La crisis de mitad de carrera

Hace 10 años, un grupo de estudiantes me buscaron para decirme que querían salirse del CIDE por varias razones. Platicamos largo rato y, al día siguiente, les escribí algunas líneas sobre “la crisis de mitad de carrera”. Esta es una versión revisada de aquellas notas. Se las paso al costo por si a alguien le sirven (estudie o no en el CIDE). Aquí encontrarán otras entradas con consejos académicos de distinta índole.

 “¿Por qué nos hacen sufrir tanto en la licenciatura?”

No sé (yo no estuve allí cuando se tramó el complot), pero veo varias razones claras:

  1. El rezago en la calidad de la educación media y superior en México es de miedo.
  2. El rezago en la calidad de las ciencias sociales en México es de pavor.
  3. Para cambiar las cosas, alguien tiene que esforzarse más que la generación previa.

Continue reading

Tips for writing research proposals

Acabo de toparme con estos “tips para hacer propuestas de investigación” que escribí en mayo de 2006 para mis alumnos de economía política. Son notas al vuelo de una desvelada pero creo que publicarlos en el blog es un mejor lugar que tenerlos perdidos en mi disco duro.


I. Substance. 

Some questions your proposals need to answer one way or another:

  • Why is it important to study this broad phenomenon?
  • Why focusing in your particular proxy (Municipios/Reformas/Controversias/Fallos?
    Justify your dependent variable.
  • Why Mexico/states/muncipios/corte/congreso? What is so special about the Mexican case? Why this sample period?
    Justify your case/sample/period selection.
  • What are the limitations of the current lit focusing on this or similar issues?
    Identify an opportunity area for research
  • What is the main question or questions you are trying to answer?
    Identify your hypothesis.
  • What does your project contribute?  How does it expand the lit?
    Identify your contribution (be ambitious but feasible here). Continue reading

Random presentation tips

Every time I attend the MPSA / APSA conferences I am surprised by the level of scholarship discussed here. On other hand, the variance in the quality of the presentations themselves is equally surprising. Here are some random tips on both substance and format:

  1. Do not  spend more than 2 slides or 3 minutes with your introductory / motivation / lit review slides. Your audience is specialized and they do not need you to repeat what “they already know”–they want to hear your empirical or theoretical contribution.  With only 15 minutes to deliver, why not cut to the chase? If a slide titled “My argument” or “my hypotheses” comes until minute 6 or so, it’s already too late: you probably lost my attention by making me think on everybody else’s findings.
  2. For empirical papers, it’s better to start asap with your main hypotheses, perhaps discussing the extant literature around your specific research question. You can also mix the explanation of your data with some lit review (Y, X and Z variables matter because AA and BB say so, or X was relevant for sample period M but not for N).
  3. For reasons that escape me, empirical papers avoid talking about summary statistics or data sources. How am I supposed to interpret your point estimates or marginal effects over  a baseline I am not aware of? Again, discussing summary stats is a great way of combining lit review with that great dataset of yours.  Continue reading

Dixit (non) system of work

This is Avinash Dixit advice on keeping research simple and papers short:

“Over the last two decades the average length of economics papers has increased quite a lot. Advances in word-processing technology have greatly reduced the cost of producing words, but not the cost of producing ideas, with the result economists should expect — massive substitution.

My ideal is neatly captured in a question Frank Hahn posed to an author. As an editor of the Review of Economic Studies, Hahn asked the author to cut down his paper from 40 pages to its essential core of three pages. When the author wrote a long and indignant letter, Hahn responded in two sentences: “Crick and Watson described the structure of DNA in three pages. Kindly explain why your idea deserves more space.”
I have saved for the end the most important lesson I have learned from my experience, and which I believe has very general validity. Maintain a youthful sense of freedom to choose problems and the directions of work on them. Imagine yourself at twenty-three, not yet labeled or confined to a particular “field,” and not yet pressured to produce something quickly for the approaching tenure review. Try to preserve this mental frame in your research, even as your body, and the part of your mind dealing with other matters, continue to age and decay. 

Unfortunately, in the US most academics do not regain this freedom until they are thirty-five, by which time it is too late for many of them to be twenty-three. Their research brain is beyond rejuvenation, and it is time for them to leave the research frontier and join the conference circuit or the policy community.”



The secret to wisdom: Strong opinions, weakly held

Some words of wisdom from management-guru Bob Sutton:

“…virtues of wise people – those who have the courage to act on their knowledge, but the humility to doubt what they know – is one of the main themes in Hard Facts. (…) Perhaps the best description I’ve ever seen of how wise people act comes from the amazing folks at Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future.

