René L. P. Mahieu
The Making of an Economist, Reduxby David Colander
Economists seem to be everywhere in the media these days. But what exactly do today's economists do? What and how are they taught? Updating David Colander and Arjo Klamer's classic The Making of an Economist, this book shows what is happening in elite U.S. economics Ph.D. programs. By examining these programs, Colander gives a view of cutting-edge economics-/i>… See more details below
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Economists seem to be everywhere in the media these days. But what exactly do today's economists do? What and how are they taught? Updating David Colander and Arjo Klamer's classic The Making of an Economist, this book shows what is happening in elite U.S. economics Ph.D. programs. By examining these programs, Colander gives a view of cutting-edge economics--and a glimpse at its likely future. And by comparing economics education today to the findings of the original book, the new book shows how much--and in what ways--the field has changed over the past two decades. The original book led to a reexamination of graduate education by the profession, and has been essential reading for prospective graduate students. Like its predecessor, The Making of an Economist, Redux is likely to provoke discussion within economics and beyond.
The book includes new interviews with students at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Chicago, and Columbia. In these conversations, the students--the next generation of elite economists--colorfully and frankly describe what they think of their field and what graduate economics education is really like. The book concludes with reflections by Colander, Klamer, and Robert Solow.
This inside look at the making of economists will interest anyone who wants to better understand the economics profession. An indispensible tool for anyone thinking about graduate education in economics, this edition is complete with colorful interviews and predictions about the future of cutting-edge economics.
René L. P. Mahieu
"This work is an essential read for undergraduates considering graduate work in economics; it is also valuable reading for anyone interested in learning about what is being taught, and how it is being taught, at the top-ranked institutions in the field."--M.L. White, Choice
"Will economics departments and bodies such as our own Royal Economic Society step up to the challenge Colander sets them with this book, and reshape the graduate curriculum? I hope so, or we will find ourselves with even fewer graduate students in economics than we have now."--Diane Coyle, Times Higher Education Supplement
"[T]his book is . . . a must-read especially for . . . those who are contemplating going into graduate training in economics . . . and for all those who have influence on the content and design of graduate programmes in economics. For all others this can still be a book for the coffee-table, since my own experience has shown that it does function quite well as a conversation starter."--René L. P. Mahieu, Erasmus Journal For Philosophy and Economics
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Read an ExcerptThe Making of an Economist, Redux
By David Colander Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Introduction: Understanding Economics and Economists
ECONOMISTS HAVE BECOME ubiquitous. You turn on the TV news and you hear from them-economists say inflation is slowing; economists question the tax cut proposal; economists predict that a recession is likely. You pick up your newspaper or newsmagazine, and you read about economists.
As with many things ubiquitous, there is an ambiguity about what precisely an economist is, and what it is that he (most economists are male) is supposed to know. Thus, nowhere will one find a specified body of knowledge that an economist must know to call himself or herself an economist. In fact, unlike in law or medicine, where there are licenses that one must have to be called a lawyer or doctor, anyone can simply put the suffix "economist" after his name and call himself an economist.
One way of specifying who is an economist might be to consider who studies economics as an undergraduate. Each year approximately 25,000 undergraduate students (about 2 percent of all college seniors) major in economics. The large majority of these majors have no intention of becoming economists; they are planning to go into business, with banking, finance, and general management the most popular fields. So, undergraduate economics majors do not, for the most part, consider themselves economists.Most are majoring in economics because business is not an acceptable liberal arts major, and the undergraduate economics major is a surrogate for a business major. Another way of limiting the number of economists might be to restrict it to members of an economic association. That wouldn't work either, however, since anyone can join these associations-there are no restrictions. Pay your dues and you are a member.
So it seems that anyone can be an economist. The lack of formal requirements about who can call himself or herself an economist, however, masks another reality by which individuals who are economists judge whether or not someone is a "true" economist. For example, were an undergraduate student to ask an economist how to become an economist, he would tell her to go to graduate school. She might demur, asking, "Wouldn't it make more sense to go to Wall Street and learn how markets work?" Getting firsthand experience may sound like a good idea to her, but most economists would briskly dismiss the suggestion. "Well, maybe I should get a job in a real business-say, turning out automobiles." The answer will be "no" again: "That's not how you learn economics." She might try one more time. "Well, how about if I read all the top economists of the past-John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, Adam Smith?" Most economists would say, "It wouldn't hurt, but it probably won't help." Instead, he would most likely tell her, "To become an economist who is considered an economist by other economists, you have to go to graduate school in economics." So the reality is that, to economists, an economist is someone who has a graduate degree (doctorates strongly preferred) in economics. This means that what defines an economist is what he or she learns in graduate school.
A Profile of Economics Graduate Students
To get an idea of who becomes an economist, let's consider a profile that Wendy Stock and John Siegfried compiled.
