Is a Doctorate in Economics Too Dry for Its Own Good?

Article excerpt

The Depression inspired thousands of young people to become economists. The War on Poverty and the Great Society in the 1960s were similarly inspiring, and the upheavals today should be, too. What more noble work, after all, than coming to understand, and perhaps alleviate, the wage stagnation, the global pressures, the layoffs, the job insecurities and the long working days that weigh on so many people.

But, in fact, fewer and fewer Americans are entering graduate programs and seeking careers in economics.

The Depression made a hero of John Maynard Keynes, the British economist whose prescriptions for reviving the economy -- and softening capitalism -- seemed so promising and insightful, even romantic. And out of the crowded graduate schools of that era came future giants like Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman, James Tobin and John Kenneth Galbraith. They are all in their 80s and 90s now, and no longer the role models they were in their heyday. Who are today's heroes? Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman so often given credit for the current prosperity, is one. So are Lawrence H. Summers, the combative deputy Treasury secretary and former Harvard whiz, and Paul Krugman, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor whose fame comes as much from his vivid, prolific writing in newspapers and magazines as it does from his economics. But somehow, they aren't Pied Pipers. Is it them or the times? Could Keynes do any better if he were resurrected today? Or Adam Smith, who was a popular lecturer and teacher with a wide following? Probably not. The profession is so changed. The Ph.D. program in economics today, combining a master's degree and a doctorate, calls for five to seven years of hard, technical work, harder perhaps than medical school. For bright young people, higher wages with much less study can be had in management, or consulting, or law, or on Wall Street. "I have a son who went to work right out of Harvard as a currency trader," said Angus S. Deaton, a Princeton economist and a mentor in his profession. High wages, of course, would not divert a young idealist seeking to help the world through economics. But the graduate school training in economics, with its heavy emphasis on mathematics and mathematical modeling of abstract situations, does not relate easily to the issues of the day. The idealist, in sum, is too often put off. A commission of august economists recognized this shortcoming in a 1991 report. It recommended more attention to "real-world linkages" - - a bit of advice that graduate schools have so far largely ignored. …


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