A couple years ago, I was talking the Institute’s Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.” They’ve been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Instituite Director Paul Saffo. Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of “confirmation bias.”

Here’s a somewhat more elegant variation: “Fierce opinions, briefly held, quietly disowned.”

Just write

David Romer’s Rules for Making It Through Graduate School
and Finishing Your Dissertation


“Out in Five”

  1. Don’t clutter up your life with other activities; just write.
  2. Don’t carry out a thorough and comprehensive search of the literature; just write.
  3. Don’t attempt to make sure that every page you write shows the full extent of your professional skills; just write.
  4. Don’t write a well-organized, well-integrated, unified dissertation; just write.
  5. Don’t think profound thoughts that shake the intellectual foundations of the discipline; just write.
  6. If you don’t have a paper started by the spring of your third year, be alarmed.
  7. If you don’t have a paper largely drafted by the fall of your fourth year, panic.
  8. Have three new ideas a week while you are getting started.
  9. Don’t try to game the profession, work on what interests you.
  10. Good papers in economics have three characteristics:
    • A viewpoint.
    • A lever.
    • A result.
This is a fax to myself.  I first saw this list on my 1st year at grad school.  I was not out in five.  I know on which points from the above list I did well and on which ones I was more lackluster.  (Of course, I won’t reveal it in here because everything you say on the web can be used against you.)

From student to researcher

More words of wisdom from Pete Boettke at my former grad-school
“There are a few rules of thumb that I think might be useful as you transition from being a student to attempting to becoming a researcher: 
  1. Remember that all ideas are brilliant until put down on paper.
  2. Tell us what you know, not what you think — you haven’t earned that right to tell us what you think yet.
  3. If a reader thinks your paper is unclear, by definition it is unclear.
  4. Writing is research, don’t sit and read forever without trying to construct an argument.
  5. Read everything, but don’t do literature reviews.
  6. Concentrate your criticisms on “sins of omission” not on “sins of commission” —- nobody likes writers who only criticize the works of others, you have to pursue opportunities that are being missed and be constructive not merely critical.
  7. Focus your research energies on your passions, pursue truth as you see it with abandon, but also learn to tame your passions and convictions with reason and evidence.
  8. Originality in scholarship is similar to originality in music — you don’t come up with new notes, you simply arrange them in a novel fashion. Don’t expect to discover new concepts in economics, but take concepts and mix them or apply them in novel ways.
  9. As hard as you are currently working, someone is out there working harder and at a higher ranked school — recognize the competition you have entered and learn to compete effectively by pursuing your comparative advantage and out working your competitors.
  10. Try to make sure that you write your ideas down, present them to your professors and peers, and learn to revise your argument. Your ability to improve between drafts of your papers will determine how far you go in this business. The best people have the greatest improvements between drafts. Those who are impervious to comments and don’t revise effectively will have a tough time.  Of course Mozart might have gotten it right on the first take, but few of us ever do. Write, edit, rewrite, write again.  If you are going to be a professional academic economists you are going to be a professional writer and speaker, learn your craft and take pride in it.

Writing Tips for Ph. D. Students

This short paper–from the witty John Cochrane–has lots of good advice on structuring and writing papers, powerpoints and seminars… 
Here’s is some valuable advice on what to avoid when giving a seminar:
Most seminars are a disaster. They start with pointless motivation and policy implications, which the audience can’t follow since we don’t know the result. Then we get a long literature review, which is even more boring since we don’t know the point of this paper much less what everyone else did.
Then we get a results preview. Usually, the presenter says “I’ll preview the results now because I may not have time to get to them all,” a strangely self-fulfilling prophecy. Since showing the main results is the only reason you came, why not just start right now! Worse, the reason we run out of time is because we wasted half an hour on the stupid preview!
The seminar then bogs down as people start asking questions about the previewed results; most of the questions are dumb (“I measure the demand elasticity at 0.3.” “But how did you identify supply shifts?”) since they will be explained in a proper presentation of the results. But the questions are totally reasonable since the claim with no documentation is meaningless.
Next, we get (in empirical papers) some “theory” that is really beside the point and only serves to provoke more needless argument (no, there really is no way to distinguish the “behavioral” and “rational” explanation. Clever audience members will come up with stories that reverse all the signs.)
Then we get some distracting preliminary results and tables and graphs of unrelated observations. More pointless discussion erupts; people don’t know what point the speaker is trying to make and the discussion goes off in to tangents. Finally the speaker sees there is only 10 minutes to go, tells people to be quiet, and the main results go by in a big rush. Everyone is tired and confused and doesn’t follow anything. I timed the finance workshop last winter quarter and not one paper got to the main results in under an hour!