Sunday, November 16, 2008

Becoming an Economist

A little less than a year ago, I had dinner with Ben Powell and Robert Lawson where we spoke a lot about graduate study in general. At one point in the conversation, Powell described grad school as a transition from consumption to production of economics. This idea stuck out to me. And I am still trying to figure out how to make this transition.

I have been trying to write a lot more lately. McCloskey's How to be Human* was a good read; I think I will be a better writer having read it. But I am encountering what I think is the biggest problem for graduate students attempting to write decent papers: I do not know the literature.

It's worse than that. I do not know where to look for the literature. And even if I actually know the literature (i.e. I have read the important works), I do not know that I know the literature. So when I write something, I cannot help but think that someone else has already pointed this out; that I am wasting my time; that my efforts could be much more productive if I only had a little human capital built up.

It is frustrating, to say the least. I am ready to start thinking through interesting problems---to shift away from being primarily a consumer of economics. But starting the transition is proving to be much more difficult than I imagined.


jeremy h. said...

Learning a literature gets easier with practice, but it is still tricky. One strategy is to just write up what you know, present it, and your audience will help you with the lit review ("you need to read book X and article Y").

I've heard that a certain Nobel winner (initials DN) used this strategy often. It's not dishonest as long as you acknowledge those that helped.

Will Luther said...

That is PRECISELY my plan at present. Let's hope it works...