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December 2017 Newsletter

The Economics Ph.D. Program: Training the Next Generation of Research Economists

Katherine HarrisAlyssa Carlson

Ph.D. Students Katherine Harris and Alyssa Carlson:
Winners of the 2017 Excellence-in-Teaching Citation

The mission of MSU’s economics Ph.D. program has changed little over the years: training future economists, the people who can do original economic research and teach economics at a high level. Also, the Ph.D. program plays an essential role in the department’s undergraduate teaching mission, as Ph.D. students serve as teaching assistants in and occasionally lead instructors of undergraduate classes.  However, the competitive environment that our doctoral students face when looking for their first jobs has been changing in recent years, and so too have been the teaching demands placed on the department. The department has responded to this by introducing some important new features into the Ph.D. program, with the goals of better preparing our doctoral students for careers in teaching and research while more effectively integrating them into our undergraduate teaching effort.

The most significant changes to the program have been made in response to what we see as a worrisome trend in graduate education in economics: the time it takes the typical economics graduate student in the US to complete a Ph.D. has been steadily increasing. While 25 years ago, the typical Ph.D. student spent four years earning his or her degree, today the modal Ph.D. student takes six years. An extra year spent in graduate school is costly for the student, both in terms of the direct cost of tuition and in terms of the opportunity cost of delaying for a year the start of his or her career in a well-paying academic or other position. Any benefit from spending extra time in graduate school would come in the form of additional training, which may lead to a better job placement after graduation.

We have sought to make changes in our graduate program so that students will receive more effective training without having to spend additional time as a graduate student, and will be ready to compete in the job market with students from other institutions who might have more years of graduate training. One such change has been to alter the second year of the Ph.D. program so that it is more focused on preparing the student to become a researcher. Students now begin in their second year to work with faculty advisors to choose which classes best fit their professional goals and to help them commence individual research projects.  As part of this shift towards emphasizing research, we have also eliminated “field exams” that were traditionally taken at the end of the second year.  With these changes, we now have many students ending their second year with substantial research projects in progress, which will eventuate in a scholarly paper to be presented in their third year to fellow students and faculty members.

Perhaps the most important component of our effort to increase value of the time our graduate students spend at MSU is a new program of summer grants. The standard stipends provided by MSU to graduate students cover only 9 months, leaving students with a three month gap in financial support that may require them to divert their attention from working on their degrees. Now, thanks to the generosity of donors including Bob and Meri Goodman, David Kelly, Paul and Elizabeth Strassmann, Terry Holt, John Lonski, and contributors to the Bob Rasche Memorial Fund, we provide summer grants to doctoral students who are making good progress on their degrees; last summer almost $200,000 was devoted to these grants. The students who receive the grants are assigned to an activity such as working alongside faculty member on a research project, teaching a summer school class, or working on their own research project. Since most of them will be taking jobs after graduation that require research and/or teaching, the grants not only help them complete their degrees more quickly but also further prepare them for their eventual careers. 

As mentioned above, our graduate students play an important role in the department’s undergraduate teaching effort, a role that has only become more important as the size of the economics major has grown much faster than the size of the faculty. The department has always worked hard to insure quality teaching in all economics courses, which means being careful in the use of graduate students in the teaching process. The summer grants are one part of our plan for maintaining this commitment to teaching quality while necessarily expanding the use of graduate students as teachers. Summer teaching in small sections or on-line courses has become a first step in training second and third year graduate students to become better teachers, and in identifying graduate students with exceptional potential as teachers who can then be given their own classes to teach during regular semesters. Finally, to recognize the substantial time and efforts our graduate students devote to teaching, we have created a Department of Economics Excellence-in-Teaching Citation. In 2017, we recognized two such graduate students, Katherine Harris and Alyssa Carlson.  This citation was accompanied by a modest financial stipend.

What’s next?  While we believe we are moving in the right direction, more remains to be done.  The economics job market is becoming increasingly competitive, and we need to insure our students are adequately prepared to reach their goals, which in many cases means teaching thousands of undergraduate students over the course of their career.  Towards this end, we are exploring ways to establish additional pre-doctoral and post-doctoral research and teaching opportunities to be sure our graduate students have the training they need to succeed.   

Our Ph.D. students continue to find positions upon graduation in colleges and universities around the world, as well as in government agencies and the private sector. (A summary of recent placements for our Ph.D. students can be found at http://www.econ.msu.edu/people/market_placement.php).  Their success in this respect is a signal of the effectiveness of our efforts to improve our graduate program.

 

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Michigan State University Department of Economics