First of all: welcome to Cornell and congratulations on your acceptance into the Ph.D. program in Economics! You must wonder about what the program and life at Cornell will be like, both academically and socially. The main focus of this document is to provide some information, grad student to grad student, about the academic aspects of the Ph.D. program in Economics at Cornell, though we will also get into some other aspects of life at Cornell. From your peers in the Ph.D. program, we want you to know that we are happy to talk to you and give you advice based on our own experiences. The comments and advice have been gathered from a broad spectrum of students, with varying backgrounds and experiences. We hope that this will provide you with a number of perspectives and ideas on how to handle the first year and succeed to the best of your ability.
We want to provide the disclaimer up front that this document should not be taken as official information or policy about the program or the University, and all such questions should be directed to the Director of Graduate Studies, Prof. John Abowd, the Graduate Secretary, Eric Maroney, or the appropriate faculty member or University office.
The Cornell Ph.D. program in economics admits a wide variety of students, with various backgrounds and levels of academic preparation. By some system, the faculty sifts through literally hundreds of applications, to find a broad profile of students that best fit the research interests and teaching needs of the department. It should be no surprise that many of your classmates list labor, development, theory or econometrics as primary fields of interest – these are four of the areas in which Cornell Economics is strongest. The research done in each of these areas, as well as the other economics fields, requires fairly different skill sets, and therefore the students chosen for admission will vary in their preparation for the focus of the firstyear: learning quantitative tools, basic economic modeling frameworks, and mathematical problem solving. Some of your classmates may have seen some of the material before. Don't let this discourage you – with sufficient effort and perseverance, you are all capable of succeeding in the first year. In order for you to be admitted, someone took notice of your file and saw something they liked. Remember these facts in the many challenging and difficult days you will face in the coming year. The Department does not accept students unless it believes they are capable of successfully completing the program, and differences in preparation in September will seem smaller come June.
You are also hopefully here for another reason, namely because you have decided that this is what you want to do (this being quantitatively-oriented research). For that reason, you should make the best of the opportunities here. Work as hard as you can, but enjoy the process. Yes, it is tough at times, but tough things can be made more bearable when we really enjoy the stuff and believe it is important. For this reason also, take initiative for your course of studies.
Belief is key – know that you can do this, as much as you might be tempted to doubt yourself (we all do). If you make the decision early to take the material seriously and try to master it and internalize it, and not just memorize, the dividends will be great. This takes commitment, but know that what seems confusing and abstract early on will clear up later. For example, it is quite common for students to struggle through the first semester of microeconomics, only to come out saying things like, "it was hard, but now I can see how it all fits together." The material will seem easier once you've worked at it and grasped it, and this takes time and hard work! It will be tempting to doubt yourself, as you enter a new academic setting in which nearly all of the students are accustomed to being "top of the class," so don't let early struggles get you down, and don't let yourself believe that you're not smart enough.
Of course, you will all get a schedule for first-year that lists your courses. However, we thought you might want a better feel for the rhythm of the first year.
Math Camp in August gives you a nice, gentle introduction to the program. For those of you who find it easy, don't get overconfident, because you will be challenged in time. For those of you who struggle, take it as a signal of things you need to work on. Just because some of the material covered in Math Camp may be difficult or new to you, it doesn't mean that you can't handle the program – but it does mean that you may have to put in extra time over the next few months ensuring that you understand the mathematical tools that you will need to know (this is part of what ECON 617 is about). Fall semester is as much about picking up tools and mathematical skills as it is about learning economics (which is more of the focus in spring semester) 2.
While the first week or two of classes are usually quite gentle, you will quickly hit the first wave of exams. At Cornell, almost every first-year Econ Ph.D. class has two exams (aka. prelims, midterms, quizzes), plus a final exam. The Econ Ph.D. program coordinates things, so you have two waves in the fall semester of about an exam or two per week (one wave in late September/early October, and one around November). Be prepared, and don't underestimate the classes based on the first couple of weeks. In second semester the schedule changes a little, and the focus shifts in the final run-up to qualifying exams (aka. "Qs"), which occur in early June. There are two weeks of intense studying between finals in May and the Qs in June. There are re- takes of the qualifying exams that are given at the beginning of August.
