Wanted: Candidate PhD programs

January 11, 2009

With the turn of the year, I am now shifting into a higher gear in my pursuit of a PhD in economics. I have sought advice from several of the economists at my job, including former university faculty and recent PhD recipients. Their advice tends to coincide with what I’ve already seen online:

1) Apply to the best programs for which you have a reasonable chance of admission.

For me, this excludes the Ivy League, but still includes members of the top 25, and all members of the top 50. With an interest in macroeconomics rooted in the fact that I have come of age in a major financial crisis, I am particularly interested in programs with faculty who specialize in macro. I have a strong interest in the broad area of industrial organization and its role in short and medium term macroeconomic performance. Consequently I am currently seeking advice on programs with strengths in these areas of research.

2) To the extent that you can, look for programs with permanent faculty in the fields in which you are most interested, and try further to determine how committed they will be to your success.

Though I have been spoiled in my past by an economics faculty that was very supportive of my academic pursuits, I am highly self-sufficient in my own success. Nonetheless, I will want an advisor with more than a passing interest in my dissertation. Other advice in this area would be much appreciated.

3) Develop a solid trio of individuals who can speak positively and authoritatively to your ability to succeed in an economics PhD program.

For me, I think that my success in mathematics courses speaks to my ability to handle quantitative aspects of success in a PhD program, and as a research assistant I am in an excellent position to seek out an economist who has seen what I can do. It is important to receive recommendations from individuals who can speak to my skill, creativity, and success in developing and executing original research. To me this will include at least one former professor (probably my academic advisor) and one economist with whom I currently work. I have been warned that more than one recommendation from either my college or my current work environment may not be the best, but would not be the worst, mixture of recommendations. Suggestions on sources of a third recommendation that I could pursue would be appreciated.

4) Get as close to an 800 as possible on the GRE math section.

Tough, doable, and wholly self-explanatory.

5) A stellar statement of purpose.

Though I understand that the importance of the SoP varies across institutions, it is nonetheless an integral part of the application. I also think my relatively unique past and current experience as a research assistant affords me an opportunity to develop an interesting account of how I came into the field of economics and flourished in it.

6) Any publications, including revise and resubmits.

I have an opportunity in my current position to get one of these, which would be fantastic. I’m currently working as hard as I can towards its completion given the resources at my disposal.

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B+

December 17, 2008

I got what I expected in Real Analysis – a B+.  It was neither exciting nor disappointing, since – like a true economic agent – I had already set my expectations using all of the information I had at hand. 

I was hoping for an A-, though.  All the forums for economics PhD applicants make it sounds like you have to be perfect if you want any kind of success.  I’m not perfect, but I am intuitive and creative, so it will merely be very important to express these compensating characteristics at application time.  Besides, I may have a publication under my belt by the time applications come due.  More on that some other time, though.

A lingering thought remains, however: Should I try to retake analysis at another school next fall?  Hmm….

What is Real (Analysis) is Real (Analysis) in its Consequences

December 10, 2008

It has been seven months since my last post, and much has changed but I will only update readers on these matters in the context of this blog’s stated purpose.  Some details are in the recently updated biographical post on the right hand side of this page.

As of last night, I have completed my first graduate level course in any topic.  On the advice of many an economics PhD or PhD candidate, both at my job and on the various and sundry related internet forums, I enrolled in a course in real analysis at American University.  For those who don’t know, real analysis is essentially one long, rigorous proof of everything you ever learned in Calculus I and II. 

It was also, by far, the most humbling academic experience I’ve ever had.  Ultimately, my grade will be more or less acceptable (I’m expecting a B+ or better), but this was only after putting in an unbelievable amount of hard work and long study sessions.  I can not describe to the uninitiated what a real analysis course is like, but I would like to point out three things I’ve learned as byproduct of this experience.

1) Working full time and going to school is exceptionally difficult.  This is all the more true when the class is graduate level, but I have a new and more visceral respect for adults who pursue degrees in any field while working to support themselves and their family.

2) I’m not as smart as I thought, but I can still hold my own.  I’ve done proofs before in other upper level math courses at Mary Washington, and these I could usually complete in a sitting.  Not so in real analysis.  After working two hours on a single problem, I would often have to go for long walks and wait for inspiration to come to me.  Nonetheless, the answer did eventually come, and consequently I often did very well on homework assignments and take home tests.  However, I did very poorly on timed assignments such as exams.  Lesson:  I can figure just about anything out if given the time to do so.  This is a personal trait ripe for a careful optimization analysis at a later time.

