Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Doctoral Curriculum

The first year of an economics PhD program is notorious for its intensity (I'm still surprised I got through it..). At most schools, it is comprised of one-year sequences of microeconomics, macroeconomics, mathematics for economists and statistics/econometrics. A panel at the meetings last weekend in New Orleans revisited it. The Chronicle reports:
Doctoral programs in economics should radically redesign the grueling first-year course work known as "the core," several prominent scholars said on Friday during a panel here at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association.

Many elements of the core were set in stone shortly after World War II, and the courses have not always evolved to make room for emerging fields of study, the scholars said. They also complained that the courses tend to emphasize the abstract manipulation of equations, with little sustained attention given to real-world problems and data.

"The core needs to have a certain element of fun," said Bo E. Honoré, a professor of economics at Princeton University. "I think it's important that students come out of the first year with a sense of excitement about economics and excitement about doing research."

Looking back, I see the first year as a training camp of sorts, and though it wasn't pleasant, and often didn't seem to have much relation to what I thought of as "economics," it was useful in developing skills useful later in graduate school and in research. In particular, the drill of "abstract manipulation of equations" develops a kind of mental muscle memory for working through the problems economists deal with every day. It was hard to see the point at the time - just like Daniel-san did not understand why he was painting Mr. Miyagi's fence - and Honoré has a point about trying to motivate things better. However, we may not want to make the first year "fun" - some dedication and willingness to defer gratification are necessary to be successful, so its not a bad thing if we chase away some of the people who are not really committed.

One issue that came up at the session was the place of macroeconomics:

"It's not clear why macroeconomics is given an entire year in the core," said Susan C. Athey, a professor of economics at Harvard University and the winner of the 2007 John Bates Clark Medal, which is given biennially to a distinguished economist under the age of 40. "I think macro is very important, but it's not clear to me that monetary theory is more important for everyone to learn than, for example, theories about social-entitlement programs or international trade."

Most of the other five panelists agreed with Ms. Athey, though all conceded that macroeconomics has been a source of models and techniques that have shaped the entire discipline.

The task of defending macroeconomics was left to Michael Woodford, a professor of political economy at Columbia University. Mr. Woodford argued that all economists should learn the dynamic-modeling tools that are taught in macroeconomics courses. "A lot of students find that the macro sequence is the hardest part of the core," he said. "That makes me reluctant to believe that we could radically reduce the length of it and people would still get the important parts."

As a macroeconomist (I wasn't at the panel, because I was attending this session about macroeconomics), I hate to concede that Athey has a point, but I think she does. Although modern macroeconomics is grounded in "micro foundations," the reverse is not true. However, Woodford is correct that many of the dynamic tools taught in first-year macroeconomics have broader application, so some of it is ultimately useful to non-macro people.

One thing that is missing from graduate training is a critical perspective about methodology that would come from a sense of how economics has evolved. I was fortunate to have had some exposure to the history of economic thought as an undergraduate, but it rarely appears in graduate programs. It should. It is rather absurd that we "scholars" of economics know so little about our own intellectual history and never read Smith and Keynes. A core course on the subject might help get us to really think about what we're doing. If I were experimenting with revising "the core" I might reduce the macro to one semester and use the open slot for history of economic thought (which is not to be conflated with economic history - a crucial, under-valued field to be sure, but not one that needs to be in the first year).

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