As mentioned above, the first semester courses focus a lot on building up tools and problem-solving skills. Many would say that the most important course during this semester is Econ 6090: Microeconomics I, which lays much of the foundation for what you do in later classes. It teaches you the basic structure of graduate-level economics, and also how to do fundamental things like solve an optimization problem, do comparative statics, or think about economic uncertainty in a rigorous way. Your macroeconomics sequence (Econ 6130 in the fall and Econ 6140 in the spring) is basically an introduction to dynamic modeling and a presentation of some of the key static and dynamic models in the field. Your Mathematics for Economists class (Econ 6170) is mainly focused on mathematical problem solving, though the material it conveys is also very important in other classes and for all economists to know. Your Econometrics I class (Econ 6190) is mainly focused on conveying the essential things you "need to know" in probability and statistics, both for later work in econometrics, and also for other theory courses.
In second semester, the focus shifts a little, with more emphasis on materials that can be mapped into real economic modeling and analysis. The microeconomics course in general equilibrium theory (Econ 6100), builds off of Microeconomics I, and in the end provide you with a broad look at much of the foundational material in microeconomics that is used by researchers in every imaginable area of economics. Your Econometrics II course gives a broad (and very fast) overview of many of the important topics in econometric theory (i.e. regression analysis). You may be asked to come up with, work on and present (both orally and in written form) a small empirical project, to demonstrate that you are capable of finding, organizing and analyzing economic data.
Most students take all eight of these core courses (three in micro, two each in macro and econometrics, and one in mathematical economics) during the first year. The exceptions are usually (1) students who pass out of the math course or the first econometrics course, (2) students who have TA (teaching assistant) or RA (research assistant) duties. All course planning advice should come from the faculty, and especially our graduate director, Prof. Tapan Mitra. Please talk to Prof. Mitra and/or senior faculty in the relevant area if you want to discuss your course planning further, and they can be extremely helpful in general. Remember, the department wants you to succeed.
If you are taking all four courses in you first semester, you will have two lectures per day of one hour and fifteen minutes each from Monday through Thursday. Lectures are taught by one of the faculty. On top of this, you will have four sections on Friday, again one hour and fifteen minutes each, which are taught by TAs (usually upper-years Econ Ph.D. students). Fridays give you an opportunity to look at material again from a different (often more directly applied and exam-relevant) perspective. But the biggest drain on your time will be problem sets, which are assigned on roughly a weekly basis in each class. Once you start having four problem sets a week, you may occasionally need to sacrifice a lot to get through these. Do get through them though – give each problem set the attention it deserves because solving problem sets is the primary way to learn graduate-level material.
One other thing you might not expect is the number of students in your classes. Beyond your core group of twenty-or-so first-year economics Ph.D. students, you will have about as many other students from other departments or academic levels. The next biggest group will be students from the Applied Economics and Management (AEM) department, who are required to pass our microeconomics qualifying exam, and also pass a semester of macro. There will also be small bunches of students from other Ph.D. or masters programs – in Policy Analysis and Management, Business, Finance, certain areas of engineering, etc. There are also students who are re-taking some of the first-year classes for various reasons. And finally, you'll usually see a couple of ambitious undergrads taking the Ph.D.-level courses.
You're here, right? So you must know something about how to study. Yet sometimes the techniques that got you here may not necessarily be the ones that will carry you through successfully. Remember, Ph.D. means Doctor of Philosophy – which carries the implication that the holders of such degrees will have acquired knowledge at a level deeper than simple short- term memorization. It means the ability not just to understand material, or even to respond to specific (familiar) questions, but to compare, contrast and criticize various theories and arguments, and to be able to contribute to that knowledge and convey one's insights to others. Acquiring such mastery, especially within the mathematical framework of mainstream economics 3, requires time, practice and hard work, and you will need to develop a system that works best for you in your first year. Here are some things that have worked well for others:
There are two qualifying exams (or Qs, qualifying exams, quals, etc.), one in microeconomics, and one in macroeconomics. They are usually given in the second week of June and again in early August. The exams are four hours long, and consist of graduate-level economic problem solving. They will be chosen roughly from the areas of study you have covered in your core micro and macro classes, though you will usually also see stuff you "haven't seen before."
