crap economist

postcards from year 1 of the PhD

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when it’s too late to take a computer science class

Last week I did a problem set in STATA. Next week I’m teaching an intro to MatLab. This week I’m reading the manual(s) on R. I’ve been thinking a lot about statistical packages, programming, and my future as a data-centric economist, if not an econometrician. 

From “Minimal Advice to Undergraduates on Programming,” two thoughts:

Statisticians must be able to do basic programming; someone who only knows how to run canned routines is not a data analyst but a technician who tends a machine they do not understand.  

Learning enough syntax for some language to make things run without crashing is not the same as actually learning how to think computationally.

That last one resonates with me in particular, because my macroeconomics professor verbally backhanded me last semester for stating that I knew plenty of MatLab commands, but that I was having a really hard time programming my homework assignments. She insisted that she didn’t recognize any difference between programming and the rudiments of a programming language (MatLab). It’s about thinking computationally. Once you get a glimpse of it, I don’t see how you can fail to recognize the difference. 

If I manage to do my microeconomics reading tomorrow instead of plowing through everything Cosma Shalizi has accessible online, it will be a miracle. 


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New Battle Plan

So here’s some things I’m going to stick to: 

  • Exercising 3 times a week is mandatory, especially during finals. I don’t know about you, but my ability to manage stress falls apart if I can’t get my heart rate up for 30 minutes on a regular basis. During finals this semester, I stopped exercising altogether, and it was a bonehead move. The only way to keep it going is outside pressure: find buddies who will commit to helping you kick your own ass. 
  • Skim the info before class, construct notes before class, take notes in class, recopy notes before going to sleep the night of class. My best sets of class notes were recopied an hour after class because I remembered the annecdotes and examples, and could flesh them out from short term memory. 
  • Classes are 3 hours, sometimes without a break. It’s hard to focus that long. I need to accept that I should outfit myself with tea and a snack. If I go to class without it, I’ll just end up buying something from a vending machine or a store at the break, and that adds up to a lot of money. Instead, I should keep tea or coffee and snack bars of some kind at school. 
  • Do problems: each week, I should do the assigned problem set, plus a set of review problems from previous weeks. If I wait until midterm or finals season, I’m not reviewing, I’m learning it all over again. Also, with quals coming up in June, I need to be spending some serious time on that at the same time I’m studying for regular midterms and finals. 
  • Develop an intensity of focus. Spend 1 hour at a time doing work and not procrastinating, then take a break. Having a computer on in the same room is more distracting than I like to admit, so the correct choice for me is to go to the library with books, paper, and pencil, leaving the computing devices behind whenever possible. 
  • Build in time for qual studying. I think I’m doing mine on Thursday mornings, before the events of the weekend eat me alive. 

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Some Philosophical Musings

Let me begin by saying, I’ve gotten my grades back and they’re good. Maybe even great. I don’t know the distribution of the grades in the cohort. 

That said, I spent the whole semester feeling like I was literally failing out of school with a capital “F.” There was stress, desperation, fear, alienation, and the constant pressure of feeling that my chance was slipping away. Impostor syndrome hit me hard, even when I knew it was coming and prepared to fight it. Neither my undergrad or my masters work felt this soul-crushing. It made me doubt myself. It made me wonder if I should take any easy chance to pull down the or impede the other members of my cohort: since the distribution of ever exam is so tight, the point difference between an A and an F can be counted on your fingers.

The whole business felt intensely reactionary: no planning and strategy, just adrenaline, fear and reacting to the most imminent deadline. I’m not proud of it.

Depressed yet? Shake it off. Here are the resources I repeatedly pulled from this semester.

  1. Mathew Pearson’s guide to surviving the first year of your phd. I wrote down the key points from this piece at the beginning of the semester and found it became a mantra again and again. Hating the material, impostor syndrome, and freaking out: these things are normal, but a complete waste of your time. Learn deeply — leave the undergrad skimming and memorizing to get through the midterm behind. Believe that you are stuck on this track until summer: do nothing rash until then.  Study alone among others. You get the picture: it’s a good primer. 
  2. Cal Newport’s blog. It’s mostly geared towards high schoolers applying to college or undergrads figuring out their majors, but there are some gems for grad students too. I originally found this after the first round of problem sets floored me. I wasn’t used to assignments that could take 40 hours, with no way to guess when I’d be done and manage my own time. The post on solving hard problem sets is gold, and I’ve been reading up on his other insights over break, trying to set up a collection of good habits to kill spring semester from day one. The general philosophy is “do fewer thing, do them really well, and be cognizant of why you’re doing the things you do.” 

