woman of my dreams. Believe it or not, weddings don't just fall in to place. They require planning and that took up most of my time this summer. It was all worth it.

On top of slowing my blogging, the wedding took over time that I might have devoted to "math camp' for my PhD. For those of you who don't know, math camp attempts to bring all incoming econ PhDs to the same level of math. Since an economics PhD is heavily focused on math (check out some Minnesota lecture notes here or here), understanding the language of proof-based math is a must. It takes a full course plus more math to understand first year economics.

I decided the opportunity cost of the last few classes was too high and decided not to attend. Later I might regret my make-up work, but then it was the rational thing to do. Maybe I irrationally discounted the future pain it would cause... I wish I could write a proper summary of math camp, but I don't feel qualified since I missed some of it.

Now I'm sitting in my new office (well not *my* office since I share with three others) thinking ahead to the next 5+ years. It is nerve-wrecking, exciting, confusing, and so many more things all at the same time. Over this journey, specifically the first few years, I hope to document the process through this blog. Think of this post as the start of that collection.

Here are a few things running through my mind pre-PhD:


Minnesota might be unique because almost every first year is a teaching assistant. We start out in front of a crew of 18-year-olds on day one. From my understanding, many other places have first years as research assistants or they just do classes. We hop right into the teaching.

All the TAs here spent this whole week trying to prepare for that process of teaching. Our orientation was extremely helpful and combined with my earlier teaching experiences, I feel ready for a class. Of course I'm nervous, but I can overcome that.

First years see teaching as a blessing or a curse. After all I learned this week, I believe it will be a blessing. The most obvious reason is that I will gain teaching experience. Unless you are a top-tier researcher, most economists land in a job where their teaching matters, even to a very small degree. At some point I will have to teach if I want to be employable. I do want a job, so I need the experience. Minnesota puts that training at the (almost) core of the PhD.

Secondly, I also want to teach in the future and I can't wait to lead my own classes. Teaching will be a blast. I'm pumped every day that I get to study economics. Economics surpasses all other subjects; it's the coolest. I hope to spend a career instilling this love in other people and the most obvious way to do this is through the classroom.

But to teach a full class I need to take baby steps. TAing this year will help prepare me for that. My passion might not come out right away since econ 101 is highly structured at Minnesota. I won't teach "Brian Economics," what gets me pumped. Someday I will.

Also, teaching econ 101- to students who have likely never seen the subject- helps my personal understanding. If I want an 18-year-old to understand comparative advantage, I need to break the topic down to its core. That helps me further my understanding. Sometimes we need to ditch the math and just explain things like a real person. That's a goal of this blog too. Econ 101 students will push me to do that better.

When thinking about teaching/TAing, it was fun to see other people's thoughts on the process. Pete Boettke and Don Boudreaux both have some reflections on the benefits and purposes of teaching. We economics instructors have the coolest job in the world; we should show it.


Classes devour the biggest chunk of my next two years. The amount of time spent in actual lectures might not be much, but everyone warns of the difficulties of *cue scary music* problem sets.

For those of you who don't know, problem sets are the (torture) mechanism that econ programs use to teach students. They involve proving theorems and solving problems. From what I've heard, they do not involve any economics, but I could be mistaken. I'm only half-joking. 50 pages of written solutions every week is not uncommon.

These problem sets have a purpose, so I've been told. To survive in the Samuelsonian world of academic economics, economists must communicate with each other. First year tries (by fire) to teach the language of economics. My coursework is all geared toward that. I plan on taking a math course in Real Analysis (so I can understand those lecture notes above), a micro course, and a macro course. I also want to audit econometrics so that I can start the second year in a better place. Most future courses require econometrics, so I want it right away. Maybe I won't fit this all in, but that's the plan now. All four courses are truly fundamental to academic economics. It's the core at every university for a reason.

Hopefully, after the first year, we PhD students can understand a bit when they attend lectures in varying fields, such as micro theory, trade theory, or applied micro. The second year and beyond is about specialization. That is when we try to move to the forefront of our field. Year one attempts to put the foundation in place.

As most first years, these core classes are my greatest worry. It will take a lot of time and effort learning stuff that is not directly applicable to doing economics. One professor at Minnesota admitted that we will learn nothing applicable for the first year and a half. I hope he is also half-joking. We still need to go through as a right of passage. I hold Deirdre McCloskey close by as an inspiration.

There are many horror stories, but many people can make it through. Everything I heard this week made me more confident in the process. People likely exaggerate these stories and Minnesota already seems like a cooperative place to do work. Everyone is supportive. We are all on the same team to get through this Ph.D. Classes will be tough, but manageable.


One of the things that is almost unheard of in the first two years is writing. That seems odd since we are budding academics who make their living writing, but that's not the emphasis. Most of the work, as I said above, is through problem sets. Solve this problem. Prove this theorem. It is not writing or research in the way that most economists use the term. We are still in training, not actually doing economics.

My goal is to keep writing on my own, beyond the classwork, trying to do a little economics. This will include Econ Point of View, a small book I'm working on (more coming soon I promise), and academic research, such as a paper I'm doing about the Panic of 1907.

For one thing, I find writing extremely relaxing when I've done a lot of reading or studying. It uses the brain in a different way. Instead of relaxing on Facebook, I hope to write. I'm weird like that.

More importantly, my job prospects depends on my writing. That's how economists communicate. If I can't write articulately, no one will want to read me. If I can't research and write a coherent argument, I won't publish. I need these skills to survive, so why not work from day 1? I'm sure someone will scold me along the way, but I want to write. It helps my thinking. Everyone has their own way and this is mine.

So those are a few of my thoughts staring a PhD in the face from 4 days out. Minnesota is a great place and I am happy a chose Minnesota. THe journey seems long from here, but I know it will go by in a flash. Taking some time to write like this will help me soak it all in. Hopefully, it will give insight to potential PhDs about the process.

Wish me luck!

One thought on “Almost Starting a PhD

  1. Best wishes in this awesome new chapter...looking forward to learning more about a subject I know so little about...keep sharing with the world!

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