3) Economics is “real.” There was a bright if awkward senior in my class who often opined that “economics isn’t real”.  I found this to be a frustrating and pseudo-intellectual comment, but I also found it difficult to immediately respond when he said it.  Eventually, I settled upon a good retort that I planned to unleash the next time it came up:  “Economics purports to be the study of human choice under the conditions of scarcity and uncertainty.  By all accounts, it succeeds in being  just that, regardless of whether one agrees with its methods or conclusions.” 

I never actually had the chance to say this, but last night after I finished my final exam, I was walking to my car when a different thought occurred to me: 

Economics is real, because it is real in its consequences.  (A slightly modified take on the Thomas Theorem).   Economics may or may not make undue assumptions about humanity; its conclusions may or may not be patently, objectively false.  Nonetheless, those conclusions inform policy that has real effects on the quality of life for billions of people.  The point is not to preach some particular and unchanging view of the human condition, but to constantly tweak and present new and innovative means to understand and, yes, manipulate that condition.  Even if it isn’t objectively ‘real,’ it tells a very compelling story, of which I would like to be a co-author.

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

May 6, 2008

A millionaire ex-first lady senator from New York called me an elitist the other day.  Hah…

Job Searching

April 28, 2008

Despite previous protestations, I am feeling an unnerving twinge of regret for not attending college one final semester.  My reason?  I’ve accomplished nothing in the past four months. 

I entered the labor force on January 8th, 2008 with the belief that I would soon find employment in one of two quasi-federal agencies: the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors or the Congressional Budget Office.  I had particularly convinced myself of my chances in the latter, and believed at least I would get an interview at the former.  I was wrong.  I heard from no one.

It took me three months to realize I was wrong.  I then applied to the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  I worked for many hours to produce and proofread a five-page, rambling document (per the instructions for government resumes), and submitted them on March 28th.  I’ve yet to hear a word from them.  Government is slow, and I know this, but confidence that I will be contacted by either any time soon is withering. 

Two weeks ago, I visited Steve’s seminar on advanced macroeconomcs, in which I have been more or less participating this semester, only to hear of the job-finding successes of my fellow students, soon to graduate and thereafter do precisely the work I want to do.  My guess is that they were diligent, careful to submit their resumes to many different companies back in January, and unwilling to put their fate in the hands of but a couple potential employers.  They deserve their jobs, and I’m glad for them, but the news of their success was very unsettling for me.  Admittedly I was mistaken to apply for so few jobs and rest on what I (apparently foolishly) believed were my laurels, but maybe I wrote my resume wrong, or my cover letter was banal, or perhaps I was too arrogant in either document (of this latter possibility I am now quite assured). 

In any event, see me now searching Monster.com for jobs in economics research, data analysis, anything entry-level, all of which were posted a month or more ago.  I nonetheless must apply to these positions, customizing cover letters for each, hoping that there is one interesting job left out there.  This is unsettling, certainly humbling, perhaps a little humiliating, and made worse by the fact that it is entirely my fault for being so self-assured.  But, of course, knowing that doesn’t make the process any easier from here.      

 

First job out of college: Tutor?

March 3, 2008

A couple weeks ago, the need for money began to outweigh the desire to do nothing but either be lazy or work on my resume.  After a lot of thought, however, I was quite positive I did not want some run-of-the-mill clerk or retail position at the local big box store or Starbucks.  What’s a poor graduate to do?

Craig’s List offered an answer: Tutoring.  The pay level was quite enticing (base of $30/hr), which meant I could work 4 or 5 hours a week and make the equivalent of a part time position with, say, Best Buy.  I submitted my information and received a call back a week later from a woman who runs a local service.  Would I be interested in tutoring mathematics? Sure! 

I show up to my first session with a junior at a local high school who has had trouble in her Algebra II/Trig class.  “Algebra II/Trig?” I thought, “No problem!”  When she pulls out the book and shows me her old tests, my stomach hit the floor.  “I don’t remember any of this,” I thought to myself.  I managed to make it through the first session without letting on that she probably knew what she was doing better than I did, and I have since spent approximately 10 hours over the past two weeks teaching myself Algebra II/Trig out of a textbook I got at the local public library.  Divide $45, the amount I make over a week’s time with her, by the number of hours I’ve spent studying for our sessions (about five a week).  Now I’m down to $9/hr.  Not as impressive.

Now I’ve been asked to start working with a middle aged, Hispanic man who wants to get his GED.  He’s a pretty successful, experienced mechanic but he wants to get out of the industry, and the first step on that road is to get his GED.  But while he speaks English fluently (he’s been in the country for at least 25 years), and while he can read technical manuals with little trouble, any other sort of expository writing or reading flusters him.  And of course, he must also learn basic history, science, and social studies.  How do you teach someone all that they were supposed to learn in high school?

