Alternatives to an Economics PhD
November 4, 2011 6:10 PM   Subscribe

I am planning on applying to economics PhD programs for next year, but before I commit I wanted to think about alternatives, especially in light of all the articles lately about how PhD programs and academia in general are a pyramid scheme. What other careers/education might be a less painful way of getting to a job that fits my life goals.

If I could have any job I wanted, I'd be a economics professor, but are there any jobs that would be easier to get than the dwindling supply of tenure track jobs? I think I have a decent shot at a top 20 econ program, but I'm not a clear shoe-in.

If I wasn't doing research of my own choosing, I wouldn't want to average more than 40 hours a week but I'd like to eventually be making around 100K. (I currently make around that, for working 50 hours in a consulting job.) This seems to rule out most of the finance / MBA jobs that I know of.

I have a strong background in advanced mathematics and economics, and have two years of experience doing lots of data analysis and regressions. I've done some programming in several different languages, but I'm not up at the level that a CS major would be.

I'm open to getting some other kind of degree or leaving work and learning skills independently.

I'd be happy with any sort of job where I am helping a business analyze data to make decisions (either directly doing it or directing someone else).
posted by vegetableagony to Education (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What degree do you have now?
posted by blargerz at 6:21 PM on November 4, 2011

This may seem obvious, but why not raise your rates and go freelance/consulting in the area you are already in? No, it won't necessairily be as stable, but you will have a lot more control over your time and what type of work you do.
posted by valoius at 6:25 PM on November 4, 2011

Sorry - necessarily
posted by valoius at 6:26 PM on November 4, 2011

Okay, so what do you think being an economics professor entails? (Because you say that you want to be one.)

If your impression/interest is in TEACHING economics (broadly), then I would advise doing an MA in economics and then finding a community college or small college in a less populated area of the country and teaching economics.


If you have a topic/question burning in your brain right now that you are certain can only be addressed by dedicating your life to it and getting a PhD and continuing to work in academia is the only way to do so, then YES - apply to PhD programs, but go for ones that have a faculty member that is so effing amazing in your broader topic/question that s/he is truly one of the few on the planet that can guide you in this quest.
posted by k8t at 6:51 PM on November 4, 2011

You're already making $100k working 50 hours a week? Unless there's some reason you can't do this forever, why in blazes would you give that up to go back to a freaking grad student stipend to enter your name in a lottery in the unrealistic hope that you might wind up making more than half of that someday?

You already make more than about 90% of the people in the country. It ain't broke.
posted by valkyryn at 6:52 PM on November 4, 2011 [8 favorites]

To address the time aspect. I have not yet being an R1 TT faculty member, but having been an R1 TT grad student and now an adjunct professor that works like crazy, I can assure you that TT people work way over 40 hours a week.

There is this odd motor that runs TT academics to always be working and to feel guilty if not working. There was a period of time where I resented other people from 'stealing' my time from me (a slow person in the grocery line, my family for trying to tell me about their lives...)

To get very personal/explicit - I cannot remember a day in the last year that I spent more than 4 waking hours NOT working (and that includes eating, bathing, commuting, and spending time with my preschooler (not to mention spouse). This is no exaggeration. My non-teaching day consists of: waking, caring for child, handing child over to caretaker, dressing, working for at least 5 hours with only ~30 minutes of email, much less fun on the Internet, then a short break for lunch, another 4 hours of working, get child, prepare dinner and feed child, spouse arrives home, I go back to home office to work for another hour or so, help put child to bed (if I am not busy with a deadline - so that is about 1 or 2 nights out of 7 of the week), then work for at least 4 more hours.
I have seen maybe 4 movies in the last year and 1/2. I read 2 pleasure books. Vacation? Ha! Outdoor activities? No way. (Although I would add that before I had a small child I probably did have a bit more time for such things.)

But all that stuff? That's mostly my own work - and you said that you'd be happy working a lot of it was your own stuff.

I'm currently teaching 2 classes, one of which is online and starting to prep one for winter. The grading, emailing, and prep work is also very time consuming. And the course that isn't directly within the realm of my research (which you'll be assigned a lot as a junior person) -- that's even harder to motivate to do the grading and prep for.

And let us not forget service. Faculty members spend a ton of time on committees - most of which people do not care about in the least. And you have a bit of choice in these, but the ones that are considered more valuable are often the less fun ones (the campus skateboard policy committee versus the plagiarism committee).

The only benefit is that the work is pretty flexible. I felt much more constrained in an 8-6 job than I do as an academic. If I have the flu, I can work on references or formatting. If my kid has something important at school, I go to it and then I stay up later to work. That flexibility is amazing.

