Second Year Update

I was much more successful at keeping you all in the loop about first year stuff. That's a big year in an econ PhD, so it's maybe natural to be more conscious of everything going on. As with any "first year," it is also a confusing time. You don't know how everything works and you're just trying to get by.

Second year is much more... routine. I taught a course on Micro 101 last fall, which I'm teaching again this spring. That's slightly new, but not that much of a change from being a TA. Courses that I'm taking are like courses from last year. Not a lot of the changes from first to second year are overly stressful.

So that's my long justification for not blogging more about second year. It's mundane...

But since this is my blog and I can be as self-indulgent as I want (and because a few relatives actually care), I figured I give an update of what is going on for me as I'm about to start the spring semester.

Like last year, two big things on my plate right now are courses and teaching. However, courses are a smaller role than during first year. While I need to pass two "field" exams in the spring (monetary and public economics), courses aren't overly burdensome. (I probably should have focused on coursework more last semester...) They can be 100% of your focus, if people want them to be, but they don't have to be. First year courses have to be your main focus.

So I don't have a lot of courses that I worry about and I only teach once a week... What do I do with my time in the second year? That's a great question and I'm not quite sure. I guess the answer is "research," whatever that means, trying to come up with something original. It's not easy.

I'm in the transition stage, learning how to produce independent research. It's a completely different struggle than anything I've done before, but it's also a lot of fun. There is lots of freedom to explore ideas that I want, compared to classes. I appreciate that every day.

I get to wake up and read papers that interest me. That's pretty neat.

I won't claim to know what it means to do research. I certainly haven't figured it out. But the approximation that I'm working with for me involves reading, writing, staring at a whiteboard full of equations, and occasionally looking through data. I probably put too much time into the reading part, but it's a lot more fun than staring at the whiteboard all day and making no progress.

Since theory interests me more than empirical work, my "hard work" involves the same stuff as Raj and Sheldon.

Unfortunately, the past semester of research has ended up in more circles and dead-ends than actual progress and insights. I feel like my research ideas completely change every week. I've learned a lot about what I don't want to do and what doesn't make any sense. It's a confusing process... But we will see if any of it turns out.

Things I'm Working On (And Excited About)

Friends and family often ask what I'm working on, so let me try to explain:

  • A large part of my semester was spent working on a project about inequality and coordination, using something called global games. I'm looking at how inequality changes the ability of people to work together on projects, say a large investment. Imagine there are two types of people, rich and poor. If those groups are very very different from one another, they might have a hard time working together and coordinating. I need to do more data work and expand the model, but my simple model matches some simple empirical aspects. We will see where it goes, but it has been a fun project to start on.
  • The most progress I've made is on a paper about entrepreneurship and coordination. I have an early, early, early.... early draft up if you want to check it out. In it, I'm thinking through the relationship between coordination (a recurring theme for me) and entrepreneurship. If people need to coordinate their actions, such as buyers and sellers going to a farmer's market together, there can be trouble. If everyone believes that everyone is staying home, then staying home is self-fulfilling and is the outcome. In the paper, I look at how entrepreneurs can help avoid this problem. If economists look at the bigger picture, with the entrepreneur involved, the image changes. Let me know what you think. I'm presenting this at a conference in the spring.
  • The most frustrating project has been a paper I'm trying to write on interpreting optimal taxation papers. I'm trying to formulate a way of talking about optimal taxation without being purely about normative policy recommendations. To do that, I have to figure out how everyone else is talking about optimal taxation. The problem is that no one articulates what they mean when they have a result that says "optimal taxes are increasing..." How are we to interpret such statements? No one can tell me what those papers mean, so I don't know how to formulate my counter. In fact, it's odd to be thinking about a counter when you don't know what you're actually countering... I'm also presenting this, if I ever get my argument together.
  • My most recent project is looking what it means to do "optimal taxation," if the government is not perfect. If the government doesn't perfectly maximize the utility of it's citizens, what can we say about their own desired tax system? To do that, I'm building a model that combines regular optimal taxation, where the government wants to help people out as much as possible, and a monopolist model, where the government wants to get as much as possible and reach the top of the Laffer curve. I'm thinking that reality has governments somewhere between perfectly benevolent and perfectly malevolent. Maybe this model can generate some insights.

