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More on Grad School

May 29, 2014 in Economics

By Peter G. Klein


I appreciate Walter’s useful advice on surviving graduate school as an Austrian economist or libertarian or both. (I’ve also discussed graduate school strategies, and more general career issues, at Mises University; here is a talk from 2010.) I do have one disagreement, however. Walter writes: “Don’t take any part time jobs; don’t be anyone’s research assistant. Don’t be a teaching assistant. Don’t teach any courses. Just study to pass your courses with the best marks possible, and pass your oral or comprehensive exams.”

There are two problems with this. First, it is difficult to get a tenure-track position at a college or university without any teaching experience. I agree with Walter that grad students should not do a lot of teaching, either as primary instructors or teaching assistants, because this interferes with the dissertation. But having some teaching experience, and good student evaluations, can help on the job market.

Second, working as a professor’s research assistant usually leads to a better dissertation. Academic research is difficult and, like other skilled crafts, is often best learned through an apprenticeship model. You cannot learn how to be a good researcher just by listening to lectures and reading articles and books. You learn from experience. By working with a professor — hopefully on an article — you see how the sausage is made. You learn to formulate research questions, to evaluate existing literature, to collect and analyze data if appropriate, to write up results, and to deal with journal editors and reviewers. Moreover, students who don’t already have a dissertation topic can often find one as a spin-off of a professor’s existing project. Of course, grunt work — e.g., entering data into a spreadsheet — should be avoided if possible. But assisting a more experienced researcher is usually the best way to learn the craft.

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