If you want to make normal progress in the program, you need to pass them by the end of your first year, and this is your primary responsibility in the first year. However, most people pass them, and you should not let yourself be overwhelmed by the thought of them.
Here are some brief suggestions on things you can do to prepare throughout the year:
Don't worry too much about Qs right now. The upper-years graduate students in the department will probably provide you with more information and advice on Qs specifically, in the spring.
Hopefully, you will enjoy life in the department, and find your place. You will find that the grad students and faculty at Cornell are generally a friendly, though socially diverse, group. Quite early on you will hear about the Graduate Student Association For Economics (GSAFE), which is essentially the "student government" inside the department. GSAFE is traditionally made up of second-year students, who take on social and academic responsibilities like organizing departmental parties and grad student gatherings, representing the department on graduate student committees in the university, and acting as a liaison between the grad students and the faculty in the department. Take advantage of the events and other things that GSAFE organizes. The "graduate student union" at Cornell is the Big Red Barn, which is conveniently located within a 1-minute walk from Uris Hall. There are various grad student-oriented events held there, and the Friday afternoon T.G.I.F. ("tell grads it's Friday") is particularly popular with Econ Ph.D. students. Oftentimes upper-year students won't get to know you unless you get involved or introduce yourselves. But they do enjoy the chance to talk, so make use of their presence.
Unlike some programs, economics has quite a structured and focused first-year. Most, if not all, of your first-year courses are explicitly mapped out, and there is a specific target to focus on – passing qualifying exams. For this reason, the interaction between grad students and professors is usually not as extensive in the first year as in other doctoral programs. Sure, you may interact with your professors in regards to the courses, but serious discussions about research and advisement usually happen after the first year. So don't be disappointed about this, but still take the chance to get to know who's doing work in areas you're interested in, and what field courses you might like to take in subsequent years.
If you are empirical, talk to empirical professors once in a while too. They'll provide comforting and great advice for people heading towards that direction (even what you should look to gain from first year classes). Empirical and applied people should also find the Johnson School of Business, AEM, ILR (Industrial and Labor Relations), and PAM (Policy Analysis and Management) comforting as places to meet faculty and students with similar interests, take future classes, and perhaps find a TA-ship.
Finally, one of the department's big gifts to its graduate students is an awesome seminar program. There are weekly presentations from star economists in Micro and Macro Theory, Econometrics, Development, Labor, Applied Micro, Public Economics, Policy Analysis and more. Seminars are scheduled throughout the week, usually at 4:00 pm, and (for the most part) classes are timed so as not to conflict with seminars. Attendance at a weekly seminar is only required as of third year, but you should not view them as a chore. In first year you will not generally have the time to go to a presentation regularly, but you are certainly welcome to attend them and we would encourage you to go to at least one or two presentations in each semester. Remember that there is life after the Qs and you will ultimately be judged on your ability to make the transition from student to researcher – getting a feel for the research done by top-name economists in your area of interest is an integral part of this process.
Do not take this point too lightly. While some of you may have Herculean visions of prolific studying exploits, in reality you do need to rest, as hard as that may seem at times. First of all, from the standpoint of a simple cost-benefit analysis, you are human, and therefore to perform at your peak you need to have reasonable amounts of sleep and rest. While it is true that you can push yourself for periods of time (and this is certainly necessary at certain times), you also need to listen to your body. Secondly, some of you may come here with families, significant others, etc., and they'll still want to hear from you and spend time with you. You may have a religious affiliation, and it can be nice to stay connected to that community during a trying year. And finally, rest time gives your brain time to subconsciously absorb and digest material. So if you find yourself studying 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, you probably need to think twice about your study habits and how efficiently you are using your time. Making new friends at Cornell is also important. However, while socializing is important, partying is not. Use your Cornell friends for human contact and social support, but make sure that your social life does not take energy away from studying.
