How to get a PhD *and* save the world

‘Tis the season for graduate school applications and associated angst. Several aspiring political scientists and economists have asked me for my thoughts and advice, and I’ve generally started by pointing them to Greg Mankiw’s excellent Advice for Aspiring Economists and Advice for Grad Students.

Mankiw’s advice does not quite cater, however, to those of us that are young, idealistic, and want to pursue PhD research that makes life better for those less fortunate. For those so inclined, I offer the following addenda.

  1. Use graduate school to tech up. You’ll have time to learn how save the world later, when you’re actually in it. Learn all of the theoretical, statistical and other difficult-to-acquire skills you can while in grad school, because you won’t have the time later on. You, your cause, and your job prospects will be well-served by the technical skills you build.
  2. Hang in there. In the first year of any grad program you will encounter a lot of required material that will feel too theoretical, too divorced from social change, and (occasionally) like too much nonsense. Much of it is good for you (see point 1), even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. After a year of metrics and micro theory, I was ready to run to the real world to do what I thought I really wanted to do. The best advice I ever got (from one of my pre-PhD advisers) was, “Shut up and hang in there; by your second to third year you will discover all the people doing interesting applied work soon enough and be free to work on whatever you want by your third year.” He was right.
  3. Take chances. The second best piece of advice I ever received came from my dissertation chair, shortly after my oral examinations committee told me that my prospectus was poorly thought out, uneconomic, and overly risky. They were 100% right, and I benefitted from hearing it (although at the time I was miserable). Where I think they were wrong is that they told me to abandon my plans for risky and expensive field work. They favored the less risky route that could get me to a completed dissertation faster. My chair’s response: “Hey, if you really want to do this, why not? Give it a shot. If it doesn’t pan out after three months, then come back and work on something else. Worst case scenario: you lose a few thousand dollars and a summer, but you have a great experience.” I plan to give the same advice to my students.
  4. But minimize your risks by being prepared. Don’t embark on a big project, especially field work, without a solid hypothesis, research design, and plan. Think through the theory beforehand. Write down your assumptions, your logic, and your econometric regressions before you collect data. Especially write out your regressions. I am still guilty of rushing to the field too quickly, and am continually reminded of the costs.
  5. Look before you leap. If you’re not sure whether you want to be an academic researcher, use your first two summers to work for outside organizations–whether the World Bank, an investment fund, the Fed, or a think tank. Try each on for size. At the end of your fourth or fifth year of grad school do not make one of the biggest decisions of your life (what kind of job do I want?) with oodles of information about one kind (academia) and zero about the alternatives. You don’t have to be an economist to know that such decision-making is sub-optimal.
  6. Your professors are not your only role models. If you are at a strong research university, remember that what your professors do is not necessarily representative of all your post-grad options. They represent maybe 1% of graduates, and they are self-selected to have a particular set of interests, life goals, and measures of success. These are not necessarily bad measures–I share many of them. But incredibly smart and interesting people graduate from economics and political science PhDs every year and go on to amazing and fulfilling careers. You will inevitably begin to take on the interests and priorities of your professors, even if they are the interests and priorities of a selective 1%. If these values don’t suit you in the end, or make you miserable, that’s okay.
  7. Do what you love. You can try to game the system and do something that’s hot, conventional, or orthodox. But if you don’t love your topic and your research, it is probably not going to be interesting to anyone, let alone you. Plus you’ll be miserable. Did you really work this hard and come this far to be mediocre and unhappy?
  8. Don’t hang your job market hopes on academic positions outside your core discipline. There aren’t nearly as many of them out there as you might think, and they can be hard to get. There are few policy schools, and they seem to have relatively few junior openings. Public health and other professional schools have limited needs for social scientists, and their job market system is a bit opaque. If these positions suit your interests, shoot for them by all means. But your main market will be your core discipline, so keep this in mind when you write up your dissertation, letters, and applications. For the same reason, you should be cautious about entering interdisciplinary PhD programs.
  9. Be wary of big field projects. A number of leading academics (and more than a few grad students) are working on large field projects with governments, international institutions, and NGOs. Be aware that these projects–nationwide surveys, program evaluations, and the like–have limitations: they seldom implement on schedule; the research designs are not always as clean as what you drew on paper on Day One; and the implementing organization’s interests and priorities are often different (and probably more important for more people) than your own.
  10. Don’t ask, don’t tell? Here I hesitate. If you are undecided about a career in academic research, my gut (unfortunately) tells me that you shouldn’t advertise this fact to your department until you are certain. My main rationale: some (but not all) academics will be quick to write you off as ‘not serious’, and should you change your mind later in your PhD you may find that ‘credibility’ difficult to reclaim. Certainly you should be candid with your committee about any interest in or openness to non-academic careers. They will have much advice and experience to offer. But don’t declare your intent to follow other paths if you are interested in keeping the academic route open.