Don't ask me if I'm working on the same things next month. They might completely change. I'd love to hear if people have any ideas about these projects, based on an admittedly short and confusing summary.

But, that's what my life is now in second year, if anyone is interested. I'm doing less coursework than most classmates, so I need to replace that time with other stuff: trying to make sense of these four projects and not go insane.

Wish me luck!

Summer Update

Surprise, surprise. I haven't been blogging as much as I hoped to over the summer. After a few posts looking back at first year (which sucked btw, BORING!, the year... and maybe the blog post), now I've hit a dry-spell. I do want to write more about first year, but I also need to look forward. Lots of other things are going on and blogging just falls down.

In the meantime, here's what I've been up to since I'm not blogging. You can read this post as a long excuse to both my readers...

Official Duties (ha ha)

My main focus over the summer has been for a fellowship I am receiving this summer. The fellowship is for students to spend the summer working 1-on-1 with a faculty member. Prof. David Rahman was kind enough to agree to put up with my shenanigans for the summer, and hopefully longer.

I'm working with him on developing a simple, intuitive model that looks at how dictators use propaganda. My question is simple, when will dictators use propaganda and when will citizens believe it? It is related to my master's thesis, but I'm following a different literature this time. It's a variation of something called global games.

Rahman has been suggesting tons of papers to read through and because I'm a little slow it has taken a lot of time. Trying to figure out the model is even harder. Surprise, surprise! After 2 months, I have not mastered the ability to create simple models and solve them. That's what I need to work on... I'll keep trying.

Also, as I wrote before, I was an Mercatus Center Adam Smith Fellow this past year. (I also get the pleasure to do it again next year!) For one week this summer, I got to attend a conference on classical liberal economists. I was able to also present and discuss my paper on Smith and Hayek while there. I received lots of great feedback and had many fun discussions about all things related to social science. The program is just a blast in so many dimensions. It allows me to get out of the strict confines of pure econ.

Despite the great feedback from people at the Smith Fellowship, I sent it out earlier in the summer and got my first reject. That was an odd feeling, but good to get the experience. It's not going to be the last rejection. Now I'll need to revise it and send it out again. With everything else going on, I don't know when I will focus on it.

Other Random Econ Stuff

I've also been lucky enough to spend the summer doing other fun econ stuff and I have more to come. In addition to a week out at Mercatus for the Smith Fellowship, I spent a weekend out at the Public Choice Outreach Conference and another weekend out discussing recent work in the politics, philosophy, and economics tradition. As always, these weekends are fun and I learn a lot.

The peak of the summer econ activities was a week talking about Hayek. Liberty Fund hosted a week-long colloquium discussing Hayek's contributions. The group was made up of economists, political scientists, and philosophers. It was a lot of Hayek for one week, but exciting. I learn so much when I'm around non-economists. They see the world differently than me and that's great. That's how you get gains from trade, when each side has something unique.

Besides that, I've been filling the time with lots of random ideas on all topics, from optimal taxation to the Panic of 1907 to rational irrationality. A typical grad student, I have no idea what I'm working on.

I also started a food blog with my wife to keep some non-econ things in my life.

What's Coming Up

I have one more personal vacation and two more professional trips this summer. That will be enough traveling to get me through the summer... I'll have another weekend out at Mercatus (about the 100th in the past year, wait, that can't be right?) and a few days at the Sante Fe Institute. At Mercatus, the topic is Austrian economics. At Sante Fe, the topic is complexity. Both should be a lot of fun.

All that traveling has made me almost forget this coming year. Oh well. I'll think about that when it comes. I'll probably also indulge myself by blogging about the second year in my econ PhD also...

In the meantime, I'll just thank God every day that I get to spend my days learning economics. It is the coolest subject in the world and I am truly blessed to get paid to learn about such fun stuff.





Behind First Year: The Numbers

(Update: I passed both exams on the first attempt. Hopefully that helps readers to judge the information below.)

Grad students constantly talk about how much they work. It's a badge of honor to explain how terrible life is. Even I have gotten a little mopey about things lately. I apologize.

