This post reflects on the first two years of my economics PhD at Stanford University. I discuss my first- and second-year coursework, and my quality of life as a grad student.

First-year courses

I spent the first year taking the “core” micro, macro, and econometrics courses. Most of their content was familiar from undergrad. Some of my classmates waived out of courses they’d taken before. I didn’t because I hadn’t. I also wanted to be “in sync” with my classmates: working on the same problems, facing the same stresses, and celebrating the same milestones.

I found macro the most rewarding and metrics the least. In macro I learned how to solve dynamic optimization problems. I used that skill in a blog post and term paper on non-macro topics. In contrast, I’m about as good at econometrics as I was before starting my PhD. I know more ways to compute standard errors, but I’ve still never run a diff-in-diff.

Most of our assessment was via problem sets. They tended to focus on technical minutiae rather than fundamental insights. I seldom found them educational. Working in groups made them less educational. In theory, group-work involved discussions that helped everyone learn. In practice, it involved “dividing and conquering:” splitting problems among group members to work on alone.

We had no qualifying or in-person exams. Some courses had final assignments, but we did them at home. So I saw no reason to study. Instead I waited until we got our assignments and learned only what I needed. I didn’t want to waste time studying topics I didn’t care about. And I never forgot what the department chair said on our first day:

“Grades don’t matter. What matters is whether you do good research.”

One consequence of not studying was ending the year feeling like I knew less economics. I gained more awareness than knowledge, so my ratio of “known knowns” to “known unknowns” fell. But awareness is still useful: I know what keywords to search if I need to learn something in the future.

Second-year courses

I kept taking courses in my second year. But I got to choose my courses based on the fields I chose to specialize in. I chose micro theory and behavioral economics. Some of my reasons were:

  • I like studying simple models of how people behave and interact;
  • I’d rather argue about modeling assumptions than external validity;
  • Theory and (especially) behavioral courses had the fewest assessments.

I was scared about my career: the job market for theorists, especially behavioral theorists, is notoriously awful. But I was more scared of doing research I didn’t enjoy. That said, I viewed field choices as administrative only. They didn’t have to confine my research. Indeed I published a paper in my second year that was neither theoretical nor behavioral.

I also had to take “distribution” courses outside my chosen fields. Mine were on market design, political economy, and economic history. I attended some sociology classes because I wanted to meet non-economists who shared my interests. I met some non-economists (including some who were anti-economists), but none shared my interests. They also had very different definitions of “theory.” But I enjoyed hearing their perspectives.

The purpose of the second year was to help us transition from being research consumers to producers. Our assessments reflected that purpose. They included referee reports, research proposals, and term papers. Proposals were helpful for organizing and clarifying my ideas. They weren’t helpful for prompting feedback: I submitted six proposals and got comments once. Instead I got feedback from discussions with professors and classmates. Those discussions made going to class worthwhile.

The best discussions were with people who challenged me to think harder. For example, some professors were known to ask hard questions when students shared their ideas. At first those professors seemed “scary.” Eventually I realized that what made them scary was that they assumed I was intelligent. They wouldn’t let me make hand-wavy arguments or think lazily. I learned to admire those professors and gravitated to them. Sometimes they told me my ideas were shallow or wrong. But I’d rather be wrong in class than in print.

Quality of life

People warned me that grad students have no free time. That has not been my experience. I’ve had plenty of time to exercise, blog, and be unproductive. I had that time because I chose to minimize my coursework. I made that choice because (i) grades don’t matter (see above), and (ii) I saw coursework as a barrier to doing research and enjoying my life.

People also warned me that grad students live in poverty. Again, that has not been my experience. Stanford pays enough that I can dine out occasionally (even at Palo Alto prices), and can eat more than beans and rice at home. I can replace my running shoes and socks when they wear out. I don’t have to worry about hospital bills. I feel privileged rather than poor. Campus housing is expensive, but Stanford deducts rent from my stipend so I don’t notice they’re ripping me off.

In hindsight, I under-appreciated local amenities when I applied to PhD programs. My other options were in Boston, Chicago, and New York. Stanford definitely wins on the weather front: it’s always warm and dry here. We don’t have Chicago’s bitter winters or the east coast’s humid summers. I can go outside to unwind whenever I like. If I couldn’t then I’d go insane.

But Stanford loses on the “fun place to live” front. Palo Alto is small and suburban. It lacks the energy and excitement found in big cities. San Francisco is an hour away by train, which is fine for days out but a hassle for nights out. I prefer running to drinking, so I’m willing to sacrifice bars for sun. But that preference is endogenous.