Advice for First-Year Ph.D. Students in Economics at Cornell


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.

You Are Here for a Reason

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.

The Schedule

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 6170 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).

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 students who pass out of the math course or the first econometrics course. All course planning advice should come from the faculty, and especially our graduate director, Prof. Levon Barseghyan. Please talk to Prof. Barseghyan 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.

How to Study

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, 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:

  • Take problem sets (very) seriously. Perhaps the most important skill you need to develop in the first-year is the ability to understand and solve challenging economic problems (usually with mathematical content). Your ability to learn the skill of problem solving and proving mathematical results will help you succeed in your class exams, qualifying exams, and ultimately in your future research. Whenever you are faced with a problem (or something you don't understand in a lecture or in your reading), try to figure it out yourself. Then, try to look it up. Failing that, go to your peers (eg. your study group) or the TA. Then go back to it. If all else fails, see the professor.
  • Learn how topics fit together and develop your intuition. Hopefully you will notice throughout the year that some approaches and concepts reappear many times through the eight courses in your first year. The sooner that you find these links the more successful you will be. The Microeconomics qualifying exam is known for introducing material that you haven't seen before – but it is more about applying concepts you have seen to new areas. If you are able to see this link, it will make your life easier through your first year, on qualifying exams, and looking at research projects.
  • Form a study group. At Cornell there is no quota on how many students can pass the qualifying exams. This means that students are not in direct (only relative or indirect) competition with each other. This means that you can leverage thetremendous learning benefit of regularly studying with peers. It is difficult to overemphasize the benefit you can derive from being able to discuss problems, see how other people do things, and get hints and help with places where you are stuck. Try to find a good group of people that you can work well with, and plan a regular (eg. weekly, bi-weekly, etc.) meeting time. Some people insist that they learned more in graduate school from their study group and peers than from their lectures.
  • Work on your own before meeting your study group. Your study group should be there to leverage the knowledge of your classmates – but not to replace working out problems on your own. There is tremendous value in struggling through material on your own before going to your study group for help. If you don't try problems on your own first, you will be unable to learn from your mistakes and the same mistakes are likely to reappear on your exams. As noted before, struggling through the material to the point of defolicating yourself before you actually understand it is fairly common.
  • How much should you read? This is a personal thing. Just be aware that there are (quickly) diminishing returns to underlining and highlighting. Academic economists will tell you that it is best to read (eg. textbooks, articles, etc.) with a pencil in hand and some paper close by, and to try to jump ahead and solve the math yourself whenever possible and practical while you read. Such discipline will benefit you later on. In a similar vein, don't overload yourself with study materials. While some people find it helpful to supplement their primary textbooks with other texts or resources, getting different viewpoints will not replace deeply digesting the material in one book.
  • See your TAs. TAs are some of the greatest resources your courses have to offer – students experienced in the courses, and with time available to help you through your difficulties. Try to talk to them regularly, even about things you think you understand, to reinforce your knowledge and understanding. You should read their problem set solutions to learn new ways to solve problems. On the other hand, do not overtax TAs – they are also not private tutors, and as a Ph.D. student you are expected to put in the necessary effort to figure things out yourself. So, don't be surprised if a TA occasionally seems surprised at something you don't understand or says that ‘this should be obvious from …'. If it isn't obvious to you ask for clarification or another text or notes where you could find a more detailed exposition. The main thing to remember here is, don't wait until it's too late to ask for help. Better to ask early than be sorry later. Don't suffer in silence! Also, do not be embarrassed if others in your class seem to be breezing through and you are struggling. If they are it is extremely likely because they have seen this exact material before, for example in a Master's program somewhere and not because they are smart and you are dumb.
  • The style of learning in a Ph.D. program is different from undergrad. You will often need multiple encounters with the material to develop mastery. This may come through lecture, TA sections, reading, problem sets, discussion with peers and further examination of the concepts. But effort spent in mastering economic theory will yield tremendous benefits in your future research career no matter what area you specialize in.
  • It is important to avoid the big pitfall of looking at others' solutions to old exams (Q or in- semester) before or while trying to solve them yourself. This typically leads to memorization and not understanding. A pitfall being that you can then very easily get stuck in a new problem (in your exam) that follows the same theme as the ones you have solved but has a different twist than the previous one. This also means that you need to be able to learn from your mistakes. You will fall down at some points, but stay positive and learn to analyze what went wrong and how to fix it.
  • What difference do grades make? Certainly, you shouldn't take them as seriously as you have been trained to in the past. They are definitely a nice signal of your progress and understanding of the material, and your ability to take exams under pressure (which we must all do on the qualifying exam). However, do not take them too seriously. If you do well, do not get overconfident, because there is always more to learn. If you do not do as well as you would like, know that almost everybody in the program has struggled at certain points or in certain classes. Sometimes, a bad exam is just a fluke and nothing more, which can occur for various reasons. And in the end, grades are a noisy predictor of ultimate success in research.In any case, as long as you are really learning and internalizing the material, you will be fine on the qualifying exams, and having passed those, the first-year will be largely forgotten anyway (although hopefully the material won't…).
  • Time management. Of course, this is key. You must find a system that works for you. If you've made it this far, you probably have. If not, try to get advice on this from other students.
  • A very good suggestion for digesting material is to review your class notes within a few hours after the lectures. One way to do this is by going through in detail, trying to "fill in the blanks" and construct many simple and complex examples based on the material. You will find that the material you learn successively builds up, so it is good to build on a solid foundation from the start, even if things seem somewhat easy at first. It is amazing how easy it is to think that you have understood something, when you really didn't, so try to work with the material frequently.
  • One technique for internalizing knowledge that works well for some students is to write up a "summary" of the material leading up to an exam (or keeping a running summary). The idea is to write up a briefer summary of the material in your own words, highlighting the most important points. This can be both a great way to go over material and force yourself to write and think, and also can provide great "crib sheets" for later review.
  • Don't hide under the veil of "not realistic." Many first years complain that this and that model or theory is not real-world based, or they don't make any real-world sense. Good students look to the core, find the objectives of the models, and assess the model on how it addresses such objectives. Bear in mind, there ain't no "General Theory of the Real World." We can only provide snapshots of whatever phenomena we are interested in. If you don't want to believe the theories, fine. But you should know that a lot of these works have great motivations behind them, not only mathematical curiosity.
  • A big determinant of your success will be the attitude you take to your studies – try to stay positive as much as possible. Try to see ways in which the material you are learning can be useful later. A wide and deep knowledge of economic theory will benefit you no matter what future research you do (including applied or empirical work) – it will provide you with tools and structures that allow you to communicate and analyze ideas more rigorously, effectively and professionally.