This post attempts to put some numbers to the amount of work one specific PhD student did. My purpose is not to brag, neither about how much nor how little I worked, but simply explain how the time I put in. (If it turns out I failed my exams, I'll make a note on this post in the future.)

Instead of relying on my biased recollection, I used data. Of course, this has its own biases, but it is better than my memory.

Since about 2 years ago, I've used an app called Toggl to track my time. I highly recommend it. It pushes me to work more and stay focused. I always feel bad when I'm clocked into work and I'm actually checking Twitter, since I'm only fooling myself. That pushes me to get back to work.

A quick note on how I track my time: when I arrive at the office and start to actually work, I mean actually work and not just get ready for the day making tea, I begin clocking my time. I have the app on my phone, iPad, and on a browser. I am able to keep them synced reasonably well. When I take a break to eat, I switch the tag to "Personal." When people come into my office to chat, I do the same. I want to get a real estimate of my time doing each activity.

I originally tried to keep track of smaller categories of activities, but I've found my optimal tracking is with broad categories like Personal, Courses, Studying, and specific projects.

Categories I included as "work" time:

  • Courses: the actual course lectures
  • Coursework: studying, problem sets, related readings
  • Non-Coursework Econ: reading for my Adam Smith fellowship, fun economics readings like Hayek, programming, departmental lectures
  • Projects: I have three papers at various stages and I've tracked the time on them.
  • Blogging: This is the least like work, but I only tracked about 10 hours over the year. I likely missed a lot of blogging time or put it as personal.

The most obvious bias is from checking Twitter. If I just glanced quickly, say less 30 seconds, I wouldn't mark the time. If I got in a conversation, I would count that as personal time.

I tracked personal time to try to see how much time I was wasting at the office. If I wasn't working, I wanted to be home with my wife. My apologies to her for wasting the time I did at the office.

Categories I included as "personal" time:

  • Eating
  • Browsing the internet
  • Working out
  • Practicing Spanish

So here is my non-perfect data from September 1st to May 27th. Continue reading

Year 1 = Finished (Hopefully)

While I am not really done with first year until I have passed both exams, I'm going to act like the first year is done. At least, I'll do that for a few weeks.

This morning I finished my 2nd prelim, which was in macro. The first was in micro. I hope to write more reflections over the coming weeks about first year. I hope to get my thoughts down when I have a clear head, but also remember what first year is like. I don't want time to distort my perception.

Both exams were easier than I expected. While that doesn't mean I passed both, it is nice to come out and feel better than when you went in.

But it's hard to tell. As I said in a earlier post, the grading is a mystery. I'll have to wait until the pass/fail comes in to really know.

The 5 hours of the actual exam was a unique experience. While I'd taken long exams for my physics undergrad or for things like the GRE, these were more exhausting than I anticipated. Luckily, there was lots of candy (the food of champions I believe) to keep me fueled for the exam. It was mentally draining. I expect to crash in about an hour.

There was such a build up to micro that I crashed after that. The rest of that day and the next, I couldn't study for macro. I came to the office and tried to focus, but I was completely fried. That is something I did not schedule for, leaving me with 2 less days for macro than I expected.

Overall, the exams were fair.

I started studying in January, which made life easier for me at the end. It was still a rush over the past few weeks, but less so than for people who started in March.

My advice to anyone who has to take these exams, start early. This seems obvious, but not everyone does it. Maybe other strategies work for other people. It wouldn't have worked for me. Seeing stuff over several months allowed some things to stick by the end.

Maybe what I did wasn't enough. Maybe I should have started last September. I won't know whether my strategy worked until the end of June when we get the results.

But this year is now sunk. I did what I did. All I can do from here is maximize my utility going forward. In the immediate future that includes a BBQ with our department. Over the weekend that involves a bachelor party. Over the summer that involves more time with my wife and maybe some economics. Actually, there definitely will be lots of economics. I can't give it up. It's an addiction...

Prelims: T-Minus 12 Days

Blogging has been a little slow. There have been interesting conversations going on throughout the blogosphere, but nothing I could join in on. Things are just too busy. (Excuses, excuses...)