As you can see, each year somewhat more than 900 Ph.D.'s are awarded, a rate slightly higher than in the past. Assuming the rate of production has averaged 800 over the past forty years, and that the average economist works for approximately forty years, and that few economists trained outside the United States come to work in the United States, and that 20 percent of the students who get Ph.D.'s do not stay in the United States, then there are about 25,000 Ph.D. economists currently in the United States. The composition of this group is constantly changing, and each year a bit over 2 percent of the economists are replaced with younger cohorts, which means that over a decade the nature of economists is likely to change considerably, with new graduate students replacing retiring economists.
This table gives you a pretty good sense of who the graduate students are who are replacing the old economists. The first thing to note is that the percentage of U.S. citizens in graduate economics programs is declining; economics, like many of the sciences, is becoming a field dominated by non-U.S. citizens, the majority of whom stay in the United States to work. Notice also that while the percentage of women is increasing, the economics profession remains a primarily male profession. Another point to note is that most students finance their education with fellowships, along with research and/or teaching assistantships, although about 30 percent finance it themselves.
Graduate economics students attend one of the over one hundred Ph.D. programs in economics within the United States. The group as a whole, however, isn't the subject of this book. Instead, the book's main focus is the graduate students at elite graduate schools. These elite schools are disproportionately influential, and the students at these schools are destined to become the future elite of economics. This follows, since schools seldom hire from other schools ranked significantly lower than themselves, which means that this group will populate the top schools in the future and decide how economics is done.
Schools' rankings are generally well understood by economists, and conversations with newly minted economists often begin with, "Where did you get your Ph.D.?" Upon hearing where, the questioner will make a judgment about the quality of one's training and whether or not one should be considered a serious economist. (It's a bit like two dogs marking out their territory.) If you are planning to go on in serious economic research, you had better be able to answer that question with "I went to (fill in the name of one of the twenty of the top-ten-ranked economics graduate programs)." Otherwise you don't pass the initial sniff test.
Notice that I said "twenty of the top ten." The reason is that there are many different ranking systems. Developing rankings, and discussing the advantages and disadvantages of various rankings, is an industry in itself. There can be survey rankings (done in a variety of different ways), publication-based rankings (with publications weighted in a variety of different ways), and citation-based rankings (with citations weighted in a variety of different ways). Each of these rankings can be measured on a per-faculty or a total-number criterion (using various alternative measures of what is determined a faculty member). With so many ways of creating a ranking, there are many different possible rankings. Most possible rankings are explored and published, since college administrations often determine the level of support they will give a program on the basis of these rankings.
Where there is general agreement about rankings is about the schools at the top, and six of the seven schools that I included in this study-Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, MIT, Princeton, and Yale-are consistently ranked in the top ten. (They are ranked as the top six in a recent survey, and the seventh school in this study-Columbia-is ranked twelfth; Thursby 2000.) These elite schools compete vigorously for top students. They invite accepted candidates to campus, wine and dine them, have them meet with faculty members, and work hard to sell their school to them. Except at Chicago, which follows a somewhat different model, the large majority of students at these schools get fellowships that provide them with as much as $30,000 to $35,000 a year in addition to tuition and fees, often guaranteed for three years. The large majority of the students who start the programs at these elite schools finish the programs.
Once they graduate, these students tend to dominate the profession: they are the majority of members on American Economic Association (AEA) boards, and they are the economists called upon when a reporter is seeking economists' view on an issue. Of course, not all of these graduates manage to remain in the elite, but it is from this group that the majority of the elite come. How large is this elite? There are probably around 100 to 150 of the definitely elite, 700 to 800 of the elite, and another 1,500 economists might be seen as peripheral elite. All have Ph.D.'s, and most have academic appointments, although some move back and both between academia and government.
The Graduate Economics Program
It generally takes a bit over five years of graduate study for students to get a Ph.D. In the first year or two of most Ph.D. programs, students take courses in micro, macro, and econometrics, with some electives mixed in. At elite schools each of the core courses is usually taught by two, or sometimes three, graduate professors, each concentrating on his or her area of specialty. These three courses-micro, macro, and econometrics-are known as the core, and they are what define the common training of economists. At the end of these courses, an exam, generally made up by the professors teaching the course, is given, and successful completion of those exams means successful completion of the core. At some schools the core exam is separate from the final exam for the course, but that separation is decreasing. Also, in the past, the department, not the professors, made up the core exam, but that too has changed. Thus, the professors teaching the core have enormous power in determining what an economist is in the sense that they determine what common core is taught.
After completing the core, graduate economics students move on to field courses, and they usually have to pick two areas of specialty. Often, at the end of the field courses, there are field exams, which end the formal required course work. After passing the field exams, students become known as ABD's (All But Dissertations). Thereafter students work on their dissertations, which generally can take anywhere from one to three years. During this time students typically work part-time as teaching or research assistants, attend seminars, and work on publishing papers. Often, students will write three essays as their dissertation, to make the translation into journal articles easier. (Journal articles, not books, are most important to academic economists in advancing in their careers.)