Going through a Ph.D. program is not only an academic challenge – it is a mental, emotional and psychological challenge, too. It is perfectly normal if sometime in the next few months you find yourself questioning your abilities, your decision to come here, why in the world anyone would care about the stuff you're learning, or any other common feeling. Know this: you are not alone. Don't let disappointing grades, hard material, frustrating lecturers, or personal stresses get you down too much. Remember, the first year is important for your life as economist, but it is not everything. Seek help if you need it – your fellow grad students can be good sounding boards, and in a more difficult situation you can try to talk to someone at the Counseling Centre in Gannett Health Service. There is no question that this program is hard – it should be. Do what you need to do to be at your best.
Another good habit is to try to exercise regularly. Be realistic about this – some people come here with overly ambitious plans about athletic endeavors, and in many cases you will have to choose studying over the sports or activities you enjoy. But at the same time, try to find time a couple times every week to at least get out, have a walk, go for a jog, go dancing, or play a sport. Talk to other grad students about the activities available in and around Ithaca and Cornell.
Some of you will come here with a research background and will be eager to continue that work. Others might have ideas they want to start exploring early on. Ultimately, research is what we are here for – not exams, problems sets, or listening to lectures. But the research frontier in economics has high technical demands, and to reach it we need preparation and study. That is what the first-year is mostly about.
Some professors and grad students will tell you that you should be thinking about research ideas and working on things in your first year. They will say that you should try to attend seminars (see above). These are all good things to try to do, as long as you are fulfilling your primary responsibility in the first-year – preparing to pass the qualifying exam. Some would say that attending seminars and doing your own research provides extra motivation and energy to master the tools thrown at you in the classes, especially if you find places where they can overlap. Others might say that it can be a distraction, and the attitude needed for research is different than that needed to master the large body of material thrown at you in first-year. This is ultimately something you must decide on your own, but it is good to seek multiple opinions and experiment. Usually, one's first attempts at research are rather weak and unsuccessful, and so it can be nice to get such attempts out of the way early, for more successful progress in second and subsequent years. Or as some faculty and students put it, ‘the first paper is crap anyway'. Additionally, being able to get something out of seminars is something that takes time (they generally involve presentations of technical, frontier-level research, and so if you only understand 10% of what is said in your first few seminars, that is quite normal), and so again, starting early can get you ahead of the game later on.
One of the great things about being at a world-class research university is the great set of resources at your disposal, in terms of people, technology, and other support. Right when you arrive on campus, you will receive information about things like library tours and computing classes. When it comes time to write your paper for Econometrics II, you can look into taking econometric software classes in programs like Stata and SAS through CISER (Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research), and sign up for a CISER computing account that allows you online access to most of the leading econometric software packages from almost anywhere in the world.
One thing that some graduate students do is apply to use a "carrel" at Olin library. Applications for new grad students are in late August, and a carrel is basically a desk that you get first priority over. You can see them if you go to the stacks in Olin library and walk to the sides of the library near the windows. Depending on how you like to study, this can be a convenient place to do most of your work, or at least have a place to stop by and get work done during the day. Unless you are a TA or RA in your first year, you will not have a proper office assignment in the Economics Department, so a carrel can be a useful alternative. The application is free but competitive, so look up the library web page early to find out about the application process.
In future years (or for some students, in first year), you might take advantage of courses offered in other departments like Mathematics, Statistics or Operations Research, or even Regional Planning, Sociology, Psychology, Government, Computing, Information Science or any other, within Cornell's motto of "any person, any study." You might attend lectures and talks in these other departments.