As I've said before, the first year of an econ PhD at Minnesota is a build up to prelims. Prelims are overwhelming at times, but the year is still good. I spend my days learning economics. That's awesome. Not ideal to do so much memorization, but economics is still better than anything else I'd do all day.

But everything has a cost. So I have limited my amount of blogging over the last few months. Hopefully this summer will lead to more. For now, prelims are center.

For people who haven't been through prelims (specifically Minnesota prelims), this structure might seem odd. Why all this build up for an exam that doesn't matter? Isn't a PhD about research? Good questions. I don't know. People act like there is a reason, but no one can articulate what it is. It's just something I have to do, like learn cursive or go through hazing in college.

In under two weeks, I have my first prelim exam. It's in microeconomics and will look something like this. I remember looking at the exams before class started and being completely overwhelmed. I didn't know how to do anything. That feeling has only slightly changed.

There are 4 sections, one for each of our quarters:

  1. Consumer and Producer Theory
  2. General Equilibrium
  3. Game Theory
  4. Mechanism Design

In each section, there are a range of topics. Some topics I understand, especially from 1st quarter since I've had time to study them. Some I am still clueless about (everything in mechanism design). From now until May 20th, I'm working to fill in the gaps.

After all the joy of studying micro, I will have another week to focus solely on macro. The exam for macro is longer (5 hours compared to 3 hours), but more structured. For macro, the courses build on each other more directly than for micro. Studying for one subject helps (at least a little) for the others. For micro, that is not the case. Each section is basically independent in micro.

That makes studying for macro less overwhelming. It doesn't seem so varied by topics, but has more depth on one topic. That one topic is the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium model (DSGE). Sometimes we set up the problem in one way, sometimes in another. Sometimes there are taxes, sometimes not. Whatever.

While there has been much criticism of this type of macro, DSGE is still the main framework for modern macro. Therefore, DSGE = macro for first year UMN students. We can debate the issues with that later. For now, I must ignore those concerns.

DSGE and the micro topics above are what I have been focused on for months and hopefully will only have to focus on for a few more weeks. Ideally, I will pass both. But economists don't care too much about ideal worlds.

If I don't pass, summer means studying. We get a second shot at the exams in August. However, I'd rather spend my summer learning about things that interest me, like network theory or agent-based modeling, than studying for an exam. My reading list, and stacks of books I bought without reading properly, is embarrassingly long. I hope summer makes a dent in that.

Oh well. That all has to wait. Wish me luck.

What Football Taught Me About PhD Economics


(Disclaimer: Most of what I say below, Pete Boettke already said better. A lot of the ideas come from things he has written or said. Of course, any mistakes or dumb ideas are all mine.)

One of the great honors of my life was being able to play college football. It left me with a bad back ("and probably some brain damage," yells the crowd), but I wouldn't trade those years for anything. I continue to use the life lessons I learned on the field every day of my life.

On my first day of college football, my defensive line coach, who is as good of a coach and man as I've ever met, said "forget everything you knew about playing D-Line. That was good in high school. Congrats. It got you here. I will teach you how to play college football."

And he went on to teach me more than I could have imagined. I'd like to think he turned me into an okay college football player. Without his advice and training, I would have been crap. He knew what he was saying.

The game is completely different at the college vs. the high school level. If you come into the college level thinking it is still high school, you will get crushed. It's not only a higher level, but a different game. What works in high school does not work in college, so players are better off forgetting what they learned. (Of course, if you are a true FREAK, which I was not, you can do whatever you want.)

That doesn't mean that I truly forgot everything. That's impossible. But as much as possible, I needed to clear my head of what I thought a D-Lineman should do. I had to go back to stage one and learn how to take a single step. Over, and over, and over again. Step. Step. Step.

We spent hours just working on our first step. An outsider watching might say, "why would you have players doing the same drill 1000 times? Doesn't everyone know how to step after being a baby? That's not how football is played. You should play real football."

People who say that don't know the sport.

My first year in a PhD has brought me back to Day 1 of football camp, August 2008. I've had to relearn it all. I never can (nor want to) forget my understanding of economics that I discovered through reading people like Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, or Murray Rothbard. But I'm now playing a different game now. I signed up to play a new sport, not blog or pop economics, but professional academic economics.

