My System of Work (Not!)

Article excerpt

Among the signals of approaching senility, few can be clearer than being asked to write an article on one's methods of work. The profession's implied judgment is that one's time is better spent giving helpful tips to younger researchers than doing new work oneself. But of all the lessons I have learnt during a quarter century of research, the one I have found most valuable is always to work as if one were still twenty-three. From such a young perspective, I find it difficult to give advice to anyone. The reason why I agreed to write this piece will appear later. I hope readers will take it for what it is--scattered and brash remarks of someone who pretends to have a perpetually juvenile mind, and not the distilled wisdom of a middle-aged has-been.

Writing such a piece poses a basic problem at any age. There are no sure-fire rules for doing good research, and no routes that clearly lead to failure. Ask any six economists and you will get six dozen recipes for success. Each of the six will flatly contradict one or more of the others. And all of them may be right--for some readers and at some times. So you should take all such suggestions with skepticism. Give a good try to any that appeal to you, but don't fear to disregard all the rest.

There is also the problem of judging the target audience. What works for academic research is not best suited for policy or consulting research, and the right strategy for advancing the frontier of research is not the same as that for later work of consolidation or synthesis. I will assume that the readers of these essays are actual or potential academic economists with high ambition; they aim to excel in whatever area of research they choose, and are looking for good habits to speed their journey. In short, I am assuming that the readers hope for success at the top levels of the research community.

These general difficulties are compounded by my own limitations. First, I am a theorist, albeit of a relatively applied kind. That is to say, I build mathematical models to address specific issues and contexts of economic interest, rather than abstract systems of general and overarching significance. And I try to get specific results from the models (What cause has what effect?) rather than prove theorems (Does equilibrium exist, and is it unique?). What works for me is governed by what I am trying to accomplish; the same approaches and techniques may not suit the more abstract theorists or the empirical economists.

My second limitation is even more severe. I have always worked on the next problem that grabbed my interest, and tackled it using whatever approaches and techniques seemed suitable, never giving a thought to how it might fit into an overall world-view or methodology. It is hard for me to evaluate such an unsystematic and unphilosophical approach, and even harder to give any advice based on it. But I shall try.

My Own Experience of Research

Readers of these essays are surely not too interested in the drab and dreary lives of economists for their own sake; they are in search of research methods they can emulate. But one's advice is colored by one's experiences, and I owe the reader a brief statement of the reasons for my biases.

Most of us spend hours discussing at which restaurant to have dinner, and make decisions like what career to pursue and whom to marry instinctively in an instant. So it was with my entry into economics. I got my first degree in mathematics, and had just started a Master's in Operations Research, when I was converted to economics by a chance conversation with Frank Fisher. He should get all the credit, or the blame.

I started on my research career in 1968, at a time of turmoil in the academic world of Europe and the US. The prevailing atmosphere was decidedly left-wing and anti-establishment, and research was almost required to be "relevant." Most theorists were affected by this atmosphere, and I was no exception. …