Year 1 PhD Update: Spring Break Edition

At the beginning of the year, I hoped to have a running blog of what first year is like. I thought it would be a good resource for people who are considering a PhD in economics. I have failed in that attempt.

Still, I want to get down my thoughts when I can. Spring break, aka now, turns out to be a great time for that. That's the only thing spring break-y about this. Sorry, no fun stories to tell about the beaches in Cancun... I'm a PhD student. Zero fun sir.

Well, it's a little fun. I get to spend every day learning about a subject that I love. How awesome is that? (Yes, I am bragging about spending all day, every day studying for an exam.) It might not be the exact models that I would pick, but it is still intellectually rewarding. Just because you don't get to pick every song at the club doesn't mean you can't dance anyways. (That is the only analogy on the internet between econ grad school and dance clubs. Correct me if I'm wrong.)

Since I last checked in about school, I have finished one more quarter. That makes three. This past quarter involved two courses, game theory with Aldo Rustichini and macro with V.V. Chari. (I also audited microeconometrics and a computer science course. Yet, since I'm not getting tested on them this spring they weren't my main focus.)

These courses were by far my favorite in the micro and macro sequences so far. We will see if the final courses are even better.

I've had an interest in game theory since the first time I learned about it. Compared to my earlier game theory courses, this one was extremely abstract. The goal was to be as general as possible with how we write problems and the notation we use. That makes it hard to grasp intuition, but powerful to approach new problems. We started to learn the language of modern game theory. I hope to use game theory in my research, so I looked forward to this class from day 1.

Prof. Rustichini's teaching style worked for me. He started with a simple example, crawled through it, and then gave the fulled-fledged general model or definition. If I ever teach graduate level micro, I will definitely consider a similar style.

He also was exacting about how we define things. A student would suggest and answer. He then would write the verbal answer in two different ways with two different interpretations.  His stress on clarity and definitions helped me understand previous classes.

Macro was also a blast. (Again, "a blast" is relative.) First, Chari is entertaining and willing to take the class where students want. Students asked, "why the heck are we doing this?" Chari always had a coherent, big picture answer. We emphasized that first year is all about learning the language. By language, he meant specific the math used in macro. The specific models we covered weren't the focus. Instead Chari taught us how "everyone" else talks. Only then can we understand modern macro and contribute to it.

This point might seem obvious to a clear-headed outsider. For a first year student, it is easy to miss this point. Chari was great at bringing us back to this. We are starting to get to a point where the models are more interesting and realistic. We covered things like incomplete markets, cash-credit economies, basic New Keynesian models, and a few more things. It might seem simple. Trust me. These are much more advanced than what we covered at the beginning of the year.

As I look back at the first three quarters, I am amazed by how much we can cram into one year. Cram is the right word. Actually, maybe it's not violent enough... I am amazed by how much we can have smashed into our brains in one year.

My whole understanding of math changed. I have learned much about how to make models (yet, my own models are still awful). I have even learned a bit about the economy. And none of this is special to me. The first year forces it. All first years have learned a lot. Most have learned a lot more than me.

I'm terrified to see how much we learn in this last quarter. Terrified, in a good way. It's a lot of work. Anyone interested in a PhD in economics should not lie to themselves. The first year will be the hardest intellectual challenge of your life. But if its what you know you want to do, I'd say go for it.

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