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On Pedagogy

Towards the end of my semester, I received my coursework assignment for my teaching fellowship. Unfortunately, it’s a nightmare assignment. I’ll have to schlep an hour and a half, one way, to teach at a peripheral campus. I’m trying to focus on the bright side: it can’t possibly get any worse.

I thought a lot about pedagogy, as we all waited, with bitten nails, for our assignments. I hate feeling like I’ve compiled a list of “don’ts” from my interaction with professors this year, but that’s how pedagogical lessons are most obviously expressed, unfortunately.

  1. Present a clear syllabus. If you set up a schedule, and you fall behind, the students will forgive you. Failing to provide a path that tells students which topic (and associated readings) come next makes for a distortionary course: kids having trouble will have more trouble. Kids doing ok will continue to do ok.
  2. Give a packet with all the homework assignments at the beginning of the semester. The students can look ahead to see what’s coming. The students can do homework early if they plan to miss a class, fly home early for a holiday, whatever.
  3. Respond with positive language to a student’s question. Always. It’s ok to say “I don’t know, but I would look in publication X.” It’s ok to say “we don’t have time for this in the scope of this course, but I can point you to resources afterwards.” It’s never ok to make a student feel stupid. I wrote the first draft of this post after a lab session in which the TA began with a rant on how we are all smart enough to do the work ourselves, so she shouldn’t have to be here and lead a TA session at all. She has a blanket response to questions about exams, homework past, homework future, or questions on econometrics programming. She says “that is not my job, I do not have to answer this question. Next.” I choose blogging instead of punching her in the face. See? Positive response to student questions.
  4. Board management: remember that the students who are lost should be able to learn the material they didn’t understand in class from the notes. If a student can’t nip out for a 2 minute bathroom break and pick up when he returns, you’re not doing your job. 

I recently read this piece on teaching linear algebra to undergrads. I think it’s brilliant and correctly identifies how to build memory and habits. It’s also a great note to myself:

  • Prep before a class so that you construct the notes you think will be produced before the actual class. Then you only have to write the things that diverge from your notes, you can follow easier, and you have the breathing room to ask questions.
  • Review in lengthening intervals so midterms and finals aren’t quite so intense. Each week I should do my regular problem set, but also problems from previous weeks’ chapters that were not assigned. 

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Post Mortem, or Things I Learned the Hard Way

I was bad about posting during the semester. Sorry. I plead PhD.

I survived, and I’ve got a couple more weeks left in my January break, so I’d like to rehash the things I learned. 

If I had it to do over again, from week one, or even from prep during the summer, here’s what I’d wish for myself. 

  1. Math. They tell you to take lots of math classes. They’re correct. The material contained in Calc I, Calc II, Calc III, Linear Algebra, Statistics, and some sort of Analysis course is very important. Use the Alpha Chiang  or Simon and Blume text to get an outline for the content you need. However, the first semester for me was fairly light on content and heavy on procedure. I’ve had classes where I had to do proofs, sometimes a lot of proofs, but I’ve never had a First Course in Proofs. Knowing how to smell your way to the end of a problem or proof, regardless of the content, is the name of the game. I’m working through a text called How to Prove It: A Structured Approach. This may be a barn-door-post-equine-departure situation, but I wish I had known this stuff in September. I’m going to work through Royden’s Real Analysis for good measure. The problems in the first chapter of Royden made it clear that I was lacking the proofs/logic prowess to do this kind of work. 
  2. Do Problems. There were two kinds of study plans in my cohort. Type I reviewed the notes, read the books, and focused on preparation before taking on the problems of old homeworks and sample exams. Type II spent an hour tops on this kind of review, and spent the rest of the 3-5 days available for midterm or final studying puzzling through problems from the homeworks, problems from sample exams, unassigned problems from your main or peripheral texts, problems from random sources on the internet that might be like our course. I know I started out doing Type I. I felt the need to “prepare” before taking on problems. It seemed really wrong not to “study” (ie: read, memorize) in the traditional sense for many hours until I was comfortable with the information. It goes against every instinct I have, but you must do problems all the time, until there are no more problems to do or it’s bedtime. 
  3. Become a better programmer. I thought I had street cred in this area. In my masters program I guess that was true, but not with the PhD crowd. Having a serious knowledge of programming in matlab, stata, etc, beyond knowing the commands for regressions, was imperative. Trying to learn programming for real in the middle of the rest of your coursework sucks. Be smart, do it in the summer if you can. Right now I’m working through MIT’s lectures on intro to comp sci, which unfortunately uses LISP (not something I’ll be using daily), but it’s apparently an awesome foundation. There’s also this Python Tutorial. There are any number of Matlab and STATA programming tutorials on the web. I poached several from the list of software tutorials on the econphd.net website. 