All of the above represent one (new and unwise) academic’s point of view, so I urge caution in taking the above advice. I urge more strongly, however, feedback and commentary. I would like nothing more than to develop a resource of ideas and opinions for idealistic young grad students to build rather than temper their abilities and enthusiasm. So comments invited.

36 thoughts on “How to get a PhD *and* save the world

  1. 40+, teaching adjunct while raising kids. Marriage to military officers + 3 kids pulled me away from Fed and future pursuit of PhD. No geographic stability. What do I do in the 4 years while waiting to be geographically stable in order to pursue PhD. Feel like I’m waiting and wasting time in that respect.

  2. Hi there. I just found your blog (followed it from a post about reintegration in Uganda), and love it. I’m 22, just finishing my Undergrad work this semester, and seeing people like yourself pop up in the world make me incredibly optimistic.

    I was planning on applying to phd programs in poli-sci (yale, stanford as top choices), but really realized that I wasn’t being honest to myself with my research interests and career aspirations. Last spring I was a research assistant for a DDR project for the Swedish Foreign Ministry, and really realized quickly that I cannot possibly become more perceptive and intelligent without getting real experience.

    So no grad school yet for me! Going to try and get to Rwanda, maybe Uganda. Then get some NGO experience to help me really define my research interests and get the best out of a phd program.

    look forward to seeing where your work ends up and Thanks for this encouraging advice comment!

    ps. looks like yales poli-sci dept leaves more room for grad students to be honest about outside academia careers.

  3. I’m not working towards a PhD, but at age 26, I am working on the project that I think is my best opportunity to help the world, a project I left the hedge fund world to pursue.
    In the US, individual donors give around $250 billion per year to charity (more than 100x what the Gates Foundation gives and 6x all foundations combined), but individuals currently have no way of finding effective non-profits. By effective, I mean those that are significantly improving the lives of the people they help.
    The only information easily available to donors is the “expense ratio” – the portion of a charity’s budget that goes to “programs” as opposed to “overhead.” No one would judge a business that way – businesses spend money on all sorts of valuable things that would be considered “overhead”: great people, technology infrastucture and monitoring systems.
    To fill this void, a colleague and I started GiveWell, the world’s first public exploration of what charities do and whether it works.
    What do you think?

  4. I’m a master student in the Netherlands on two disciplines, one is in engineering, the other is in philosophy of science (with emphasis on developing context). What I am generally missing on the Internet is an overview of anything you can do which is of value to transfer to the developing world: experiences in specific fields of research, specific industries, or specific services, and transferable skills and experiences in general. In other words, a selection of information that can be used to create a personal development strategy for the world-changer to be. Do you think there’s an opportunity for a contribution here, too?

  5. I meant, so you do read Greg M’s blog, so what do you think of it, particularly the left/right link?

  6. Chris,

    Thanks for the advice. I’m a 27yo grad student about to embark on a phd in economics. (Found your blog from Dani Rodrick’s)

    I sense your advice is quite good. I would like to add one piece. You really need to find a supervisor who is well placed in the area you want to move to, whatever it is.

    As you pointed out, the job market is very opaque. Relationships are everything and formal application processes non-existent. I think the phd has to be your method of getting one foot through the door to the job you want later. If you can’t see how that will happen, you may have troubles at the end.

  7. Chris, thanks for this and your comments on the ID program. I think this best describes how to get through a PhD program “do[ing] what you love,” but you don’t talk about how to save the world! Are there economists doing that ;)?!