I really want to do well; I want my students to do well.  But this is different than the tutoring I did in the basement of Monroe the night before the big macro or development exam.  I was willing to spend as long as my friends and acquaitances needed in clarifying material, but if they didn’t do well I never felt like there was any skin off my back.  Now I find myself anxiously waiting to hear from my Algebra student how she performed on her various quizzes  and tests on logarithms and exponential functions.  Not just for my sake (for clearly I must produce results to keep my job), but also for her sake (because I want her to do well, regardless). 

Lacking the training and the organization that I would think qualifies someone as a tutor, I’m beginning to wonder if this is such a good idea.  These people are counting on me to help them in some way.  What if I can’t? What if I don’t know how?  And even if I was willing to put in the 15 or 20 hours a week that would be required to find new methods of teaching these people that meets their style, doesn’t it cease to be worth it at some point?  I mean, that’s like $6/hr, at most. 

I have to decide soon.  If I stay in this, I’ve got to commit to the middle of June and, just like in college, I’ll have to go balls to the wall and do everything I can to perform well in the capacity for which I’ve been hired.  I don’t know how to half ass something like this, and I wouldn’t want to even if I did. 

If anyone has any advice or bits of wisdom, I’d love to hear it.

“Has it hit you yet?”

January 24, 2008

I get asked this question once or twice a week now that I’ve graduated. 

I’m not sure which is the most correct answer:  No, Not Yet, or I Don’t Think It Ever Will

I’m a lifelong learner.  Even as I look for jobs, I’m far more interested in what I will learn in my new position than how I can advance the goals of whatever organization eventually employs me.  That’s one of the reason why I’m even considering applying to the Heritage Foundation, even though I rarely agree with what comes out of it.  I find it fascinating to be surrounded by people with different perspectives and experiences than mine.

See, I wanted to finish college, but I didn’t want to finish attending classes; I’m even participating for no credit in the advanced macroeconomics seminar that Steve is teaching.  (You can find my blog for that class, including a great discussion between myself and another philosophy/economics major on the idea of neoclassical economics, here.)  I was just sick of the bureaucracy, and a few other little things, as I discussed in a previous post

I am enjoying the time off, however.  I’m spending perhaps a little too much time playing World of Warcraft with my brother, who will be leaving for Austria for the semester on February 22nd.  I can’t justify it – it is a monumental waste of time and it probably take me away from more important matters (like getting a job) – but it is relaxing and fun and, believe it or not, probably restored my relationship with my younger brother.  But the family, and my brother in particular, is low on cash right now, so he and I have decided to do some temp labor.  For those of you have had the displeasure of taking that route to get some money, you know that there really is nothing else quite like getting up at 4:30am to go sit in a cold warehouse with some of the most disenfranchised members of our society in the hopes that you will get work for maybe $7.25/hr. 

Guess I should start working a little harder to find a job. 

Talkin’ ’bout my generation

January 13, 2008

It has been a while since my last post, but there will be no updates here.  I have been moved from my blogging slumber by two recent posts – one at Pedablogy and the other at Loaded Learning – concerning “my” generation.  I’m not sure I want to defend my generation from what I think are undue conclusions as I want to remind previous generations that they, too, are and were quite imperfect, and that in some ways those imperfections are far more insidious than our own (I hope you’ll pardon my tone, but I suppose you might say I feel a bit offended). 

Because really, inter-generational comparisons are little more than nostalgic, romanticized versions of what it was like “back in the day.”  By Steve’s reckoning,

My generation believes that if we work hard, learn much, and save, we will be economically successful. And we largely have been, as illustrated by the wealth of the baby boomers.

The younger generation seems to believe that they will be economically successful, whether or not they work hard, learn or save. And as a consequence, they don’t seem to be doing those critical activities very much.

Let’s take the first quote.  “My generation” includes a lot of people.  The sentence implies that if one (in Steve’s day) fails to meet one of three conditions (work hard, learn much, save), then one will not be economically successful.  To this I would add the conditions “white” and “male,” since by and large the older generation was far more prone to reinforce race and gender inequalities that prevented most minorities from really experiencing any great deal of success.  Women, of course, are more successful now, but largely as a result of their own work in the 1970’s and 80’s.  Blacks, I suppose, are not being lynched anymore, and they managed to get themselves the rights promised them decades prior, and we can agree that’s a good thing. Of course, when they were being lynched and denied the right to vote, it was by people who espoused the work hard/learn much/save more mantra of the baby boomers and their parents.  Point being, my parents generation was successful conditional upon being born with a particular color of skin and structure of genitalia, and probably a number of other things besides work ethic and education.