In their final year of study ABDs go on the job market. For the majority of graduate students there is a definite pecking order of desirability among jobs: (1) high-ranked graduate programs; (2) middle-range graduate programs; (3) international agency or top government (especially central bank) programs; (4) top undergraduate programs; (5) lower-range graduate programs; (6) lower-ranked undergraduate programs; and (7) private business-although, depending on a graduate's specific field, there will be some shifting among the lower-numbered choices in the order of preference. This pecking order reflects views inculcated during the student's graduate school training. Graduate programs at the elite schools are designed to prepare students to do academic research in economics at other graduate programs, and departments generally rank themselves on how well they do in placing their students into academic jobs.
What Academic Economists Do
Academic economists teach, do extensive committee work at the college or university that employs them, and carry on "research," which generally takes the form of writing articles. Books tend to count for little in economics department rankings. To provide outlets for all the articles, there has been a steady increase in the number of economics journals, many of which have also become available online: while there were about 200 journals in 1980, today the online database EconLit provides access to more than 600 journals. Moreover, the focus on articles is different from that in other social science disciplines, such as history and political science, where researchers generally write books rather than articles. Writing articles is, however, common in physics and the other natural sciences. Most elite economists judge other economists by their journal article output. In calculations of department rankings, books are seldom even counted.
Paul Samuelson, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and perhaps the dominant figure in economics from the late 1930s through the 1960s, captured an important aspect of the profession when he said that it is not for the applause of the public that economists work, but for the praise of their peers. Most economists at the elite level are primarily concerned with what other elite economists think of them, as opposed to whether they are looked on positively by the broader public. Elite economists are more likely to stay within academic institutions and use their skills to advance the knowledge of their peers. A few are hired as consultants, textbook writers, or court witnesses, but devoting too much time to such activities is looked down upon by the profession. Economists who dedicate their careers to such outside services for pay are treated with suspicion.
The Original Making of an Economist
In the mid-1980s, Arjo Klamer and I did a study of these elite graduate economic programs that was much discussed in the profession and widely reported in the popular press. That study did not paint a flattering picture of graduate economics education. It was a picture of a profession lost in pure theory and technicalities, with little focus on ideas. There was a sense that economics dealt with mind games, not real economics problems. For example, in our earlier introduction, Arjo Klamer and I cited numerous views that were critical of economists, and quoted Robert Kuttner, who wrote, "Departments of economics are graduating a generation of idiot savants, brilliant at esoteric mathematics yet innocent of actual economic life."
Whether that assessment was right or not (many mainstream economists argued that it was quite wrong and, in any case, was far too simplistic), it was an assessment shared by numerous people at the time. It was the buzz, especially among critics of the profession, that economics had gone off the deep end on theory. The feeling was that the teaching of graduate economics had lost something that made economics special-that it focused too much on abstract theory, that it focused too much on modeling for the sake of modeling, and that there was too little empirical grounding for the theoretical work that was done. This situation existed in micro because many of the graduate micro courses were still digesting Arrow/Debreu general equilibrium theory, and in macro because the New Classical revolt against Keynesian economics seemed to be pulling macro along the same pure analytic corridor.
As with much successful research, a lot of the success of our original study was due to "right place/right time." We were not alone in our beliefs: the beliefs were shared by a large number of economists, many of whom were not critics of economics but were mainstream economists. The movements for change had already occurred. A new journal, the Journal of Economic Perspectives, was being created by the AEA, whose purpose was to provide an outlet and discussion forum for less esoteric research, and there was much discussion among economists over coffee or drinks about the changing way in which economics was done.
Our actual collection of data started in 1983, which led to a paper entitled "The Making of an Economist," written in 1985 and published in 1987 in the newly formed Journal of Economic Perspectives. The paper caught on and was much discussed long before it was published. The results in it gave people some numbers to focus on and to put the issues in perspective. Our results, however, were hardly scientific. The survey was far from inclusive-we covered only a small group of elite schools-and there were many aspects of graduate economics education that it did not touch. In other words, it was a decent conversation piece, but it was not a stepping stone for something actually to be done.
Our initial paper also left out much discussion of implications. We did so on purpose-to let the numbers speak for themselves and not let our critical views of the profession color the way in which the numbers might be interpreted. Our book, by contrast, was much more extensive: it included not only the initial study but also the conversations that we had had with the students. At the end of that book both Klamer and I reflected on the implications. Our reflections were quite different. Klamer concentrated on the lack of policy relevance; I concentrated on incentives for workmanship.
Excerpted from The Making of an Economist, Redux by David Colander
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Tyler Cowen, George Mason University
Meet the Author
David Colander is Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Economics at Middlebury College. He is the author or editor of more than thirty books, including "Why Aren't Economists as Important as Garbagemen?", "The Lost Art of Economics", "Economics" (Irwin/McGraw-Hill), and "The Stories Economists Tell" (Irwin/McGraw-Hill).
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