Other Things Equal by Deirdre McCloskey
December 15, 2007 12:00 PM   Subscribe

How to Be a Good Graduate Student, How to Organize a Conference, Economical Writing: An Executive Summary, Why Don't Economists Believe Empirical Findings?, The Bankruptcy of Statistical Significance, The A-Prime, C-Prime Theorem, and many other articles in PDF format (scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the others) originally published in the very entertaining “Other Things Equal” column by Deirdre McCloskey in the Eastern Economic Journal.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear (19 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
After mentioning this project to a number of people, both graduate students and faculty -- all of whom expressed an interest in anything I could give them -- I realized two things: first, the issues that we were talking about really were not just women's issues but were of interest to all graduate students, and to all caring advisors. Second, in order to disseminate the information I had collected (and was starting to collect from others) it seemed to make more sense to compile a bibliography, and write a paper that would summarize the most useful advice and suggestions I had collected.

I solicited inputs from friends and colleagues via mailing lists and Internet bulletin boards, and collected almost an overwhelming amount of information. Sorting through it and attempting to distill the collective wisdom of dozens of articles and hundreds of e-mail messages has not been an easy task, but I hope that the results provide a useful resource for graduate students and advisors alike. The advice I give here is directed towards Ph.D. students in computer science and their advisors, since that is my background, but I believe that much of it applies to graduate students in other areas as well.

In my experience, the two main things that make graduate school hard are the unstructured nature of the process, and the lack of information about what you should spend your time on. I hope that this article will provide information for both graduate students and advisors that will help make the process less painful.
posted by emilio at 12:18 PM on December 15, 2007

In my experience the main thing that made graduate school fantastic was the unstructured nature of the process. Lack of information about what you should spend your time on? You're in graduate school. Spend your time on your subject.
posted by Wolfdog at 12:20 PM on December 15, 2007

You know what also makes graduate school hard? Being absolutely piss-broke all the time.
posted by porpoise at 12:47 PM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Eh. I'm all for criticizing the hell out of modern academic economics (and there is so much just begging for the attention of a sharp critic)... but I have yet to read a single article by McCloskey in which there is more useful information or poignant criticism than bluster. And it's not just that I can't get past her bad writing - it's that she so often just misses the ball. Arrow and Leamer and Griliches and Neyman & Pearson all had really good points when they criticized "statistical significance" - but all McCloskey comes up with is "oomph". Lack of focus on "oomph" is the big problem with data mining? Really??? Not Arrow's (and Neyman & Pearson's) issue of the power of the test? Not the lack of robustness testing (see Leamer), or the lack of theoretically sound justification for choosing that particular model family in the first place (raising all the obvious but conveniently ignored problems of model misspecification)? How about the fact that selecting models based on which ones have the most "significant" coefficients gets the scientific process precisely backwards?

Don't get me wrong - she does have a point. There are plenty of economists out there who publish papers where the main result is that x is a significant predictor of y, when x's effect on y is negligible, and/or where nobody but the authors cares if x predicts y. And yes, it's annoying as hell to spend five minutes skimming a paper only to discover that it's 40 pages of uninteresting twaddle. But McCloskey's advice so often amounts to little more than "Start asking interesting questions!" The "Aha!" effect is nice, but I'd rather have graduate students learning meaningful scientific tools before they start willy-nilly applying whatever tools they have to "interesting" questions.

I find it strange that McCloskey criticizes economists both for focusing on uninteresting questions and for not believing the results of studies that do attempt to tackle interesting topics. The two problems are related, because there are remarkably few questions for which the methods of modern economics and the data available are at all adequate for addressing. Thus, one either conducts a modest study of something horribly uninteresting, or one attempts to make pronouncements wildly beyond the scope of the sound tools at one's disposal. Merely exhorting that one should focus on delivering the "Aha!" effect by focusing on finding variables with "oomph!" seems a bit empty to me, and just a bit blustery.
posted by dilettanti at 1:13 PM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thing I'm realizing about grad school (I returned this Fall a decade and a half after graduating college) is that I'm allowed to use sources and explore issues I already have a deep natural interest in. The more I view the process from the inside out, rather than being imposed on me, the better the work I do and the more happier I am. Maybe that's obvious, but I think we spend so much time humoring teachers in H.S. and College and trying to get by and get that decent grade, that it kills the most important thing you can bring to an education; a genuine passion for what you want to learn and a comprehensive understanding of how things relate. (This is why No Child Left Behind is the educational equivalent of junk food.)

Anyhow that article looks good. You should definitely bend everything you're doing in grad school to your final thesis or dissertation, and if you have a prof. teaching something peripheral who doesn't agree or won't help you do that, drop the class. Go to your adviser and put together some sort of independent study.

If anyone else has some good suggestions, I'd be grateful to hear them.
posted by Skygazer at 1:21 PM on December 15, 2007

Even though (or maybe because) that first link could be called "How to be a cynical graduate student" I found myself agreeing with an awful lot of it. Coursework, in particular, can be a collossal waste of time. I've been on about 10 hiring committees in the last 10 years and never once has any question been raised to the candidate about their coursework in graduate school. It's all about the dissertation, publications, teaching experience, letters of reference, supervisor name, and name-brand of university.

