Wouldn’t D.H. be proud, an eternal braid

Joanna Lahey, a recent graduate from Texas A&M and now postdoc fellow at the Natlional Bureau of Economic Research, tells us her story about how she learned to just stop worring and to really really like economics. Seemed fitting as I start my own five years in about a week.
How I Learned to Love Economics

In my economics department, the third week of July always hits like an anvil. It’s at that point that advisers all over the department descend on hapless fourth- and fifth-year doctoral students demanding, “Where is your job-market paper?” or “Which one is your job-market paper?” or “You need a draft of your job-market paper.”

Any fourth-year students whose summer has not produced a single-authored work good enough to serve, for the purposes of the job market, as an example of their potential is told they will have to stay another year. Fifth-year students in the same predicament are put into metaphorical medieval torture devices, and told to get results and a paper by, well, yesterday. Or if not yesterday, then September or October at the latest.

A year ago at this time, I was one of those students under the gun. Gone were my 48-hour weeks and my dreams of long romantic weekend drives to escape the city and explore rural luxuries like local produce and large Wal-Marts. Instead, I gave myself over to the frantic process of writing and revising. By late September, I had prepared and practiced the talk I would give about my research in job interviews. And by October 1, I turned in a camera-ready CV for the information packet that my department sends out to universities about its new Ph.D.’s.

Since my husband, Ryan, is also a doctoral student, in engineering, we had an added incentive for working as hard and efficiently as we could: We realized as we prepared to go on the market that we would have to be the best candidates that we could be in order to maximize our chances of staying together.

As summer turned to fall, my advisers strongly encouraged me to finish a second paper so I could send it out with my packet. Suddenly each failed regression or data error took on massive significance. Would I ever get a paper out? What if I didn’t finish? What if I’m the only person in my class not to get a job? Why am I doing economics anyway?

Seven-day workweeks come at a cost when your spouse isn’t in the same field. At first, we spent romantic evenings together (usually from 9 to 11 p.m.) working on a spreadsheet comparing the job openings in economics with those in biomedical and electrical engineering.

Then we started meeting for an hour each evening for dinner. By winter, we were eating at work and meeting at midnight to walk home together. The days began to blur so much that at one point in late December I realized that I had no idea when was the last time I had seen Ryan for an hour. Thank goodness for cellphones and instant messaging.

Sometimes over the course of the past year, I would get overwhelmed with a sense of despair: Was I sacrificing too much today for the hope of the future?

My mother, a professor herself, told me that in graduate school I should keep one day of the week sacred from work or else I would burn out, but when the weekend rolled around I felt too guilty to take off a full day. Luckily most of my friends are either graduate students or dating graduate students, so I had no worries about alienating them. They all understood the demands of the academic job market.

Ryan and I let chores slip by the wayside. Our mountain of dirty laundry was more like a mountain range. No more home cooking; my waistline expanded throughout the process, thanks to all that pizza-fueled thinking. I’ve only recently recovered from my addiction to Slimfast bars. Fortunately I never ate so much that I grew out of clothing, because I would have had no time to shop.

Somewhere along the way, however, my view about the academic world and my role in it began to change. I gradually stopped feeling hopeless and started really enjoying the work.

Staying at the office became easy, almost fun, since everyone else was there, too. We all suffered together. And since Ryan was at his lab, it wasn’t as if I were missing quality time with him. There was always someone to talk to when I got stuck on my research, so I spent less time lost and frustrated.

I learned more about actually doing economics last year than I had in the previous four. Data got cleaned, regressions run, and my papers progressed into something not so embarrassing.

Even more important, I saw that we all got stuck, we all got conflicting advice from our advisers, and we all felt as if we would never finish our stupid papers. If nothing else, we always had someone to share a pizza with. And even when everyone else had gone home for the night, I discovered a certain freedom in being able to sing along with my headphones, especially when what was playing was from the Avenue Q soundtrack.

The monthly postings of “Job Openings for Economists” started me imagining the future and reminded me of why I was working so hard. My colleagues and I talked about how wonderful the weather is in California, what the South would be like, how sensible things are in the Midwest, and which of us absolutely had to live in an East Coast city. Did we want to teach undergraduates or doctoral students? Did we not want to teach at all? Interdisciplinary work or hard-core economics? Fame or flexibility?

Going on the job market got rid of my self-esteem problem. There’s nothing like explaining why your work is important to a new captive audience every 30 minutes to make you believe that your work really is interesting and important.

At some point it dawned on me, I really did want to be a professor. I can work hours and hours without stopping, so long as I get to sleep in the next morning. (If only I felt that way about exercise.) I like being able to choose my own short-term deadlines. I like doing research. I have important questions to answer and I enjoy the freedom to work on them.

One of my colleagues and I wrote our third papers together with little if any input from our advisers (there just wasn’t time). Being able to pull together a respectable paper in three months all by ourselves was the capstone of our coming of age. We are real economists now. Independent work isn’t so scary. Coauthoring is fun.

The process of completing my dissertation has made it much easier both to come up with new research topics and to figure out, ahead of time, which projects might be viable. I know which subfields in my area are understudied. I know what data sets have or don’t have the information I would need to answer those questions. Literature reviews for new projects bring up questions that beget future work. I have an agenda.

When I was little, my goal in life was to figure out how the world works. As an economist I’ve come closer to that goal. I can explain why it’s not always best to buy rather than rent, why women make more on the stock market than men on average, or which states prohibit hiring decisions based on smoking status. We economists have tons of great cocktail conversation, and it’s good to have a couple of us at any party (although a sure way to kill a party is to have more than a quarter of the guests be economists).

Now that I’ve gotten a job and graduated, being an economist has gotten better and better — and not just because the stress is gone. I’d never thought much about fame and fortune, but it seems that those are positive externalities. Graduate school in economics may be painful at times, but the monetary rewards once you finish aren’t: The average starting salary for an assistant professor in my field is in the $70s. I have an outside grant to hire research assistants, and I’m getting paid for freelance writing on my research.

Even more surprising, the real world seems to be interested in my job-market paper. After putting it out as a working paper, I got phone calls from reporters. One of my advisers had told me that he was sure I would get a public-radio interview about the work, but I had never really believed him. Three months after graduation, Kai Ryssdal from Marketplace is telling me that I’ll sound fine after they do some sound editing. Economics is so neat!

Now that the third week of July has rolled past again, I see my friends on the job market going into the same nervous high gear that I remember so well. They talk about their fears (What if I don’t get a job? What if I don’t finish?) and insecurities (What if I’m not good enough?). I put my feet up on my desk, my arms behind my head, and say, “You’ll survive. You’re smart and hard working. You’ll finish, you’ll get a job, and you’ll be so happy when this is all done.”

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