To play that sport, I needed to go back to stage one and learn my first step. Day one micro involved basic producer theory, but with advanced notation. Day one macro involved defining equilibrium "concepts." That might seem basic.  It is. But it's a new game.

The way academics talk about producer theory or equilibrium is not the way undergrad courses or blogs talk about these concepts. Demand isn't a curve, but a vector. It doesn't slope downwards, but the matrix of partial derivatives with respect to price is negative semi-definite. Equilibrium isn't where two lines cross. It's a whole page of definitions.

Getting down those basics takes a long time. That's what first year (and more) is about. We spend the year learning basic academic economics. It's long. It's tedious. It's probably a waste of time. But ultimately, I believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel and first year is definitely worth it. In the words of the scripture, this too shall pass.

Before my Austrian friends think I've completely crossed over to the dark side (I've already annoyed them too much), let me add two things.

First, I don't mean that players or students have to think what they are learning is the best way. What are the odds that all of your teachers are right on everything? Students and players should have questions about why they learn what they learn. But it takes a lot of arrogance (which I certainly have been guilty of) to come in and think you know how the game should be played on day one.

My advice to myself and others: be patient. Learn the game. After you have developed an understanding of the new game, make your ultimate decision on how it should be played. If you're right, you'll win games in football and publish articles in economics.

A second point I want to emphasize is that students ultimately must find their comparative advantage. When I started college football, I had to learn to play how everyone else played. That's just the nature of being 1 person learning in a group.

While the basic skills you learn help everyone, each player eventually needs to figure out how he best plays. For me in football, that was different from most people. I was 2 inches too short, 40 pounds too light, and 0.3 seconds too slow. I had to learn my unique style. My style wasn't right for everyone. It was right for me.

For me in economics, I don't know what my style is. Hopefully I will find it someday.

Most people will play traditional economics. That's fine. If you're interested in something non-traditional like Austrian economics, you have to adjust your play to that. You'll get crushed if you try to play like a pure theorists or econometricians. That's not your comparative advantage.

Take Pete Leeson. He is one of the most interesting young economists in the world. My guess: he would be a nobody if he tried to imitate what comes out of MIT. Instead, he works on what he loves and does it well. He is more successful and the profession is more interesting, because he doesn't imitate.

Grad school is about finding the area that I can contribute to. If I don't want to be a traditional football player, there is a huge difference between finding a niche (pass rushing, for example) and sitting on the bench all year. If I insist that my "economics" is right and no one else agrees, I'll have to enjoy sitting on the bench.

I came here to play. So I'll keep working on my steps. Hopefully, I'll get a few good hits in along the way, like the top picture 🙂

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.


Continue reading

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!

Reflections on the Advanced Austrian Seminar at Mercatus

As I said in my review of Pete Leeson's Anarchy Unbound, I am in Washington, D.C. at the Mercatus Center. Actually, I'm now in a hotel lobby. That's not the point.

I came out here for the Advanced Austrian Economics Seminar, a 3 day conference/seminar for students interested in the ideas of Austrian economics, broadly defined. It was a gathering of around 20 students from around the world and faculty members from George Mason. Israel Kirzner, Pete Boettke, Pete Leeson, Larry White, and Chris Coyne gave lectures. Virgil Storr was also around and active in discussions. All of them know more economics in there pinky than I know in my body, to steal Pete Boettke's cheesy line.

Any students interested Austrian economics should apply for next year's program. The people are fun and Mercatus treats guests well. I'm talking putting us up in one of those places where the shower head is some weird set-up you've never seen before. Fancy stuff like that.

Plus, I got a lot of books as reading material, aka Christmas for me.

If I can go again, I definitely will.

The goal of the weekend was to show how modern research can use the ideas of Austrian economics. The presenters emphasized that Austrian economics is not a body of settled doctrine, but a framework for furthering economic science. Although we discussed the famous Austrian names (Mises and Hayek especially) quite often, the lens looked forward. We want to use these insights to move forward, not just look back.

