Thursday, 19 November 2015

Should I do a PhD?

If you find a thousand words of student rants beneath you, here’s for all you TL;DR-lovers out there: PhDs are difficult, competitive and expensive, but I’m convinced that is the life I want; if so, should I go for History which is less valuable but more competitive, or Econ, which is way more technical (difficult?) but has higher and wider value?

Here we go. The question posed is a simple yet complicated one and is one that has been floating around the back of my head for a few months; Should I get a PhD?

For little over a year now I have had my target set on an academic career in Economic History. Nothing fuels my fascination more than Econ history, no other topic has made me want to read more, discover more and find more.  After 12 hour days of reading historians argue over a topic, I come home eager to read some more, discover more. I reward myself after a good day of Uni studying by reading a particularly fascinating econ historian. The thought of spending the rest of my life arguing over standards of living in 19th century Britain, the impact of fractional reserve banking on monetary systems in different settings or long-term trade, inequality and other really jaw-breaking historiographical debates is simply breath-taking. Yes, yes and yes again; Sign. Me. Up. I could research, argue, write articles and add to our wonderful pile of knowledge; I could inspire students the way my professors have inspired me. So many times have I listened to lectures or tutors where their explanations were so bad and I could do it way better even now. In fact, that’s what I bunch of my fellow students tell me whenever we study together: “NOW I get it! Why didn’t the professor say that?”

Then I read Larry Cebula. And Thomas Benton. And realized that passion is not enough. Hard work is not enough. I have to be exceptional – and the odds are still hardly in my favour (Sorry, non-Hunger Games fans, it’s that time of year). Besides, as Noah Smith (one of those econ bloggers I read as often as I can) sarcastically and rhetorically asks:
“What?!!”, you sputter. “What about all those articles telling me never, ever, nerver, nenver to get a PhD?! Didn’t you read those? Don’t you know that PhDs are proliferating like mushrooms even as tenure-track jobs disappear?”
And the case makes sense; way more people are receiving PhDs in the Humanities than are hired in academia each year. And the sorts of people getting PhDs are pretty smart to begin with, so chances of reaching my dream are slim indeed. And it costs a whole lot of money even if I manage to get funding and part-time jobs all the way through; the opportunity cost of 4-6 years of wages in the private sector is pretty staggering, not to consider future pay increases and appreciations of savings made during such time (go hit a few buttons on that calculator to see what I mean). Especially when you consider that the value of a PhD outside of Academia is pretty slim (best case scenario: 3% above the value of a master’s, hardly enough to justify 3-4 additional years of soul-wrenching studying).

Now, if I “follow my dream” and go for it, like my friends urge me and some of my professors advise me, the next question is: History, with a slight touch of Econ – or Economics with special interest for Economic History?

Having never liked math very much, and cursing mathematization of Economics about as often as it rains in Glasgow, the thought of going through a PhD in Econ never really crossed my mind; my math skills might not be up for it (especially not considering how much I have struggled with even undergraduate econometrics - although admittedly, I'm getting much better - and the two hours it takes for my friend to explain the re-arrangements and divisions of certain simple macro-relationships). But brushing up math skills is easy enough, and I'm sure I could handle it if I put myself to it - but even so I’d probably never find the inspiration and passion to get through it; it's no fun. Soaking my brain in superficially econ-related equations for 5 more years just to be able to do what I love doesn’t sound like a massively sweet deal to me. Misery, hard work, tears, and sadness for many years in exchange for (a slight increase in?) future happiness. Maybe it’s not worth it, what if I can’t do it, flunk and fail?

So, History it is. But History PhDs are generally longer, the number of academic positions is fewer and their value outside of academia is virtually zero, if not negative. And again, they’re staggeringly competitive as many brilliant people pursue rather few positions. All of a sudden, this already risky choice of career seemed even riskier; years and years of studying, perhaps completely in vain since ultimately I wasn’t good enough to make the cut? Maybe I’d be better off with a semi-boring job in some economicsy-related think tank, research office or accounting firm, making econ history a hobby occupying most of my spare time?

So lately my thoughts have been wondering back to Econ; if I could improve my math skills (which I should anyway) if I could find the inspiration, passion and strength to get through it, a whole bunch of my objections and risks seem partially solved. An Econ PhD has value outside of academia, perhaps not enough to financially justify it, but way more than a History PhD would. Lots of people recently seem to argue that Econ History is making a comeback from its deteriorated status (see Eichengreen and Broadberry for instance).

With an Econ PhD I have way better odds of acquiring tenure from the sheer fact that the Queen of Social Sciences has vastly more positions and opportunities available. Besides, since econ PhDs from even mediocre Unis seem to do fairly well, I don’t have to rely as much on getting admitting to prestigious universities, which I would have to for a History PhD. And recently (read post-GFC) Economics PhDs with focus on Economic History is more attractive than in decades, even looked for in Central Banks according to some of my professors.
The price signals in the market are telling me not to. The rational, math-abhorring and risk-averse voices in the back of my head are not exactly thrilled about the prospects. But the dream is beautiful and I love the idea. By the looks of things, I’m pretty good at it (minus the math part, maybe), and it’s slowly getting clearer that my comparative advantage is certainly not in journalism, sales or financial markets.
So what then. Should I do a PhD in Economics?


  1. Interesting links you posted there. Yeah if I were you, I'd definitely be looking to get into the private sector, ideally an economics consulting role and just do economic history on the side.

    Then after you've established yourself for a few years, perhaps do an Econ PhD part time, on the side of your main job/career. Hopefully this reduces your opportunity cost of doing the PhD and you'll feel a bit more able to drop the PhD if it's not really working out (cos you'll have the economics private sector career anyway).

    1. Thx, Stephan. Somehow that seems like the rational alternative, but I must honestly say that I'm not tempted by it. Even the slightest;/ We'll see. My mum still gave me the best advice: "Pff, that's years off! Why even worry about that now? Just try it, and if it doesn't work out, then sure, try something else?"