A friend emailed me to ask about grad school; I thought I might as well share my thoughts here too. First, I should make it clear that I basically never recommend getting a PhD to anyone. Grad school pays almost nothing, is very stressful, damages most people’s relationships, exacerbates any latent depression or anxiety issues you might have, and the only payoff is that you’ll get to learn about one or two things in intense, intense detail for years. So I emphasize the negatives, reasoning that if you can hear all the downsides and still think, “screw it, sounds like fun”... then going to grad school might be a good idea. But if I can scare you away, then you never should have tried to get a PhD in the first place.
That said, here are some more thoughts, in no particular order.
If you’re going to get a PhD in the social sciences, or anything close to the social sciences, it should be in economics. You can do pretty much any of the other disciplines, but you’ll get paid considerably more and there are more academic positions, private sector and government jobs, etc available. Doing economics in a business school may be even better.
I’d only suggest getting a PhD if you want a job teaching and/or doing research as a professor or at a research institute or think-tank. I don’t think that there are that many other jobs where the training is going to help. I’m sure there are jobs where having a PhD would be a nice addition for a candidate, but probably not so much that it’s worth 5–6 years of full time school. Of course, you might know of particular positions that I don’t.
If you actually, you know, have a job, career, life, etc., that you’d be putting on hold for grad school (which is the case for the friend I mentioned above, but wasn’t for me when I applied) you should probably be pretty selective about where you’d go; so top 10 or so only. Basically, you want a setup where, even if grad school goes badly and the job market is terrible when you graduate, you can have a job “better” than what you have now on graduation. That’s probably true if you go to Harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc., but not necessarily if you go to, say, UCSD. Obviously, you want to know who you plan to work with, but people change their minds once they get to grad school all the time, so being at a great school will give you options if you change your mind.
If you’re coming straight out of college, or if you have a bad job with poor career prospects (I was working as a file clerk in the post dot-com bubble Bay Area two years after I graduated from college), you can take a bigger risk and go to a top 30 school that matches your presumed research interests. UCSD turned out to be a great fit for me, mostly because I was right when I expected to do econometrics.
The first year of grad school (in Econ) will be really tough and unpleasant if you’ve been out of school for a little while. There’s a lot of math and it may have been a little while since you sat down and worked through proofs, etc. Expect that the core sequence of classes will be tough.
— Gray Calhoun, 01 Jun 2013
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