Those are the big three. More philosophy on how to thrive in econ PhD-land is forthcoming. 

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Piled Higher and Deeper: Extracurricular Edition

There have been some non-academic lessons in the last few weeks. 

Health Care

Even though I submitted an address change to the office in charge of grad assistant health care, they sent it to the old one, got it back as undeliverable, and then held on to it, quietly, with no notification to me. Meanwhile I’m eyeing all the coughing, sneezing people around me, wondering when I’ll get my flu shot. I think it’s time for me to have an eye exam as well: under sleep deprivation conditions, I find that my eyes don’t like focusing long distances at the end of the day. Spectacles are professorial? Discuss. 

Work

I’m a graduate assistant, which means that even in my first year, I’m supposed to…assist. The head of the program has assigned me to two professors: a micro theorist and a finance guy. The former hasn’t deigned to respond to my email. The latter has me proctoring his exams and running a review session just before finals. Part of me is disappointed not to have some sort of research task like a couple of my other colleagues. The other part of me is ecstatic, because maybe I won’t bite off more than I can chew, for once.

Storage

No office space is available for graduate students at the university, but it turns out there are lockers. I have always been a fan of the segregation of work and life by building. I don’t work efficiently at home, because that’s where the television and the xbox live. Having a secure place to store heavy textbooks, my laptop, tea, cliffbars, etc has been a quality-of-life-changing experience. I get up and out the door in the morning, just as if I were going to work like the rest of the corporate types on the street, and I’m far more productive that way. 

Social Capital

Socially, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks setting up a facebook group that’s private so people are comfortable bitching about problem sets and professors. I’ve been going out for a beer with some of my colleagues after the last class of the week in the neighborhood of the university. Most importantly, I spend lots of time in the common room of the department. The professors and the director know my face, the students are learning that they can come and talk with me about work, and it’s becoming more of a trend to hang out at the department. Community formation sometimes needs a little push.

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Piled Higher and Deeper: Academic Edition

Welcome to week four. 

I dropped off the map for a bit, but I’m back now. With the random holidays firmly behind us and one eye on midterms, there has been real, honest work to do. I’m two to three problem sets into the structure of the beast, depending on the class. In order of fear, my professors for macro (Professor X), metrics (Professor Y) and micro (Professor Z)

Econometrics with Professor Y has been the most difficult homework for me, even though we’re only in math review and basic probability. Why? Lack of mathematical maturity. I understand all of the concepts just fine. I can roll of a few dozen properties of matricies and their spawn, but having to prove those properties from basic principles has been more difficult than anticipated. It’s just the furniture of proofs that’s getting in the way. I only see the whole problem, not the bits that will get me to the finish line, because I haven’t done this 46,000 times. To borrow a friend’s reasoning, I can’t ask for proofs for Christmas. True leaps of genius aside, they will only come if I drill them, do 5 this week and 5 next week, and in a year I’ll be better at this. So that’s the plan: 1 proof per weekday with my coffee.

The TA for econometrics barely speaks English, which is posing a problem. She grades in an extremely structured manner, so if you’ve a question about a problem or contest a docked point, it’s going to take an hour and at least five misunderstandings. Just like I summarily write off professors who don’t respond well to questions in class or office hours, I hate TAs who don’t have the facility with the language to be helpful to their students. I will never TA in French or Spanish. Hold me to it.

Macro with Professor X is by far the hardest work for me. Thankfully the TA who grades our homework is a merciful guy. It’s recursive methods in macroeconomics, which looks nothing like my masters-level macro, using Stokey and Lucas as the nuts-and-bolts reference text. Prof X has this cheerful sadism thing going that I find endearing. That said, when I teach I will put together the homework assignments in advance and distribute them at the start of term. I’ve already been through three sets of “Professor X, do we have homework due next week?” — “No.” Then bright and early Monday I find we have homework due in two days, the same day everything else is due. No matter how many times I say “I’ll behave as though there’s homework due” — unless I’ve read the problem set, I have a hard time including that time in my mental budgeting. We’ll see how next week goes.

Micro is…standard. Hasn’t changed much in thirty to fifty years, depending who’s teaching. Occasionally I feel stupid doing the homework, but the whole class looks a lot like advanced masters-level micro at my masters institution, but with a nicer more patient prof. When Professor Z asks a question in class and you answer wrong, he gets this glint in his eye and tries to get you to bet him a million dollars you’re right. It’s a useful trick for telling a student she’s dead wrong and possibly very stupid without looking antagonistic. Note to self.

