I am following the advice of Aaron Gertler and writing a post about my job. 80000 hours has independent career path pages dedicated to getting an economics PhD and doing academic research, but the specifics of my personal experience may be of interest. Plus, it was fun to recount!
Summary of Current Role
- Tenure track professor of economics (since 2019) at large state school in the US (University of Oklahoma; Boomer Sooner!)
- Its not MIT, but I have very bright and active colleagues. Some of you may even know of Joan Hamory of deworming fame.
- I research macroeconomic topics, primarily questions that are, at least loosely, within Global Priorities Research (GPR).
- This focus has lead to frequent engagement with the Global Priorities Institute as well as some folks at Open Philanthropy (though the latter has been very limited and informal so far).
My Background and Path to Applying
- Went to a not-very-prestigious, but large, research university (Temple University; Go Owls!)
- In undergrad I couldn't get enough of my math and economics courses and was (probably) the best economics student at my University while I was there. This allowed me a lot of access to faculty.
- Neither parent went to college, so I was lucky that a professor pushed the idea of a PhD. That was not on my radar (nor did I understand it).
- I also enjoyed researching my honors thesis, learning how to write code, and the development economics internship I had in Cape Town. These made me confident a PhD was a good future move.
- My only useful extra curricular was a job tutoring math at the university learning center (this honed my only marketable skill - math - and I now recommend it to my students with mathematical aptitude).
- I then went directly from undergrad to a graduate school ranked ~25 the US (University of Texas at Austin; Hook 'Em!).
- I considered taking a job as a research assistant at a Federal Reserve Bank to improve my grad placement. Ultimately I decided the 2 year life-cost was not worth it. Despite the popularity of that route, I very much continue to think I made a good decision in my case.
- At Texas I worked in the macroeconomics group, but also had a development economics co-advisor. I sat a bit awkwardly between fields.
- In my 3rd year of graduate school I became very interested in more (not-yet-longtermist) EA ideas.
- I figured a job at an international organization would be a good path to impact and ended up landing an internship at the IMF.
- This internship probably only helped a bit towards my current academic life, but I learned a lot, enjoyed it, and can imagine scenarios where this did help land me in an international organization.
Getting my Current Job
There is plenty of advice on navigating the PhD economics job market, so I won't recount my general strategy here.
- If you're an undergrad instead looking for PhD application advice, check out the GPI mentoring program!
Personally, I would have been happy at an academic job or a policy making organization (preferably something like IMF or World Bank). I ended up with offers from (i) my current academic institution and (ii) the Reserve Bank of India in their research department.
The stark difference in these offers fairly represents the tightrope I was trying to walk between (i) showing I could do academic-style research (ii) working on applied policy questions and (iii) starting to get interested in GPR-style topics.
- I honestly feel like I didn't blend these very well; yet somehow I managed to land a job I was happy with. I'd be willing to talk with anyone entering the economics job market in the near future about my thoughts on this challenge.
- Also, I was on the hiring committee at my University this last year, so I now have a clearer understanding of this process.
Details of Current Role
I teach 2 courses and advise ~4 grad students per semester; the rest of my time is academic research.
- My contractual time allocation is 45% research, 45% teaching, 10% departmental service. This is pretty accurate during academic year; the 4 months of winter break + summer are ~100% research time.
- It's hard to describe exactly what day-to-day research entails. Depending on the project it will involve data collection and analysis, writing and running code, reading related papers, calls with co-authors, and lots of writing.
- The most frustrating part of this process is responding to peer-review requests that are less exciting than the core of the project. Depending on your luck, this could take up a non-trivial share of total time spent on a paper.
- Informally I get to do fun things like reading groups with my colleagues, conferences and seminars, lead EA book clubs with ambitious undergrads, be the faculty mentor for our One For the World chapter, etc.
Overall, I love my job. I find all of the supposed perks of academia to be better than I anticipated and all of the drawbacks to be overblown or non-applicable in my job (with one exception detailed below).
- Autonomy: I have control over my time, research agenda, what I teach, etc.
- While it helps to work on mainstream topics to land your first academic job, my department now only cares that I publish.
- For me, this is easier with GPR topics because I become more invested in the work (the inevitable quality boost then offsets the fact that GPR work is less mainstream in economics, IMO).
- While it helps to work on mainstream topics to land your first academic job, my department now only cares that I publish.
- Great Pay & Benefits: US economics professors typically make >$100K and many of these jobs are in low-cost college towns.
- My tastes are affordable so I didn't anticipate this being a major draw, but there are definite psychological benefits that come with amassing a runway.
- Teaching: while I'm basically not evaluated or promoted based on teaching at all, I love it. I teach a course in the honors college and have met some fantastic students. EA is well represented at elite Universities, but the ground is fertile to grow communities at large state schools with many similarly bright students.
- Location Inflexibility: having few choices for where you live is by far the biggest drawback of economics academia. I am lucky to have personal reasons for being happy in Norman, Oklahoma. Should I ever want to move, I anticipate it will be difficult to maintain my current career.
