Tips for PhD students and researchers

This page is intended to collect tips for PhD students and researchers in economics.

General advices

Collection of advices and best practices by Alex Eble

In a collection of tweets.

1/Many

Dear PhD students and advisors: with input from @jscottclayton @peterbergman_ @amrasabicPHD and our students, I put together a collection of advice and best practices for thriving in a PhD, with a focus on econ and related fields.

This thread is the tl;dr version


You can find the full document here: http://www.alexeble.com/s/PhDGuidebook.pdf

Note: tons of this came from twitter and other internet pals. While I try to cite as many people as possible, some names are probably not named. Sorry! Thank you anyway!

Alright, here goes:


Message 1: Invest in yourself.

The PhD gives you time and space to pick up valuable skills. Here are some:
– Learn how to code (Stata + one of [R,Python,Matlab].
– Learn how to present your work. Jesse Shapiro’s slides are a great resource for this: https://www.brown.edu/Research/Shapiro/pdfs/applied_micro_slides.pdf;


Zettlemeyer’s take is also great: http://ed.ecogestion-cournot.unistra.fr/wp-content/uploads/On_presentation.pdf
– Learn how to present yourself (meetings, smiles, handshakes, etc.). Read this book, twice: https://www.amazon.com/Pitch-Perfect-Right-First-Every-ebook/dp/B00DB3A4VS/


Message 2: you can control your productivity

– Invest in organization/time management/personal effectiveness by reading and experimenting. Getting Things Done by @gtdguy is great, but a lot to take in. Start with the incremental suggestions from lifehackers like @james_clear


– You are not equally productive all the time. Look up “biological prime time” and do some mini-experiments to figure out when yours is. When you’ve found it, protect it ferociously for your most important work (e.g., reading hard papers, coding, writing).


– Protect this time from distractions too! Avoid texting/facebook/news/etc. like they were poison. @freedom is a great app for temporarily turning off the internet on devices. So is locking your phone in a desk drawer and turning off wifi on your computer.


– You work way better with sleep, good nutrition, and exercise. The PhD is a great time to slough off old habits of too much caffeine and too little rest. It is a bad time to double down on being an adult who eats and spends evenings like a 12 year old


Message 3 (imho, the most important one): Take self-care seriously

You are going through a pressure cooker. Take care of yourself. Mental health, physical health, and hard work are complements in creating research and getting you a great job.

Three sub-messages here:


3.1 (!!! if you only take one piece of advice, take this one !!!). Get professional talk therapy from a psychologist. It serves two purposes: 1) prophylaxis against the inevitable mental health issues that are going to come up, and 2) investing in your efficacy as a person


We all have unresolved issues from past experiences that affect us; therapy improves how you deal with stressors and interpret challenges in life and work, both now and into the future. The returns to getting better at this are hard to overstate.


If you feel very sad, get help. The PhD is very demanding. At some point, many students fit criteria for clinical depression. Resources:

– National Graduate Student Crisis Line: 1-800-GRAD-HLP or 1-800-472-3457
– National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

– If your life is in danger, call 911. Seriously.


Longer-term resources:
– Your university’s health center website will have instructions on how to set up a counseling session
– Columbia’s can be found here: https://health.columbia.edu/content/counseling-and-psychological-services


3.2 Develop a support group. Find a trivia night / yoga session / pickup basketball league / some other social network outside of economics. Even if interacting with people is sometimes painful (🙋‍♂️), finding pleasant, non-economics contact with the outside world is crucial.


3.3 Work on your physical health

This is a hugely important input into how productive you will be, from energy levels to happiness.

1. Find an exercise routine that works for you and stick to it
2. Eat well / avoid eating crap. (see message 2)
3. Take sleep seriously


Message 4: Normalize struggle and failure

Much of the PhD is trying hard at something, failing, then learning from profs/peers/the internet what you did wrong. Don’t take it personally when you fail. It is part of the process.


Corollary: people like things they are good at, and it takes a long time to get good at research; don’t infer that you do not like it from initial difficulty

Corollary 2: celebrate all wins. Problem set turned in? Dance. Test finished? Treat yourself. Paper submitted? Party time


Message 5: Treat the PhD like a job.

Set working hours for when you come to the office/library/sit down at your home desk, when you leave, what days you are working and what days you are taking off. Make it regular.


Message 6: most of the learning happens with you.

A lot of us (🙋‍♂️) come in thinking that sometime in the PhD, magic fairy dust gets sprinkled on you and you *become* an economist/quantitative social scientist. That’s not how it works. How it actually works: you work hard…


…reading papers, banging your head against a computer, and thinking. Struggle, ask for help, iterate, and improve.

This is the normal process and there is no shortcut, but you aren’t alone. Remember messages 3 and 4: take care of yourself, and normalize struggle and failure.


Message 7: your main job is research.

To a first approximation, don’t worry about your grades in classes beyond passing. Focus on generating ideas, getting feedback, turning the first good idea into a paper, and repeating the process.


Message 8: you are a seller, not a buyer.

Your job is to gain skills that potential employers value. In picking a topic, you have three criteria to satisfy: does it excite you? Is it interesting to the people who might hire you? Will completing it teach you skills they value?


Message 9: Use this time to figure out what you want to do when you grow up.

There are all sorts of careers you can do with a PhD in economics/public policy/econ of ed. There’s no one right answer. Figure out what is the best fit for you, and chase that ferociously.


Corollary: try things on for size. Talk to people in those careers that interest you; if you are uncertain about academia, do an internship in a non-academic job one of your first two summers


Message 10: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” – Kurt Vonnegut.

The process is tough. For everyone. Be nice to yourself. Be nice to your neighbors. Be nice to strangers. You will improve human welfare and generate goodwill towards you. And, with practice, it feels good. END.

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