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the transition, or the week of stopping and starting

This should be my third week of classes. It’s not. Instead, Undisclosed University, in its infinite wisdom, gave us a week of classes and then a week and a half off, cooling our heels. It’s not my fault: I haven’t been posting because there has been little to post. 

My initial impressions are pretty firmly set though, so here it goes: econometrics, macro and micro for the next nine months until my first qualifying exams. There is no “math for economists” course, since they seem to subscribe to a “be mathy or die” model. I will be pursuing my own study of linear algebra, calculus, and programming to make myself a better student.

Metrics is great. I’d like to work with the prof next year if I’m still thinking about research in that vein. Micro is very old school, using Gary Becker and Hal Varian as texts, but deriving everything and building from first principles feels really cathartic and thorough right now. Ask me again in three months how I feel about that. Macro promises to be challenging — this prof is the one that will kick my ass. I’m sure I’ll be whinging over this course for many moons to come. 

All of our courses are held in the same room, which is odd, but at least I’ll never make a mistake in rooms. I sat in my program director’s office to glean gossip for an hour on Friday. I’ve scheduled “visit Mary” into my calendar as a repeating icon in hopes of making it a weekly occurrence. I’ve been assigned to two professors as a graduate gopher. One hasn’t returned my email, the other is a finance guy at UU’s business school, so I’m looking forward to working with him. He seems on board with the plan to assign me work but not so much that I don’t pass my quals. Lucky me.

I have filled the huge break in classes with television, cooking, shopping, traveling and other things that I expect I won’t have time or money for during the school year. Part of my frustration is that the presence of these things means I’m not doing the PhD for real yet. The transition is better than the waiting I put up with all summer, but it still sucks a bit.

I am the entire cast of Monty Python screaming “get on with it!” 

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The Real Deal

Orientation was fun and all, but it’s not really the first day of school until you’re faced with professors and classes. The professor of my first class apparently felt the need to present a paper in Spain on the first day of classes, so I had an extra weekend of freedom. 

First day of classes is today, and I’ve just noticed that the syllabus requires some reading for class…so my morning is filled with a review of matrix algebra from the back of Greene’s Econometric Analysis. Fun times.

I’ve moved to a new apartment, which is much closer to school (woo!). Things are still in boxes, so there’s a bit of anxiety about trying to work in a non-workable space. If I had it to do over again, I’d move with at least a week’s breathing room before orientation. Moving in the first week of classes is not for sissies. 

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The Gauntlet, or Registration Day

Today I was processed through Human Resources at the university. It was not as warm and fuzzy as my last contact with the institution. Lots of miscommunication, catch-22s and waiting in lines. 

That said, I have had a chat with my department’s administrator and filed my information with her (1). I have registered (through the Registrar (2)) for the three classes that everyone in my program must take. I have a student ID (security (3)) and a Library (4) barcode with associated account. I have filled out all of the tax forms and questionnaires HR (5) requires. Did you know that public universities require a copy of your social security card to be on file because you’re working for the state? I didn’t. I waltzed in with my passport like I always do for I-9 hiring documents. I have retrieved my fellowship fall entry lump-sum check and set up direct deposit with the Payroll office (6) for the ensuing paychecks (every two weeks). And hopefully, within a few days I will have a newly-minted university email address from Information Technology (7). I signed up for state health insurance with the guy from student affairs (8) — dental and vision, woo! 

And in a weeks or two, when I find my new apartment, I will have to change my address with every one of these entities separately. *Sigh.*

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Orienting, or the First Day of School

I will preface all of this by saying that I was deeply attached to my alma mater, but felt no such loyalty to my last graduate institution where I obtained my masters degree. The place inspired a pervasive discontentment and constantly reminded me of my second-class status through the repeated use of the phrase “for use only by doctoral students.” 

When I got into this PhD program, I promised myself I would do whatever necessary to tie myself, emotionally, to this new academic endeavor. I decided that any presentation by this graduate body would be mandatory, and this week was orientation. 

The schedule for the day was: convocation speeches (president, keynote, provost, head of doctoral student association), IT presentation, library presentation, debt counseling workshop, wellness workshop. The whole day reinforced a theme of extreme support and welcome for the new PhD students. I’m grateful for the welcome, but after 5 hours of lecture on the extreme mental anguish through which we will be supported, I can’t help but feel more apprehensive than I was before. 