- None of my fellow early-career friends seem to believe they have location flexibility either. Many live away from partners, etc.
- Lack of Directives/General Tenure Pressure: the flip side of extreme autonomy is having correspondingly little structure or direction. After 6 years, I go up for tenure and either get fired or a lifetime contract. Between now and then it can be hard to gauge progress. If you like structure - and goals to navigate towards - this could be very stressful.
- I was also lucky to place in a department that seems about right for my skills, so I do not feel an overwhelming degree of tenure pressure.
Skills I've Built
- Time Management: being a professor (or PhD student) is a lot like being self-employed. I've learned to motivate myself, create mini-deadlines, etc.
- This is a constant work in progress - I still have entire days where I don't focus on what I should be doing - but I've gotten way better.
- Writing/Communication: hours of rewriting academic work has made me much better writer (though be warned: this skill is never taught). Teaching and giving seminars likewise improved my ability to communicate verbally.
- Critical reasoning/economics/some coding/etc: (obviously?) you learn a lot of really awesome stuff and interact with really cool people in academia.
- If you don't think the material is 'really awesome' that's a sign you might not want to pursue a PhD in that field :)
Feel free to reach out to me if you have any follow-up questions, or if you think I could provide you specific advice.
"I've learned to motivate myself, create mini-deadlines, etc. This is a constant work in progress - I still have entire days where I don't focus on what I should be doing - but I've gotten way better."
What do you think has led to this improvement, aside from just time and practice? Favorite tips / tricks / resources?
I'm not sure I have much to add aside from things I saw in your post (e.g., morning working, and other Cal Newport-ish tricks). I've found these to be really great.
One thing I experimented with pre-pandemic, and am about to re-up, is canceling my WiFi. Obviously during the depth of the pandemic when I had to work full time from home I needed it, but I'm actually calling up my provider tomorrow to drop back off. I still had some data on my phone for a quick email and/or internet check , but this entirely eliminated useless scrolling, streaming, etc., at home that don't bring me joy.
I think more people should try this -- maybe I'll write a short post making the case for it.
EDIT: I did write that short post up, if anyone's interested.
What life events happened between when you started and stopped having the feeling you mentioned? 'Walking the tight rope between lots of disciplines, but never fitting into any one'
I often feel like I have my interests fluctuate a lot and value learning many different skills (design, writing, speaking, math, ...). But I'm just 18 and I've never had a real job. So I feel like I'm doing the wrong things and not pursuing anything deep enough. But I hope that the light at the end of the tunnel is that I become good at doing MY niche of things and be good enough at it to create value for others.
That feeling has never completely left me -- I still have varied interests and share your fear that I'm not digging into any single topic deep enough. The thing I've learned is that even if you pick something that feels narrow at the time (economics, for me) there are infinitely many interesting subtopics within that field to keep you interested, excited, and learning. Maybe that helps take some fear out of difficult-to-reverse decisions - like fields of study - if you're worried you may get bored with it. This may not be true for all fields, but there are plenty where it is the case if that's a concern of yours.
Figuring out the most useful skills to build is beyond my expertise, but you should certainly retain the belief that eventually you can and will build skills to create value! (And of course, check out 80000 hours if you haven't).
Could you tell me more about the 'switching subtopics' part? Do you notice that the subtopics are often at a 'similar' sublevel?
For example, I'm interested in learning about the environment, but I can get bored researching just one area. Ex: Plastic pollution. But switching to another area (ex: energy storage) is enough to get me excited again.
But I don't get similar excitement when switching from one sub-aspect of plastic pollution (ex: marine plastic pollution) to another sub-aspect (ex: waste infrastructure in developing countries). It's like moving between nodes one layer deep into environmental issues excites me, but two layers deep doesn't. Has that been similar or different for you with your greater years of experience? :-)
I agree there is something more exciting about diving into a whole new field, since the fruit become low-hanging again and progress is faster. I guess what I meant is specific to economics, or other fields that give you 'thinking tools'; I underestimated how narrowing in on specific questions/fields teaches you how to learn, such that you can bounce to new disciplines and learn a lot much faster. Maybe another way to say that is that my focusing in on very particular subtopics was more temporary than I forecasted, but necessary for skill building.
It sounds like you still had to slog through the drudgery at times, but the drudgery didn't last very long after you'd mastered the skills? And that's because mastering the skills let you quickly iterate and hop to new ideas?
I think I've experience drudgery on the end of projects, when I feel like I've learned what I would like to about a sub-topic, but I still need to formalize everything in exacting detail for something like an academic publication. Hopping between and/or starting new projects -- even within the same sub-discipline -- is not boring for me.
However, things are probably different when you're near the frontier of a sub-discipline and the research you're working on is generating new knowledge, rather than reading lots of what others have done. It's definitely more exciting. Admittedly, it takes a lot of hard work to get to that point in any field, but I've found it very worthwhile.
Thank you for the context :-) I really appreciate you taking the time to share your perspective here!