We hope that this document has provided you with a useful head start on the first year. We all know that it is challenging, but you need to know that it is worth it. To achieve excellence in any field, one needs to master the fundamentals, and that is what the first year is all about. Yes, it requires discipline and diligence, but keep the end-goal in mind – the opportunity to pursue the interests and areas that first fascinated you about economics, but now with a whole new set of tools and language with which to do so.
An excellent book that can give you good advice on how to approach mathematical problem solving is How to Solve It, by G. Polya (Princeton Science Library). Though the book may seem quite basic on the surface, it actually contains a tremendous amount of depth and wisdom, and is something you can look through a lot of in the time before classes start. If you look around you can also find books that give advice more specifically on how to write formal mathematical proofs.
If you are looking for extra help understanding a topic during your first year, www.econphd.net has a bank of lecture notes from various schools. Since most microeconomics sequences follow Mas-Colell this can be a particularly useful reference. Econphd.net is also a nice source for listings of textbooks relevant to your first-year courses and beyond (two of the favorites in our department for microeconomics are Varian's Microeconomic Analysis, and Nicholson's Microeconomic Theory: Basic Principles and Extensions). If you feel as though you could use some mathematical preparation before the semester starts, the most common reference is one co-authored by one of our own faculty: Mathematics for Economists, by Simon and Blume.
Since there is such a mass of technical, quantitative material to be conveyed in the first- year, sometimes less emphasis is put on expert use of economic intuition, though skilled use of it will benefit you time and again in first-year and in subsequent research. If you aren't coming directly from an undergrad degree in Econ, or if you haven't had Intermediate Microeconomics recently, a great book to look at is Hal Varian's Intermediate Microeconomics: A Modern Approach (Norton, New York, 2003), which also has a book of problems to solve.
Another book that has been suggested for first-semester stats, in terms of understanding intuition, is Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, by Peter L. Bernstein.
A couple of interesting articles on the plight of the economics graduate student are: Colander, David & Klamer, Arjo, 1987. "The Making of an Economist," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 1(2), pp. 95-111.
Colander, David, 2005. "The Making of an Economist Redux," Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(1), pp. 175-198.
Another nice site (though don't be tempted to waste too much time here), is Resources for Economists, at the American Economic Association website. If you hunt around, you can find many interesting links and further sources of information and advice: http://www.aeaweb.org/RFE/.
Though certainly better references might be found, a nice discussion and defense of the use of mathematical modeling in economics can be found in an article by Paul Krugman, at: http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/dishpan.html. Search for the section titled "Metaphors and Models." The sooner you can convince yourself of the value and importance of mathematical modeling (though certainly without doing so blindly), the better you will be able to digest the first-year material.
Hopefully this document gives you a good head-start on first-year. A great place to start for mapping out your approach to subsequent years in the program is the short article "Research Tips for Graduate Students in Development Microeconomics," by Prof. Chris Barrett, who is in the AEM department here at Cornell. Don't be confused by the title – 95% of the advice is relevant to almost any student in the economics field. You can find the paper through his web page.
1 Author: Russell Toth. I would like to thank Jeffrey Larrimore, Max Mihm, Jayant Vivek Ganguli, Sarah Toth, Sarah Reynolds, Jamie Rubenstein, Corey Lang, Chris Cotton, Ben Suwankiri, Serif Aziz Simsir, Joseph Price and Liyan Yang for helpful comments and discussions. Further comments are greatly appreciated.
2 The Department is very much in line with mainstream economics in its emphasis on the quantitative tools, though some students have complained about the lack of emphasis on economic thought and comparative economics.
3 It has been said before but bears repeating that "mathematics is a language," and one big part of first-year is in learning this language, and also in developing the elusive "mathematical sophistication."
4 Caveat! Do not necessarily expect the TA or professor to actually solve the problem for you. Several times the professor (and the TA on instructions from the professor) is not going to give a thorough answer and will only give you a broad outline of what solving a problem might entail. This may include just asking you questions about the problem's topic rather than solving the problem directly. This is usually because understanding the material usually requires you to struggle through it yourself, sometimes to the point of tearing your hair out. Seeing the answer provided by someone else typically leads to memorization rather than understanding.