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Filed under impostor syndrome

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Paperwork
Universities are interesting creatures. Having worked for the private sector, the government, and the public sector at various times in the past, I’ve developed a well trained palate for the nuances of various bureaucracies. Working through the packet of paperwork from my new academic home was like trying to suss out the native terroir from the aroma of a fine wine.
No, it was less fun that that. It is, however, interesting to be working my way into the structure. 
I have my registration ID, my academic calendar pinned to my bulletin board, and all sorts of orientations seminars to attend next week. Woo! As I’ll officially be an employee of the university, I’m sure there will be some presentation on not sexually harassing your fellow employees and/or students. Who doesn’t love a good lecture on sexual harassment policies? 
It is nearly fall! If I knew who you were, I’d send you a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils…

Paperwork

Universities are interesting creatures. Having worked for the private sector, the government, and the public sector at various times in the past, I’ve developed a well trained palate for the nuances of various bureaucracies. Working through the packet of paperwork from my new academic home was like trying to suss out the native terroir from the aroma of a fine wine.

No, it was less fun that that. It is, however, interesting to be working my way into the structure. 

I have my registration ID, my academic calendar pinned to my bulletin board, and all sorts of orientations seminars to attend next week. Woo! As I’ll officially be an employee of the university, I’m sure there will be some presentation on not sexually harassing your fellow employees and/or students. Who doesn’t love a good lecture on sexual harassment policies? 

It is nearly fall! If I knew who you were, I’d send you a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencils…

Filed under bureaucracy

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I can see the cliff edge now. I guess that means I’m really starting a PhD in economics. Classes start at the end of August, and in the next few weeks I’ll have to run the gauntlet of ID card procurement, financial aid office conversations, and general administrative fun. 
I spent some time this week speaking to a friend of mine about the beginnings of a PhD program. The view, from one who is currently writing a dissertation, doesn’t inspire confidence, but it makes me feel less like a crazy person. I am secure in the knowledge that most scholars feel this insecure. I feel like I haven’t prepared enough. I feel like I will know less than the students I will teach, and they will point and laugh at me. Apparently this is completely normal.
I’m still excited to work with the professors I spoke with in April, when I was interviewing. I’m still excited about macro, econometrics, tech change and financial crises. I am secure in my area of specialization, but not on the exact scope of my thesis project. I’m told this is a good sign. 
This week I’m wrapping up my prep study, and looking for a new apartment. While I hate moving, I’m really happy about purging the stuff I don’t need or like from the place I live. Tables, clothing, and ice cream makers are flying out the door and into the arms of my friends (and other charity organizations). As much as I despise change and uncertainty, I am enjoying the impending autumnal change: new place, new work, new chapter in life. 

I can see the cliff edge now. I guess that means I’m really starting a PhD in economics. Classes start at the end of August, and in the next few weeks I’ll have to run the gauntlet of ID card procurement, financial aid office conversations, and general administrative fun. 

I spent some time this week speaking to a friend of mine about the beginnings of a PhD program. The view, from one who is currently writing a dissertation, doesn’t inspire confidence, but it makes me feel less like a crazy person. I am secure in the knowledge that most scholars feel this insecure. I feel like I haven’t prepared enough. I feel like I will know less than the students I will teach, and they will point and laugh at me. Apparently this is completely normal.

I’m still excited to work with the professors I spoke with in April, when I was interviewing. I’m still excited about macro, econometrics, tech change and financial crises. I am secure in my area of specialization, but not on the exact scope of my thesis project. I’m told this is a good sign. 

This week I’m wrapping up my prep study, and looking for a new apartment. While I hate moving, I’m really happy about purging the stuff I don’t need or like from the place I live. Tables, clothing, and ice cream makers are flying out the door and into the arms of my friends (and other charity organizations). As much as I despise change and uncertainty, I am enjoying the impending autumnal change: new place, new work, new chapter in life. 

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a view of the theoretic toolkit

Today I’m reading a speech by a Purdue economist, who sees the world much as I do. Economics is highly respectful of other people. Economics generates a growing community of mutually respectful economists. I don’t know if economics is all that successful…but models are simplifications and there are things economics is not meant to explain. So we try to see how economics interacts with psychology, biology, and ethics, and attempt to model the world better. 

I think I found economics early in college because I was surrounded by people who saw the world of theory as a zero sum game. If you’re right, I’m wrong, and vice versa. It’s the “if you think that, you’re stupid” school of debate that drove me into the arms of optimization and equilibrium. As a human, by nature I am overeager to see different points of view and accept that people correctly place different values on things. Most of the people in my life circa 1999 were not of the same mind.