Chris Blattman

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How to pick a research project

Lets start with a first fact: Most of economics is boring. No, I don’t mean this in the way that the public at large means it; on the contrary, I think that economics done well can be beautiful and fascinating. What I mean is that most writing on economics is boring because: (1) It does not address interesting questions; (2) It has nothing new to add that is itself important; or (3) Even if the researcher does in fact have something new and important to say, the researcher does such a poor job of articulating this that the reader has little chance of figuring this out.

An excerpt from Don Davis’ “Ph.D. Thesis Research: Where do I Start?“.

He is a Columbia economics prof. It is short to read and I agree with pretty much everything. It is equally applicable to junior faculty, MA theses, and pretty much any other social science. Read it.

Here he is on “What Makes for a Successful Paper and Seminar?

4 Responses

  1. I do not know Prof. Davis (despite his being at my university) but I am disturbed by the vagueness of his advice. and I’m disturbed by its focus on academic celebrities. I would hope that one’s research would be useful for its own sake, and I’d find Davis’s advice to be a lot more convincing if it were illustrated by a few examples.

  2. Masayuki Kudamatsu, an assistant professor of economics at Stockholm University, provides a series of links to papers (among which Don Davis’ and Chris’ great pieces of writing) that offer very useful tips for economist (but not only), at each stage of their career: how to apply to a PhD program, how to choose a research topic, how to write a paper, how to publish it, how to manage one’s career after tenure, how to survive when becoming a department chair…etc

  3. One minor nuance, which I think I learned from John Roberts: For applied theory, empirics in the form of econometric results are not a great source of ideas. Instead, reading qualitative or narrative works (academic or even just news articles) on your topic is much more likely to lead you to a fresh puzzle or a novel setup that leads you to interesting results.

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