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Do you (or any readers) know anyone who has gotten their PhD later in life, like in their 30s or later? Did they think it was worth it? If you want to study and use applied economics under what circumstances do you really need a degree?

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A degree is pretty important, yeah. I personally don't know many later-life PhDs.

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Re: "a degree is pretty important", is that for signaling or for skills gains that cannot be gained elsewhere?

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Got mine at 35

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I know plenty of later in life phd’s in my area of geophysics. They thought it was worth it.

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Were many of those older PhDs in industry beforehand, or were they undergoing a career change?

I'm in Earth/Env Science and there is often a trend of exploration geologists doing their PhD when the oil price dips and exploration stops.

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Yeah mostly a career change from the ones I knew. And it was a mix of industry and academia after the PhD. Mostly non-geoscience before.

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Sort of? I know someone who got a Phd by publication, i.e had done a load of work in an area, bound it together and called it his thesis. Said it was kinda useful as a credential. In sociology as a reference.

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Interesting. What about all the coursework?

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It's in the UK where PhDs are pure reaserch genneraly. The coursework part that happens in the US is mostly done in an MPhil or Mres.

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Interesting how do international PhD programs compare with domestic?

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Bounding together publications is a common practice in many areas. My wife PhD was 4 chapters and 2 of them were straight publications.

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My PhD is in economic development and public policy from the MIT Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning, which requires grad students to design their own fields. I was interested in design/implementation of federal/state industrial policy, not a focus that fit well in traditional economic departments. I found them to be disinterested, sometimes antagonistic, to industrial policy and not particularly interested in the skills required to transform economic research into policy. The great thing about the DUSP program was that I could take courses anywhere across MIT and Harvard and took a number of econ and business courses with the great and near-great.

I started my PhD program at 30 (in 1980) and graduated at 37. In between, I started Mt. Auburn Associates, a regional economic development consulting firm -- our first clients included Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Mayor Bernie Sanders of Burlington, VT. In the firm's name, I received a grant from the U.S. Commerce Department to carry out research that was the basis for my dissertation.

I found that being an older grad student worked to my advantage because I had more confidence in myself and my ability to be entrepreneurial. Any PhD program has the potential to be dangerous to one's mental and financial health -- because it is progressively isolating and carries high financial opportunity costs during years when many of one's peers are integrating themselves into family and workplace at decent pay. So it's important, I find, not to have magical thinking about what happens at the other end. That said, to Noah's larger point, most folks coming out of economics programs are able to land on their feet, which is not as much the case in humanities disciplines.

It very much helped that I did not want to be a tenure-track academic, so wasn't concerned about getting into peer-reviewed journals and other forms of approval from tenured academics. Many entry-level jobs requiring a PhD are inside a sometimes brutal pecking order -- I loved not having to worry about that.

I left Mt. Auburn in 1995 to go out on my own, got hired by Brookings in 2004, and became a research professor at George Washington University in 2011. In one form or another, I've run a fee-for-service consulting operation for 37 years. Currently, I'm a public policy research professor at George Washington University, which means I only get paid from the grants and contracts I bring to the university. Technically I'm a university employee, with medical benefits and retirement contributions, and functionally I'm self-employed -- my paycheck varies from month to month depending on open projects. When I was hired, I was asked to set my own salary, as the university doesn't care -- it's incumbent on me to raise it. I'm very happy as a research professor and highly recommend it for people who are comfortable running their own academic business.

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What you say in the section "the softening of econ culture" sounds, in broad strokes, extremely similar to the changes in the field of academic philosophy over this past decade. Hotel room interviews were banned (though just a year or two before first-round interviews moved to Skype); some prominent sexual harassers were exposed and faced career consequences (I think 2014 was the big year for this, a few years before the national #metoo movement got going); bullying and harsh questioning have been toned down; more women and minorities have role models and what seems like a more accepting culture; there's a greater amount of academic work with a more progressive political bent to it. I get the sense that economics and philosophy were starting from very different positions on some of these issues, but perhaps very similar positions on others. I also get the sense that more people in philosophy are willing to describe these changes in terms of "look how far we still have to go" than in terms of "look how far we've come". I don't know to what extent that reflects real differences here.

It would be interesting to know how much these same trends have occurred in other disciplines that aren't as clearly related as some parts of economics and some parts of philosophy are.

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I'm an anesthesiologist and our oral board exams have gone the same way. They used to be outrightly abusive interviews by prominent guys who would pal around at the Ritz. Now they're very methodical and the Board actively recruits women and people of color to become interviewers in order to build their careers and networks.

They used to be held in hotel rooms and moved around the country but now they're all done at a dedicated facility in Raleigh (though they've been via Zoom during the pandemic). Anesthesia (like most OR specialties) is more conservative than primary care but it's still following the same progressive trend as Medicine and academics generally (which I wholeheartedly support).

