Should I go to grad school? I’ve benefited enormously from great advice from friends and mentors like Pete Boettke, Tyler Cowen, Deirdre McCloskey, Mike Munger, John Nye, and many others (here, for example, is the indispensable IHS publication Scaling the Ivory Tower, to which I still refer periodically). If I could go back in time and give four pieces of advice to my collegiate self, I would recommend the following:
- Start Writing Immediately. Value your time correctly: don’t look at average grad student stipends or wages from a work-study job. Look at the average salaries of full professors in your field, and apply a discount rate close to zero. That’s the value of your time (corollary: therefore, you should drop most of your extracurricular activities because your time is so valuable). I aim for 750 words per day. A lot of that ends up on the cutting room floor or otherwise deleted, so don’t feel bad if you don’t like what you’re churning out. According to 1986 Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, “writing is research.” According to George Mason University’s Richard Wagner, “thinking without writing is daydreaming.” Get your ideas on paper, and develop the habit of writing regularly. Don’t wait for God or Paul Samuelson to appear to you in a dream and tell you what to write. If you think it’s interesting, write about it.
- Work Your Way Through Intermediate Textbooks. Price theory—intermediate microeconomics—is the core of the economic way of thinking. Intermediate macroeconomics books cover the workhorse ideas in macro, though there is markedly less agreement about the relevant models and important topics in macroeconomics. Even if you’ve already taken these classes, there was almost certainly something in them you didn’t cover or truly master. If the problems stump you, see if you can find an instructor’s manual for an old edition on Amazon or something like that. This is also a very good exercise in learning how to ask research questions: see if you can take some of the problems, tweak them a bit, and apply them to different contexts.
- Study Math. This is stock advice for people interested in economics as ours is a wickedly technical discipline. Beyond the fact that math is a barrier to entry (it is) and a useful tool, I recall something Roger Garrison—who studied engineering as an undergraduate—told me when I was a grad student: math disciplines your thinking. Studying math will train you in habits of mind even if you do research that doesn’t require a lot of econometrics or mathematical modeling.
Finally, here’s a bonus piece of advice for myself, today, right now, as I was recently offered tenure and promotion: never stop doing this. When you do stop, start again.