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How to do college right, whether you should go to grad school, where, and how to get in - Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman

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How to do college right, whether you should go to grad school, where, and how to get in


It’s that time of year. Kids are starting college. Near graduates, terrified by the job market, are wondering whether they can just stay on for an MA. People who have been working for a few years have become wistful about going back for grad school. And many indulge dreams of starting a PhD.

Let’s start at the beginning, with 10 things not enough kids know about college, my post at Vox. There I tell you why you should to learn how write well, choose courses based on teachers not topics, and do more technical classes. But my most controversial point is don’t spend too much time on languages:

Languages are hugely important. And you should learn another (or many others) besides English. But I think they’re better learned in immersion, during your summers or before and after college. Maybe take an introductory course or two at university to get you started, or an advanced course or two to solidify what you already know, but only that.

Statistics are not more important than languages. But the opportunity cost of skipping a statistics course is high because it’s hard to find ways to learn statistics outside the university. Remember you only get 30 or 40 courses at university. There are a dozen other times and places you can learn a language. Arguably they’re better places to learn it too.

Related is how much economics should you study in college?

For people interested in professional careers in policy, I’ve recently updated this post on how to choose between Master’s programs. One of my favorite bits is this:

in the US I would be cautious with simple MA programs in political science and economics. These are usually money-making programs for the school and core faculty are seldom involved. There are exceptions, but I don’t know what ones are good or not. Since I’ve spent years teaching and on admissions committees at many good schools, that alone should tell you something about these MA programs.

Last, there are doctorates. I recently updated my PhD advice: Should you do a PhD, where, in what, and how to get admitted to a top school? Note this is mainly useful for people in my fields. Also, why you shouldn’t do field experiments for you dissertation.

I’m helping run admissions to the Chicago Harris PhD in Public Policy this year, so you will hear more from me on that. If you are interested in political economy of development, we aim to be the best. You can see some of the amazing action and people here. And we are recruiting some freaking amazing people right now. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, one of the weirdest things about my blog: the single most read post, visited by hundreds of people a day, every day (still!), is about when you’re too old for a PhD. I seem to have tapped into some deep well of angst on the Internet. And no, my answer is definitely not “you’re never too old.” This ain’t the Hallmark channel, people.

Finally, I give you the post that you could say started this blog: How to get a PhD and save the world. I’m still figuring that question out. Maybe the most important piece of advice: “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.

Good luck.

4 Responses

  1. While I understand the sentiment – and I agree it would be great for academics who study Africa to spend more time there – I have to strongly disagree with this particular endorsement. Admittedly, it has been a couple of years since I have visited, but have you, Professor Blattman, ever been?

    Since I haven’t kept up with the internal happenings at the ASE, I won’t go in to the problems I saw in the past. But all we need do is peruse the current website.

    First, where are the pictures of the campus? Most universities are proud of their campus, and ASE held a groundbreaking ceremony many years ago. So where is it? I’m guessing that ASE is still housed in a single building, located quite far outside of Cotonou, that is home to Prof. Wantchekon’s master’s program (The Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy). I don’t know of any serious universities that are housed in a single suburban office building.

    Second, the faculty page. Which of these people actually works at ASE? Most of them seem to be people with full time jobs elsewhere. What are their positions at ASE? What are their departments? What courses do they teach? What papers have they published? I’m not saying they haven’t published any papers, but please point me to a paper that has been published in a prominent journal where the lead author’s affiliation is the ASE.

    The “News and Media” page is long and detailed. To say that the endorsers and affiliate partners are prominent would be an understatement. But what lies beneath this shiny veneer? Where are the course syllabi? Where are the students’ theses? Is this “university” even accredited by the Beninese government?

    I am all for promoting African scholarship and local scholarly institutions. I am also a proponent of spending real time in the region one studies. I am not, however, for stalling the careers of newly minted PHDs (who have a hard enough time as it is). If prominent scholars think that the ASE is a good cause, let them be the ones to fully invest. As far as I know, even Prof. Wantchekon, “ASE President and Founder,” doesn’t spend much time there.

  2. Hi Professor Blattman. Great posts as always. I guess my always question at this point is how do admissions committees look at online learning, such as coursera and I don’t mean only as substitutes for classes you didn’t take in college but also as an addition to a class in which you might have not done so well, like stats or linear algebra. I think there are really great courses coming out of those platforms, especially out of JPAL and MIT in Thanks!