A Reflection on the First Semester of Grad School

Though structured mainly as a “letter to self,” this post is written for the advantage of those looking to enter graduate school some day. (I know that I would have liked to read something of the sort one year ago.) It covers my experience during the fall of 2017 in the Economics Ph.D. program at George Mason University, which was easily the best fall of my whole life (yet).

As prayer is to monks, as oxygen is to lungs, so too is writing to the academic. If you do not already love to write, learn. Not only is essay-craft an irreplaceable tool for clarifying one’s thoughts on a matter, but words are creative, and every human being carries a deep desire to fall into bed each night knowing that they have created something. There are manifold ways to inculcate this love; my five-years-and-running favorite has been a nightly journal entry. After one such entry, then a few pages of my most recent research, this blog post nearly began to write itself. That has to be the best thing about writing– she generously rewards those who are faithful to her.

My main thought after coming through the first stretch of graduate life is this: Make room in your schedule to do the things that remind you of why you love your field. Don’t have time? False. You don’t have time to fall out of love. A subject-matter, or a particular matter within a subject, will only disclose itself to your understanding when you approach it with love. However, one of the major downsides to living on earth is that loving always involves a certain degree of drudgery.

And so, a little litany of my causes for loving economics:

1. The thing we refer to as “our economy” is, in fact, an ever-growing corpus of actions taken by creative human beings.

If I learned anything in my six internships during college, it’s that businesses allow us to serve others while attaining our ends (i.e. raising a family, saving up for a car, buying art, etc.). I even learned this implicitly in high-school– while I make your Starbucks caramel macchiato, you’re giving me the means by which I will enjoy college. It’s also important to note that in today’s historical context, each economic decision sets of a chain of effects upon a much larger number of people than would our political opinion, for instance. The inherent ethical component in that fact merits further contemplation. Finally, our economic lives also fulfill needs that are essentially human. There is a hunger to create, as well as a zeal to create better than we did yesterday, welling up within each person. In short, “our economy” is a reality that naturally elicits wonder.

2. Our economy is a positive-sum game.

At first glance this seems improbable, since there is clearly a fixed amount of resources at our disposal that must somehow be shared amongst the planet. The issue of the amount of resources aside (our oceans are just beginning to be explored, not to mention the size of our universe), there are precisely three mistakes with that sort of thinking.  First, people don’t use “resources,” we use things that are of value. Crude oil in Canada is of no help to me, but if a team of people are able to boil, refine, and deliver it to my neighborhood as car gasoline, then it becomes of great value to me. Furthermore, we all value things differently, allowing for real win-wins to occur in trade. For example, I value the beautiful end tables that I just purchased more than the money I paid for them, though the carpenter who made them placed a higher value on my money. We both leave better than before. Finally, we are of inestimable value. Not only do we possess intrinsic value by virtue of our personhood, but we have the capacity to create things (or even persons) of value. In its most profound form, call to mind the image of a pregnant woman, dignified in her own right but also the bearer of someone altogether new and precious. On a small scale, we have daily chances to discover value and bring it forth into the word (hopefully in my research projects, for example).

3. The only certainty is radical uncertainty.

One of the reasons that economic analysis is so complex and interesting is that there are uncountable, unseen forces at play in our economy. From demography, to natural disasters, to mere fashion trends, the winds of economic change are always coming from generally unpredictable directions. This is part of the reason that the game is so fair. No matter how much money a person has accumulated, there is a vast ocean of knowledge about the future that he or she can never tap into. Consider that only 1% of Americans who make it in the “top 1%” group actually stay there for more than 10 years. Wealth aside, there is a greater lesson in this when it comes to the leading “scientific” ideas of any age. My favorite (and simultaneously least-favorite, as you will see) part of this idea is how it necessitates a continual dose of intellectual humility. In the long run, we all look silly.

4. Opportunity cost is a profound concept.

If someone asked me why the economic way of thinking was crucial to everyday life, I would have to answer with an example of opportunity cost, that is, the value of a course of action is measured by its next-best forgone alternative. Of course this idea bears much fruit in the economic sphere, but I think it is most interesting when extended even further. Consider, for example, that the value you place on a relationship is what you gave up to have it (money, time, etc.). In a marriage, this means literally that a wife is worth more than all the other women in the world to her husband, and vice versa.  The heart of opportunity cost is including the scarcity of time in dynamic analyses; we are never presented with the same choice twice.

5. Students.

I envy those who are able to put a little “my” in front of that word. There is hardly motivation stronger for giving my all to my studies than knowing that I will be sharing it with my own students one day. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that you cannot give what you don’t have.

Now, lest this reflection be interpreted as going too far, let me state also that economics is a very serious realm– even dangerous. Again, that is why it must be loved and understood. We will leave that side of affairs for another day; my thoughts on it are still too young.

All in all, it is simply a good feeling to know that I’m in the right place at the right time.

One thought on “A Reflection on the First Semester of Grad School

  1. But Clara, “what about the children!?!?”
    May I share this with my current batch of students?
    Keep making me proud you rational thinker, you!
    P.S. I remember my 1st semester epiphany, “hey, you can only graph one independent and one dependent variable on a 2-dimensional graph…so THAT explains why the demand curve shifts!” Then I looked around the room and thought “I wonder if everybody else in here already knew that?”


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