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Great piece, really. As someone who's graduated with a master's a couple of years ago and is now applying for PhDs in econ, reading this was refreshing and motivating.

However, while looking for jobs (and trust me, I was looked very hard) it dawned on me that there just isn't much demand, and the jobs that are actually out there pay lower-than-average salaries. On the other hand, jobs such as that of developer/software engineer and recruiter were plentiful.

Moreover, even junior positions at the ECB or similar institutions are constantly flooded with, literally, thousands of overly-qualified applicants.

And was mostly I was lucky because I was looking for macroeconomics-related jobs, which are usually offered by big financial/public institutions and thus better paid/more abundant. I barely saw any related to microeconomics.

So that has left me a bit skeptical (ironically) of the actual usefulness of economists to the real economy. At least from mine EU perspective.

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In your Masters, did you have many colleagues from other majors other than Econ? I am coming from a background in Engineering / Physics and would like to pursue a Masters and then a PhD in Econ in the EU.

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Not many tbh, and those who did came from subjects which were not too far off such business.

That said, Dutch universities offer pre-master's degrees which are aimed at facilitating the transition from another subject to a specific master's.

I would recommend checking it out (Erasmus Uni in particular).

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I would put PhDs in computer science, applied math and computational biology as much better deals. The first and third are truly the sciences of the now and the future and applied math is the best if one wants to be a Swiss Army knife. My own PhD, theoretical physics? A cut below because academic jobs are basically impossible. However for grandeur one cannot beat theoretical physics.

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Which are the universities that specialize in hiring disgraced professors?

(Noah doesn't have to answer this, but someone else can)

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author

Yeah I'm not gonna answer that one ;-)

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I doubt that all of the bullies were right wing. Even at Chicago in its conservative heyday there was a lot of intellectual diversity. According to Scott Sumner, the faculty mix of Republicans and Democrats was about 50-50 and free-market ideas were vigorously vetted along with more progressive ones. The Coase Theorem is a famous example:

https://www.uchicago.edu/features/20120423_coase/

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I'd still go for a physics Ph.D. You probably won't be able to work in physics for a living, but it is still a golden ticket for anything else. Wall Street quants, for example, tend to be physics-math types, rather than economists. Grad school outside the humanities just looooove physics majors. Etc.

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Economists are now the math types too

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i've seriously considered going back to school for economics... but, then i remember the internet has all that i need.

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I have a PhD in geophysics. I wanted to work in academia but that path was difficult. I had lots of post doc opportunities at National labs that would have left me and the wife living in poverty. I took a job at an oil company. It’s been pretty great.

I’ve always told others to judge their post grad job outlook on if they are paying for grad school. If you pay for grad school, job will be hard to find. If you are paid to go to grad school, there will be jobs. In fact, my advice is never pay for grad school.

I felt like I got on a conveyer belt in undergrad once I choose geophysics and just had to hit expectations and I was passed to next level and taken care of. From undergrad research to undergrad internship to acceptance in grad school to qualifying exams to comps to publishing to defending to getting a job post graduation. It was all just right there if I kept on the path.

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This post came at a good time for me, I am currently planning for an Econ PhD. I have a Masters in Psychology, and from the perspective of that field, the specific advisor or lab you are placed with matters a lot, so part of my strategy has been to seek out particular econ faculty that I would want to work with. In your original post and the linked Quartz post by Miles Kimball it sounds like that is less important in econ given the autonomy provided econ PhD students. Also, I've noticed econ faculty tend to have much broader research interests than in psych, which you also mentioned. How much should I worry about finding the best fit faculty advisor to my research interests when applying to PhD programs?

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Is the future prospect of a finance PhD similar or less than an economic PhD (e.g. a finance economic PhD)?

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Do you think the deal is even sweeter, or worse for international students who get into good places? I think the former, because the poverty effect is absent, immigration is easier, etc. Most of the negative effects are missing. Opportunity cost is low.

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I am 32 and in my first year in PhD Econ at the University of Michigan. What is "worth it" varies from an individual to another. For me, a PhD in Econ is worth it even at age 40 or above.

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Dec 29, 2022·edited Dec 29, 2022

I sent out my application for PhD in Econ at Michigan university. I hope I will be selected. I got an undergrad GPA of 3.68 . Wrote a worthy Statement of purpose. Fingers crossed.

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I've come to realise that if a male qualifies as a Doctor, it suddenly becomes very easy to pick up women. So if I had known that while at school I would not have studied economics but rather medicine (despite the fact that I didn't like to see blood, I've also come to realise how easy that is to become used to).

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Overall interesting post. I don’t how it is in economics but in other fields the refrain I heard (and my personal experience) is your advisor makes a difference. Good professors don’t necessarily make good managers. The other thing is realize graduate labor is cheap and there is a lot of time beating your head against the wall. And if you are not used to it can be frustrating.

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Related question - how do you feel about the job options for physics undergrads? (IIRC, you did physics before grad work in econ)

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