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American economics Ph.D.s on decline; One way to keep them — office space

by | Jan. 23, 2014, 11:49 AM

A 15-year analysis of graduate economics education in the United States reveals surprising findings

Ph.D. graduate in regalia
(Vanderbilt University)

In 1997, Vanderbilt economist John Siegfried and Montana State University economist Wendy Stock set out to create a comprehensive picture of economics graduate education in the United States. They had noticed that although the number of economics Ph.D.s awarded in this country had remained about the same since the 1970s, the percentage earned by Americans was declining. The researchers wondered if there was something about the programs that was driving potential American economists into other fields, or to begin an economics program but not finish.

Over 15 years, they examined factors that contributed to completion or attrition, completion times, employment outcomes and how well programs taught skills needed at work. They were able to not only describe how graduate economics education has evolved over that period, but also suss out some characteristics of programs and students that could predict success or failure in the field.

The researchers found that there simply was not much a department could do to make its students complete their degrees more quickly or at higher rates—except for one thing: office space. And it makes sense, Siegfried said: Most of the first-year curriculum is dedicated to problem sets, not reading. By providing students with dedicated study areas close to one another—rather than letting them scatter across the library or work at home—students are more likely to collaborate and learn from one another. If an economics department that doesn’t offer office space really wants to boost its graduation rate, “they should park some trailers on campus for students to use,” Siegfried says.

Along the way, they uncovered some other interesting findings:

  • Significant demographic changes: While the number of Ph.D.s awarded by American institutions has remained the same since the 1970s, the demographics have shifted considerably. Today, two-thirds of economics Ph.D.s awarded in the U.S. now go to noncitizens, mostly from Asia, with a rising proportion going to female noncitizens. By contrast, fewer American women are earning Ph.D.s than they were 15 years ago. These demographic patterns are mirrored in other related degrees like political science and mathematics.
  • Fewer dropouts: In 1997, 50 percent of economics Ph.D. candidates dropped out of their programs. Today that number is down to 40 percent–a significant drop. Economics has one of the highest completion rates of the liberal arts. Dropout rates are higher among U.S. citizens than noncitizens, and higher among women than men. Women benefit from programs that offer higher faculty-student ratios, that are more accepting of dissertations in essay rather than treatise form and that offer a more flexible completion schedule.
  • Fewer hares and tortoises: The days of the three-year sprint and the 20-year slog to an economics Ph.D. seem to have passed. While the average time to completion has risen over the course of the study from five years to almost five and a half, there are far fewer outliers than there were before.
  • Newborns are distracting: In a related paper, Siegfried and Stock found that having a baby during the program slowed every new parent down, but in 1997, a new baby delayed graduation for moms by about 10 months and dads by only three. By 2002, a new baby delayed parents of both genders equally by about 10 months. Interestingly, parents who already had children when they began the program but who did not add to their brood during their studies finished at the same rate as students without children.
  • Liberal arts colleges are unexpected powerhouses: While the vast majority of Ph.D. candidates earned their bachelor’s degree at major research universities, those who majored in economics at a liberal arts college were far more likely to go on to a Ph.D. than undergrad economics majors at major research universities. (One in five economics majors at Illinois Wesleyan University went on to earn a Ph.D. in economics, compared to one in 20 economics majors at Harvard.)
  • Ph.D.s are happiest in academia: Almost all economics Ph.D.s find employment after graduation. Most go into academia; those who do not tend to earn more but are less satisfied with their work, are more likely to regret getting a Ph.D. more and are more likely to change jobs within five years.
  • Preparation for the real world: Though most graduates felt their programs adequately prepared them for their careers, most found skills in real-world application and communication—which students thought their schools tend to underplay—were more useful in the workplace than mathematics—which schools tend to emphasize.
  • Publication record: About half of all economics Ph.D.s in permanent academic positions in 1997 were unable to publish their work in a top-50 economics journal during their first 10 years—while the other half had at least one such publication. Of that half, most have published at least twice in a prestigious journal, and about one-eighth have done so more than six times.

What the researchers did not find was any one particular factor that might explain why fewer Americans were earning Ph.D.s in economics. “Almost everyone who is accepted to an economics Ph.D. program enrolls in an economics Ph.D. program,” Siegfried said. “They are just not applying.”

Read the full study here.

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