  8. Nice post. Really liked it..
    Don’t forget to update it regularly.
    I am looking for new updates dieing to read more stuff from you ..
    ——————————-

    JOB-HUNT
    Aims at helping the Fresh Graduates, Engineers, MBAs to get jobs in good companies
    http://jobgame.blogspot.com

  9. I appreciate the entry. I’m 28 and just starting a Ph.D. in the fall. I have a pretty diverse work / CV background in counseling, healthcare, and community research. At this point, I think it’s perfectly okay to have a ton of good ideas. Some will solidify; others won’t. I’m not dead-set on anything just yet, and I imagine it’s okay. I would like to work for a think tank or a Pew Trust doing research, but I’m not closed to any opportunities right now. Good to hear someone survive all of this craziness.

  10. I’m kicking off my own PhD this fall. Used to be crazy about economic development in developing nations (like mine)and actually got into a pretty good program…I’ve been thinking for the longest while that it’s all just talk for the sake of talk and advancing people’s academic careers, and people in my country are actually very cynical of “development” and I have become so myself…
    Now I realize that we will “develop” like everyone else did-with active, flourishing businesses.

    PhD Finance for me!!!!!!!!!!

  11. I loved the post but also agree with amanda. I would like to know what economists are doing to change our world. What are we doing to lessen the gap between the “haves and the have nots.”

  12. All university degrees have been devalued over the years. Roughly speaking, today’s doctorate is yesterday’s master’s degree. If you are serious about any career, understand that your education should continue for the rest of your life.

    The principal functions of a PhD program are to learn how to do research, write intelligent papers, and, most importantly, how to continue learning on your own.

  13. Hi Chris. I am a PhD Engineer, age 30, and my only experiences are in the lab and as a writer…and spending my childhood years in South America. I’ve been trying for years, to no avail, to get a job at the World Bank and other international development agencies. Without any “field” experience, is there any hope for me?

  14. Just getting into one of these programs (phd) is so hard even if you have impeccable cv you are still playing lottery

  15. I just stumbled on this article by mistake but its title caught my attention; I said to my friend the other day, “Jenna, I just want to save the world.” I didn’t have to tell her as she essentially already knew this about me. “I just don’t know how to do it. I hope I’m headed down the right direction.” Right now I’m in the accelerate Doctorate of Physical Therapy at BU and I enjoy the material (alhtough, I think I would really enjoy anything I threw myself into.) I spent my last semester interning at the WHO headquarters in Geneva which was a worthwhile experience although I did not feel like I was saving the world… at all.
    So, perhaps you can help me because I don’t know where else to go for the actions steps I need.
    Let’s say I get in some field work and attain my Ph.D. Then what? How do I make it happen? You see where the gap is in my plan.
    This is what I have so far:
    1. Figure out how to save the world
    2. Go do it
    … Still working on it =/

  16. Dear Prof Blattman, Iam Kyaligonza Robert a 50 year old Ugandan student at Makerere University in Uganda in Afrivcaand Iam pursuing a PhD in Educational Management Planning and Admnistration. I finished the theory papers with GPA of 4.11 and I have written my research dissertation but I cant raise the big sum of money for examination. Can you locate me a university in this world where I can transfer my Credit Units and dissertation at a cheaper fee and I graduate? Thanks. Iam ROBERT.

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  22. Hello Chris

    Really like reading your blogs and much of what you have to say makes a lot of sense.

    For those who are already working in International Development at what point does it make sense to go back to grad school? If you already have a Master’s degree in a non-related field, do you go back for an MPA/MPP/MPPPA? Or should they just stay in the field and maybe think of taking on a PhD further down the line?

    Your thoughts on this would be really appreciated.

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  25. Hello! I love this blog.

    I am at a difficult decision.

    I am 28 years old, and got accepted into the Brown Sociology PhD program with full funding, excellent advisors, etc.

    I currently work for the government in Hawaii and if I wait one more year in my current job, I will be “vested” into the pension system and get a government pension when I retire.

    I am so excited about the PhD that I do not want to defer. (Brown allows you to defer for a year). But I wonder if I should wait for financial reasons (plus, I earn close to a six figure salary in my current job which doesn’t hurt building my savings).

    If I wait a year, I will start the program when I am about to turn 30.

    Not sure if that is too old?!

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