One Semester In An Economics Ph.D.

Everyone knows that feeling during a long drive where you don't remember the last few miles. You're almost in a trance.  You feel like you missed something. That is what the last few months have felt like.

I can't believe it is already the end of my first semester as an economics Ph.D. student. While it feels like I've been here for a long time, it went by in a flash. It was all a blur. However, this post is a short reflection on the bit that hasn't slipped through my mind.

A Flurry Of Math

Before the semester, I wrote down some of my thoughts on what I was expecting. While the specifics of this semester have varied, it has been what I expected overall. Lots of work. Lots of math.

Once I'd thought I'd learned more math than I could stomach, I learned some more. And that's great. It's has allowed me to better understand modern economics, even though I'm a skeptic of the supremacy of math in economics.

For better or worse, if I want to communicate as a professional economist (which I do), I need to speak the language. The language is math. (Actually it is only small subset of math that uses set theory and constrained maximization) and I have learned some of the language this semester. I'm at the point where I can identify the letters in the language, but not say anything intelligible. It's a start.

On top of my micro courses, which cover math topics like convex analysis and the classic fixed-point theorems for general equilibrium, I also took a math course in real analysis. Basically, I learned how to rigorously prove some things I took for granted in calculus. Coming from a physics undergrad, the math use was completely new. Again, it's not something I want to spend my life doing, but it was good to learn more about these topics. Whether they were the best use of my time...

Overall, the training I am receiving in mathematics helps. More importantly, it has opened my eyes to some of the possible tools that economics can use. I see no reason to restrict my tool set (or set of arrows in my quiver as Pete Boettke calls them) to exclude advanced math, computers or econometrics. If I see an arrow that allows me to tackle a problem, I hope I'm the type of economist who grabs that arrow. Sorry to all Austrians who believe logical deduction = economics. Of course, proofs are not necessary nor sufficient for doing economics.

Economics?

I'm in an economics department. I'm an economist and although these tools are interesting, the tools are not the end. Ultimately, this is about understanding society and the economy.

I'm not sure I've learned anything more about society. While this criticism of math as the end is not unique to me, it is important to sometimes comment on the emperors clothes.

Beyond that complaint, I have started to understand two main aspects of economic theory: general equilibrium and macro. (Yes, these are roughly the same thing.) I knew about neither before this year. My macro training was extremely thin, just one course, and I'd never seen a formal general equilibrium model. So it hasn't all been math. I have learned a few models. This year involves going into the heart of core macro models to better understand them. That's new to me and helpful for communicating with macro economics. So I can say I learned some economic models.

On price theory, what I believe is the core of economics, I have learned nothing. I do not better understand those things which got me excited about economics. Nothing. It makes for some boring parts of the year, but I had no expectations that this year would be exciting for me.

To keep me excited about price theory, I've listened to graduate lectures by Walter Williams. It is a style of class that is the opposite of what my courses are. I find the lectures refreshing. I've always had a weird interest in economics and have chosen a different pedagogical approach.

This may seem like a deep complaint about first-year. It is not. The professors constantly tell us that first-year is not about applying anything. It is simply about learning tools that we can apply later. I'm holding out hope that I will be able to apply some of these tools, but I'm not going to bet my salary on it.

Other Fun Times

Beyond the coursework, this semester has involved much exploring into fields of economics. Usually professors tell first-years to just keep their head in the coursework and not get distracted with other stuff.

That's not me. My interest in economics is wide and I need to feed that to keep going through the hard times. I can't solve general equilibrium models all day; a guy has to have some fun.

Luckily, I am an Adam Smith Fellow at the Mercatus Center this year. This fall, the fellowship involved a long list of readings (mostly on Hayek and Mises), plus one weekend of discussions this fall. This allowed me to forget about the theorem-proof approach to economics for a bit.

We just received our reading list for the next meetings, so I need to start reading more on Buchanan and Tullock. These are the economists that excited me about economics, so I'm glad to have a constructive path for studying them. Plus, the fellowship connects me to people who are interested in the type of work that excites me.

Also, I've spent much of the last month studying agent-based modeling in economics. While slightly heterodox, it is another tool for studying economic problems that uses some tools from modern mathematics and computer science. However, the tools are not the same ones used in most of economics. Agent-based modeling looks at patterns that emerge from a model, compared to an equilibrium.

Agent-based modeling seems to incorporates many Austrian criticisms of standard Samuelsonian economics. However, I am extremely new to the field and don't understand enough to decide whether it is a useful tool for social scientists or just a fun game to play. For now, I'm enjoying learning about it, because it is fun. Whether it will be an area of research for me, we will see. For now, when I'm bored with classes I have something to learn about.

Minnesota

The best part of my Ph.D. is that I am doing it at Minnesota. While I had heard horror stories about this place and people love to talk bad about the program, my experience has been phenomenal. That was a huge concern for me. As someone interested in Austrian economics, I was worried about being the black sheep and not being supported. That is not the case.

From day 1, the faculty, fellow first-years, and other years have shown me nothing but respect. They welcome everyone- even crazies like me- with open arms, which is huge when students are already stressed enough with work. I have no reservations about talking with students from other years or professors about problems I'm having.

Also, we first-years work together on problem sets with no sense of rivalry. We are a team trying to become the best economists possible. It leads to a fun atmosphere, but also a challenging experience. You're constantly trying to work and push those around you, bouncing ideas off of each other.

If anyone reading this wants to an economics Ph.D., I urge you to apply to Minnesota. The atmosphere might not be for everyone, but after my first semester I'm sold.

While I could write 10,000 words on my first semester, I will leave this post right here. If people are interested in specific aspects, I'll say more about it.

For now, I'm excited for a break, but I'm excited to come back in January for semester 2. I'm extremely blessed to be an economist (in training).

3 thoughts on “One Semester In An Economics Ph.D.

  1. Good stuff Alby. You're always pushing forward to what is next but reflective and evaluating your current experiences. Big ups to you and your journey.

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