The weekend started off with Israel Kirzner presenting on the market process.That talk sticks in my brain. First, for me Kirzner is a towering figure. The first few chapters of Competition and Entrepreneurship are a major reason I'm doing a PhD. I told Pete Boettke that I was like a teenage girl at a boy-band concert (with slightly less screaming). I was much more intimidated by him than even people like Robert Lucas, Ed Prescott, or Raj Chetty. Heck, I named my blog after Kirzner's dissertation. And this is a guy that 99% of economists have (wrongly) never read.

Second, Kirzner brought an energy to the podium that I was not expecting. He's no longer Mises's young student, but still has pure passion and excitement for the science. Plus, I learned a lot. While I have watched lectures of YouTube from him on similar topics, this had a new bend. To get a flavor of his ideas and the talk, check out the video below.

How do we understand an open-ended world that cannot be collapsed down into a probability distribution? If you understand, let me know how. It's tough. It's also right at the heart of the differences between Austrians' understanding of the market as a discovery process and non-Austrians' framework. That's what Kirzner has struggled with for 50+ years and still presenting on.

The rest of the weekend involved 5 more lectures and 2 breakout sessions. On top of that were meals and free time to talk about this subject that I love. I can't express how fun that was for me.

The passion differed from other seminars I've been to. Everyone there loves economics with a fervor. Mercatus, particularly the Hayek program there, is daring to be different, following the recommendation of James Buchanan.

This weekend was especially unique for me personally because it was the first time I had ever talked with an academic Austrian economist. Literally, I have never talked with people who want to do research in this field.

I didn't realize that until the first night. It hit me. I am around people who actually share my interests. Now, I was able to talk with other academics interested in the ideas. It overwhelmed me for a moment.

Beyond what I've mentioned, the highlights for me were:

  • connecting with a whole new set of economists. I know have a larger network of interesting young scholars.
  • the food (both for the seminar and outside of it). I had my first Pakistani meal and my first meal off a "hidden" second menu.
  • discussing Austrian economics and political economy over beers and whisky.

However the seminar wasn't without some disappointments. Mainly, it disappointed me to see the collective lack of understanding of non-Austrian models from us students. There were a few situations where I felt like we didn't arrive at a proper understanding of what non-Austrians are saying on an issue.

For example, Larry White asked a fairly simple question about Keynes's model. I forget the exact question. No one, myself included, knew the answer. Upon reflection, I remembered the point, but I had no internalized the model well enough to even answer a simple question quickly. That's disappointing to see. Most people were happy to sneer at Keynes, but didn't know the model.

In other discussions, less glaring examples came up. I don't think we had a correct understanding of how and why other economists use words like information or rationality. People were slaying strawmen. If Austrian economics is going to interact with the rest of the profession, the Austrian economists need to at least be able to understand others. That's a necessary condition for minimal conversations.

Maybe this is me looking for a negative thing to write so this post isn't just "GO AUSTRIANS." Maybe not. Who knows. Overall, the weekend has been what I hoped for and more. I can't praise the seminar enough. If anyone involved at Mercatus ever reads this, thanks for the weekend.

So if anyone is even remotely interested in the Austrian school of economics, apply to attend next summer here.

Short Reflection before my PhD

(Note: this is also posted at the Barcelona GSE blog)

Determining whether to apply for a Ph.D. program or not, going through each application, and then finally making a decision is exhausting. It forces, rightfully so, the young economist to look on his experiences and his goals. I asked myself over and over about where I had been, where I am, and where I want to go. Here are some of my reflections.

How the heck did I end up here?

Some people find their vocation early in life and take the exact right steps. Other people find their vocation while reading Exchange and Production after a long workday. I took this indirect route. Until I discovered economics, academics were the means and not the ends for me. During my undergraduate, I did well in difficult physics and political science programs and on the football field. This ultimately led to an enjoyable well-paying job. That was my goal for college and I surpassed it.

However, when I started studying economics, my goals drastically changed. Economics turned my life anew. Suddenly, the good job was inadequate. I could not stop researching economics. My free time turned into economics time. Through blogs, ¨pop¨economics, and academic work, I had found my passion. It just kept building. I woke up to read Hayek on information before work and fell asleep to Kirzner on competition and price theory. Throughout my day, I listened to lectures, followed blogs, and economics audiobooks. Economics became my life and it spread from how I made decisions to how I spoke. Continue reading