Writing about my job: Economics Professor
I am following the advice of Aaron Gertler and writing a post about my job. 80000 hours has independent career path pages dedicated to getting an economics PhD and doing academic research, but the specifics of my personal experience may be of interest. Plus, it was fun to recount!
Summary of Current Role
Tenure track professor of economics (since 2019) at large state school in the US (University of Oklahoma; Boomer Sooner!)
This focus has lead to frequent engagement with the Global Priorities Institute as well as some folks at Open Philanthropy (though the latter has been very limited and informal so far).
My Background and Path to Applying
Went to a not-very-prestigious, but large, research university (Temple University; Go Owls!)
In undergrad I couldn’t get enough of my math and economics courses and was (probably) the best economics student at my University while I was there. This allowed me a lot of access to faculty.
Neither parent went to college, so I was lucky that a professor pushed the idea of a PhD. That was not on my radar (nor did I understand it).
I also enjoyed researching my honors thesis, learning how to write code, and the development economics internship I had in Cape Town. These made me confident a PhD was a good future move.
My only useful extra curricular was a job tutoring math at the university learning center (this honed my only marketable skill—math—and I now recommend it to my students with mathematical aptitude).
I then went directly from undergrad to a graduate school ranked ~25 the US (University of Texas at Austin; Hook ’Em!).
I considered taking a job as a research assistant at a Federal Reserve Bank to improve my grad placement. Ultimately I decided the 2 year life-cost was not worth it. Despite the popularity of that route, I very much continue to think I made a good decision in my case.
At Texas I worked in the macroeconomics group, but also had a development economics co-advisor. I sat a bit awkwardly between fields.
In my 3rd year of graduate school I became very interested in more (not-yet-longtermist) EA ideas.
I figured a job at an international organization would be a good path to impact and ended up landing an internship at the IMF.
This internship probably only helped a bit towards my current academic life, but I learned a lot, enjoyed it, and can imagine scenarios where this did help land me in an international organization.
Getting my Current Job
There is plenty of advice on navigating the PhD economics job market, so I won’t recount my general strategy here.
If you’re an undergrad instead looking for PhD application advice, check out the GPI mentoring program!
Personally, I would have been happy at an academic job or a policy making organization (preferably something like IMF or World Bank). I ended up with offers from (i) my current academic institution and (ii) the Reserve Bank of India in their research department.
The stark difference in these offers fairly represents the tightrope I was trying to walk between (i) showing I could do academic-style research (ii) working on applied policy questions and (iii) starting to get interested in GPR-style topics.
I honestly feel like I didn’t blend these very well; yet somehow I managed to land a job I was happy with. I’d be willing to talk with anyone entering the economics job market in the near future about my thoughts on this challenge.
Also, I was on the hiring committee at my University this last year, so I now have a clearer understanding of this process.
Details of Current Role
I teach 2 courses and advise ~4 grad students per semester; the rest of my time is academic research.
My contractual time allocation is 45% research, 45% teaching, 10% departmental service. This is pretty accurate during academic year; the 4 months of winter break + summer are ~100% research time.
It’s hard to describe exactly what day-to-day research entails. Depending on the project it will involve data collection and analysis, writing and running code, reading related papers, calls with co-authors, and lots of writing.
The most frustrating part of this process is responding to peer-review requests that are less exciting than the core of the project. Depending on your luck, this could take up a non-trivial share of total time spent on a paper.
Informally I get to do fun things like reading groups with my colleagues, conferences and seminars, lead EA book clubs with ambitious undergrads, be the faculty mentor for our One For the World chapter, etc.
Overall, I love my job. I find all of the supposed perks of academia to be better than I anticipated and all of the drawbacks to be overblown or non-applicable in my job (with one exception detailed below).
Autonomy: I have control over my time, research agenda, what I teach, etc.
While it helps to work on mainstream topics to land your first academic job, my department now only cares that I publish.
For me, this is easier with GPR topics because I become more invested in the work (the inevitable quality boost then offsets the fact that GPR work is less mainstream in economics, IMO).
Great Pay & Benefits: US economics professors typically make >$100K and many of these jobs are in low-cost college towns.
Teaching: while I’m basically not evaluated or promoted based on teaching at all, I love it. I teach a course in the honors college and have met some fantastic students. EA is well represented at elite Universities, but the ground is fertile to grow communities at large state schools with many similarly bright students.
Location Inflexibility: having few choices for where you live is by far the biggest drawback of economics academia. I am lucky to have personal reasons for being happy in Norman, Oklahoma. Should I ever want to move, I anticipate it will be difficult to maintain my current career.
None of my fellow early-career friends seem to believe they have location flexibility either. Many live away from partners, etc.
Lack of Directives/General Tenure Pressure: the flip side of extreme autonomy is having correspondingly little structure or direction. After 6 years, I go up for tenure and either get fired or a lifetime contract. Between now and then it can be hard to gauge progress. If you like structure—and goals to navigate towards—this could be very stressful.
I was also lucky to place in a department that seems about right for my skills, so I do not feel an overwhelming degree of tenure pressure.
Skills I’ve Built
Time Management: being a professor (or PhD student) is a lot like being self-employed. I’ve learned to motivate myself, create mini-deadlines, etc.
This is a constant work in progress—I still have entire days where I don’t focus on what I should be doing—but I’ve gotten way better.
Writing/Communication: hours of rewriting academic work has made me much better writer (though be warned: this skill is never taught). Teaching and giving seminars likewise improved my ability to communicate verbally.
Critical reasoning/economics/some coding/etc: (obviously?) you learn a lot of really awesome stuff and interact with really cool people in academia.
If you don’t think the material is ‘really awesome’ that’s a sign you might not want to pursue a PhD in that field :)
Feel free to reach out to me if you have any follow-up questions, or if you think I could provide you specific advice.