So, tl;dr, if not working a lot is a priority for you, do not become an academic.
posted by k8t at 6:59 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

One joke I often make is that if you really understood economics, then you would get a PhD in business. There are more tenure track jobs and they pay better. If you specialize in Finance or Management you could do research on the same topics as well. Lots of the research done in those fields is applied Economics. I don't see a real downside. If you check my history you will find that I have talked about this before, and I even did a post on how there is a shortage of qualified business faculty. Feel free to MeMail me if you have more questions.
posted by bove at 10:11 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, just in contrast to k8t above, I am a tenure-track faculty member at an R1 school. I am in a Management department. I teach 3 courses a year and spend the rest of the time doing research. I am up for tenure this year with a solid record and my life is well balanced. I have plenty of time for my family and also for my work.
posted by bove at 10:13 PM on November 4, 2011

Economics is very different than the sciences (or the "humanities).

It is *much* more easy in economics to be a VERY well paid member in industry and make yourself a name there, to be *recruited* into academia than it is to go into academia and then make it big in industry.

If you can find yourself a good job with upward mobility, take it. Academia will welcome you into its bosum way faster than someome just coming out of a PhD in Econ. Hell, do a great job and universities will come begging you to teach for them... at a fraction of your then-current salary, though.

On preview - it depends. A little bit more on you than on the current environment, imo.
posted by porpoise at 10:14 PM on November 4, 2011

Yeh, ex-banker currently taking a PhD (Finance) and currently teach part time while completing my degree. k8t has covered most of the pros and cons of academic live superbly so I thought I'd just add a little on the finance side.

The work limit (at least in America, I'm in Europe where its a little different) is a constraint I'd suggest relaxing, at least while you're young. To be honest if you're pulling in $100K you're on the low side of most finance jobs. Not sure what you mean by "MBA jobs", but in my circles (Tier 1 Investment Banks) you're cheap, perhaps seriously cheap.

Combining a couple of answers unthread, if you're undecided about embarking on a Doctorate (and you clearly are) I'd suggest trying to maximise your earnings now.

The Maths & Economics education plus a couple of years of hands on coding could be seriously attractive to Front and Middle Office, if combined with some product knowledge. Try to learn the product side - what is a Credit Default Swap, a Structured Product, etc. Credit is an area with lots of potential, as is anything related to Regulatory Capital. Of course to learn any of these areas you already have to have the basics (start with Fixed Income, Equities, Commodities then derivatives covering all) in place first. By "in place" I mean not just knowing what the instruments are (parametric definition), but valuation.

Combine some solid product knowledge with your Maths and experience, relax that work constraint and you could probably triple your earnings. Work for about a decade at that rate, live cheap and you won't have to work ever again unless you want to.

Then you could take your PhD and you'd probably get a lot more out of it as you'd have significantly more professional experience and there would be at least one if not dozens of burning questions about market anomalies you've seen that you'd like to investigate.

And this is first person advice, its pretty much the route I've followed, albeit by accident not design. I worked in Investment Banking, Front and middle office for well over twenty years, lived cheap, saved lots, invested lots. And now I'm finding the answers to some burning questions I've got about things I've noticed in the markets since I was a little kid, things that shouldn't exist. You can do this too.
posted by Mutant at 1:52 AM on November 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

In your case, since you're planning to get a PhD in Economics, you can be assured that you will have plenty of professional opportunities after you finish, even if getting a tenure track position doesn't work out for you, and you will still be rather well paid... So your plan is relatively low risk.

Good scenario: become an economics professor

Acceptable scenario: fail to find TT position, get an economics job in consulting/finance/etc.

Bailout scenario: don't make it through grad school, finish with an MS, get another consulting job.

Seems like things will work out ok. The only thing I would warn about is k8t's point: if you want a 9-5 job where you "leave work in the office" when you go home, academia isn't it.
posted by deanc at 8:39 AM on November 5, 2011

Response by poster: I really appreciate all your perspectives. I'm going to give some careful thought both to how much work is involved in the life of academic as well as the other others who have messaged me to let me know how much competition there is for good jobs for Econ PhDs.

I'm going to look into PhDs in business, since that does sounds like it might still fit pretty closely with my research interests, and have a more attractive job outlook.

I'm also going to check out some of the front and middle office finance jobs that mutant suggested, though I think in general my interests lie much more in the direction of research than straight finance.

To answer some of the questions that have come up:
I was a math and econ major from a top ranked school. I'm working in economic litigation consulting doing research into economic and financial questions that come up in the context of large corporate lawsuits. It's a pretty good job, but not really designed for people at my level to stay forever (instead you are advised to get a PhD or MBA). I would likely need some sort of further education before I could do the consulting independently, since I don't have the credentials to be directly used as an expert witness.
posted by vegetableagony at 11:16 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sometimes community colleges will hire people with "industry experience" to teach career-oriented classes, even if those people don't have a PhD or (in some cases) even a Master's.

If it's the teaching end of academic life you're interested in, then I'd suggest you aim to do that in the future rather than quitting your job to pursue a PhD. The opportunity cost of quitting a well-paying job like yours is huge. The opportunity cost of keeping at it, working on your public speaking skills, and applying to teach a few classes on the side in five or ten years? Basically zero.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:05 PM on November 5, 2011

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