With respect to the second quote, I simply don’t agree.  Yes, as students only one or two years out of high school, we are certainly spoiled and unaware of the world around us.  But worry not, we will soon be thrust into reality and become painfully aware of what it will require of us.  For those members of my generation who didn’t go to college, I  seriously doubt that they think they will be successful regardless of how hard they work, how much they learn, or how much they save; rather, they probably think that they will only be successful if they do those three things, or that they will never be successful regardless of whether or not they fulfill those three qualities.  The black members of my generation, especially those in college, are probably thinking “even if I do work hard, learn much, and save, it might not matter; but I’m going to do it anyway.”  Of course, then there are those single mothers in my generation who have no hope because society has abandoned them (a society, by the way, run not by my generation, but by my parents’ generation). 

So my point is twofold.  First, making generalizations about generations is a bad idea, no matter how it is caveatted.  Talk about spoiled white middle class college students all you want (I know I do), but that’s where such commentary should end.  Second, if you don’t like what you see in the world around you or what it portends for the future, and if you’re a baby boomer, then for the love of God please understand that you are the one with the power to change it.  Your generation runs everything.  If you don’t like what you see, then change it.  My generation may be young and passionate and idealistic, but we don’t have the power – yours does.  It is your divisions that you think are sending this country straight to hell. It is your fear and your hate and your arguments that perpetuate war, and inequality, and apathy.  You run everything, or at least some of you do, and you’re the ones who are teaching us how to run it. 

So if you promise to try and fix it, I will be at your side.  But don’t blame me and my friends and peers.  It’s not our fault…

…at least, not yet.

Music in my life

December 12, 2007

From about the ages of 12 to 18, I played French Horn in middle and high school with occasional forays into trumpet for Jazz Band.  When you play classical music long enough, you develop a special affection for a select set of pieces.  For me, there are two pieces (one that I played, one that I have only heard played by other sypmohnies) that really stand out.

The one that I’ve played is the fourth movement from Antonin Dvorak’s 9th symphony, a.k.a. the New World Symphony.  The song begins and ends in glorious fanfare of arpeggiating low-end brass (the beginning prominently features the french horn [I played the solo in middle school!]).  My band instructor later gave me a CD of a recording of the entire symphony, including an unabridged version of the fourth movement, and also a recording of Dvorak’s 8th.  I would listen to both all the time and really came to cherish that music. (You can find fairly decent recordings of both here.  They are noticeable flaws, though.)

The song that I’ve heard several times but never played is called “One-Winged Angel” by Nobuo Uematsu.  Uematsu is actually a paragon of video game music; his compositions won him fame in the early nineties for his work in the hugely successful Final Fantasy series.  As the technology improved and video games moved to CD, so Uematsu was able to write longer pieces for inclusion the Final Fantasy video game series, beginning with Final Fantasy VII for the Sony Playstation.  The climax of this game (“the last boss fight” in video game parlance) is accompanied by a fierce work (OWA) that, even when rendered in MIDI, is quite gripping.  One-Winged Angel was later rearranged for symphonic orchestra with choral parts.  Rendered this way, OWA is, in my humble opinion, a modern masterpiece.  (I haven’t been able to find a recording of OWA, but there are several YouTube videos of live performances of it.  Here’s one.)

I respond viscerally to both of these pieces when I hear them.  I get chills and goosebumps.  They stand their own as truly fantastic classical pieces, well worth a listen for anyone with an appreciation for excellent classical music. 

Incidentally, video game music is becoming a premier new forum for classical composition.  My brother and I attended a concert of orchestral arrangments video game music at Wolf Trap in Fairfax, Virginia about a year ago.  They played OWA, as well as themes from The Legend of Zelda, Mario Brothers, World of Warcraft, Sonic the Hedgehog, and several others.  Lest we demonize the video game too much (and it does have its negative aspects), no player will go long without being exposed to some truly exquisite compositions.

Mathematics in Economics

November 17, 2007

I am entirely too impressed with myself at the moment. 

I have been working since this morning on trying to tease out a model from my various notes and ramblings on corruption, the topic of my economics thesis. Suffice to say that I spent a good portion of my time standing in front of a whiteboard jotting down equations, solving for n, binomially expanding, etc. 

I’ve been told (or is the word warned?) by my professors that mathematics is a tool of economics, but it is not required to do economics.  I buy that; however, had I not my knowledge of mathematics and the ability to apply it to economics, I would find it extremely difficult to formalize what would otherwise be a model weaved together by notions that often escape the notice or care of economists.  Economics has a language, and mathematics is a very important part of that lexicon. 

It is much easier for me to go to my professors, or other economists, with a set of descriptive equations, point at n, and say “That’s the state-civil society dissonance factor.  That’s what we need to find a way to measure.”  I am capable of weaving an analytic story, but why say with 1000 words what you can illustrate with a couple equations? 

Mathematics may only be a tool in economics, but more and more I find it to be an absolutely essential and integral tool for understanding and expanding on my field.