The "Q's"

There are three qualifying exams (or Qs, qualifying exams, quals, etc.), one in econometrics, 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:

  • Learn the material in your classes. This is the best thing you can do. Don't just study hard leading up to prelims and finals – master and internalize material as much as possible (mainly by independently solving problems), because it is hard to review a whole year's material in the two weeks between May finals and the Qs.
  • You can ask the Graduate Field Assistant to share with you a Box folder containing the past 10 years of Q exams sometime later on in the fall. One technique is to use Q problems relevant to the exams in your classes as exam-prep materials. Since 10 years of Qs means about 120 micro problems and 80 macro problems (though not all relevant), it can be useful to start early, though don't panic and start too early. Another technique is to use your breaks as time for Q prep (eg. a couple weeks in January, spring break, etc.). Another is to set aside a little time each week in second semester to study for Qs.
  • Don't worry about what other people are doing. How you chose to study for the Qs is a personal choice, and everybody has their own study habits that work for them. There is no right or wrong way to study (except, of course, not studying). It is important to decide what will work for you, even if it is different from what your classmates are doing.
  • Don't get stressed over the numbers. You will hear various figures about pass rates in previous years' Q exams. Remember, these are meaningless. The exam is not graded on a curve, and the faculty grading the exam does not have a target pass rate. All you can do is study as well as possible throughout the entire academic year, and set yourself up to perform at your best on the exam.
  • The last two weeks before June Qs are a good time to go back over your weaknesses and prep. Use them well. One successful strategy is to regularly (eg. daily) take full 4-hour practice Q exams, especially if you are not familiar with the experience and physical challenge of taking longer exams. One part of success in the Q is the ability to deal with the time pressure in the exam and pace yourself, yet solve problems relatively quickly and efficiently. You need to learn this skill, and it takes practice. Plus, doing practice exams gets you to solve more practice problems, and gives you something to go over with your study group.
  • The Qs are ultimately about showing the faculty that you're ready to move on in the program and do research. This means, as discussed above, the ability to tackle, solve and analyze original problems (broadly understood). In many cases, the professors care as much about your ability to set up a problem, and "see" the solution, or apply economic intuition, as anything. Therefore, students who get into the Q and sit down and try to simply write whatever comes to mind, as quickly as possible, tend to be less successful.
  • You are allowed to take food and water into the exam, and this can also help one stay fresh and energized.
  • It's not the end of the world if you don't pass in June. It happens. Don't count on passing the June Qs – i.e. don't pack your summer with plans, because that only puts on extra pressure. Do whatever you can to take the pressure off so you can go in and do your best.
  • Get advice from other students and faculty on what and how to study for the Qualifying exams throughout the year if you feel that will help. You will find people very forthcoming with advice (since everyone here has gone through the Q process at some time), but remember that everyone learns differently and you will find a schedule that you are comfortable with.

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.

Life in the Department

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.

Being Successful Isn't Just About Studying

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.

To Research Or Not to Research

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.

Taking Advantage of Cornell Resources

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.

In Closing

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.