And, passing the smell-test of "wanna work with this doofus for the next 25 years?"

But coursework is a non-issue in the job market. It may well have some benefits but they are entirely unclear and non-universal.

I went through a PHD program with no coursework and no comprehensive exams and frankly I don't feel like I missed much. Having to teach graduate courses now, I tell the students to, if even remotely possible, find something within the domain of the course which will be stimulating or productive towards their theses or dissertations.
posted by Rumple at 1:53 PM on December 15, 2007

The "how to organize a conference" paper was pretty dead on. It contained some very good tips, although perhaps too generalized to be of practical value. The article is more about the format and about devising a strategy that encourages discussion, which is only a small part of running a good conference, IMO.
posted by gemmy at 2:15 PM on December 15, 2007

There was a lot in the first article that made sense to me, except the advice to ignore coursework. While the actual grades might not matter, I've found my courses really helpful in getting ideas going for my main project, opening up avenues that I otherwise would have ignored. It also gives you a chance to work with a good professor for an extended period of time, and get an idea of what their approach is like. I never end a course with the same appraisal of an instructor that I begin with, and often pick up a ton of great tips and resources that I'll draw upon later.

Of course I'm not in economics, maybe those grad classes really are a waste of time.

And Skygazer - I'm all about the independent study courses. I'll suggest to anyone that they design their own, then get a small group of interested people on board.
posted by sudasana at 2:23 PM on December 15, 2007

Coursework, in particular, can be a collossal waste of time. I've been on about 10 hiring committees in the last 10 years and never once has any question been raised to the candidate about their coursework in graduate school.

I've likewise been on way too many search committees.

I've never seen a candidate asked about coursework, but coursework on the transcript comes up occasionally when someone claims competence in, or an ability to teach, quantitative or formal methods (game theory etc). Say that when you got a B- on your only quant class, and we don't believe you. Say that when you have three or four A's of various types, and you passed a prelim in it, and you took some summer courses at ICPSR, and we believe you and want to hug you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:57 PM on December 15, 2007

Why Don't Economists Believe Empirical Findings?

I've heard it said that an economist is someone who sees something working in practice and wonders if it will work in theory.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 3:35 PM on December 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I went through a PHD program with no coursework and no comprehensive exams and frankly I don't feel like I missed much.

Coursework is meaningless. However, the absence of comprehensive exams is big alarm bell for me. There are far too many people who are stunningly ignorant of their own fields outside of their specific research question. It makes for both shitty instructors, since hardly anyone gets to teach just their research questions and crappy researchers who often completely miss obvious connections and sometimes duplicate work that has already been done. A good researcher will eventually get breadth on their own but comps imposes it early and when it is least painful rather than when their are teaching and admin burdens to go along with research.
posted by srboisvert at 3:49 PM on December 15, 2007

It has been over ten years since I finished my Ph.D., and it looks as if I've made a full recovery.
posted by Peach at 5:05 PM on December 15, 2007

I recently left a PhD Economics program because of coursework and comprehensive exams. Well, that and the fact that I realized I didn't want to become an economist, especially if it meant more coursework and exams.

All in all, reading the article about how to be a good graduate student made me feel even better about leaving the program. Economics is just not worth it.
posted by vorpal bunny at 5:48 PM on December 15, 2007

I'm considering getting my PhD in economics, but that first article sort of makes it sound like a recipe for stabbing myself in the eye.

I'll probably feel better about it when I'm done with finals.
posted by dismas at 6:15 PM on December 15, 2007

Great post. Thanks.
posted by dobie at 1:06 AM on December 16, 2007

I've heard it said that an economist is someone who sees something working in practice and wonders if it will work in theory.

I've always heard it told as "an economist is somebody who will tell you tomorrow why what he predicted yesterday didn't happen today."
posted by DreamerFi at 1:10 AM on December 16, 2007

Excellent and interest post, thanks Jasper Friendly Bear.
posted by nickyskye at 10:47 AM on December 16, 2007

*interesting post
posted by nickyskye at 10:49 AM on December 16, 2007

It's a fascinating post. And since the links direct us to her own homepage, I find it even more fascinating that nobody here has noted Dr. McCloskey's writings on gender!

After all, her research, standing alone, has long been noteworthy enough to earn her tenure (first at U.Chicago, back in 1975 . . .which was [and still is] a place where you don't get your tenure for being good-looking) as well as numerous international awards and appointments. But more to the point of her writings on gender, after she had made a name for herself in academia, she then became Diedre McCloskey. She was born Donald McCloskey, and in addition to her formidable contributions to the literature of economics, she has also worked through a tremendous amount of discrimination in academia because of her choice to switch gender from male to female.

So, yes. This is a very interesting post, linking to a fascinating set of research.
posted by deejay jaydee at 9:28 AM on December 17, 2007

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