Saturday, May 24, 2014

Advice for Graduate Students Seeking a PhD in Economics

By Walter Block

Advice for grad students (some of this advice is personal to me; take what makes sense to you and ignore the rest):

1.Your goal is to get that phd, asap. Don’t let anything interfere with that, if at all possible. If you need money, take out loans, don’t work and let that interfere with your studies.

2.Don’t take any part time jobs; don’t be anyone’s research assistant. Don’t be a teaching assistant. Don’t teach any courses. Just study to pass your courses with the best marks possible, and pass your oral or comprehensive exams.

3.Don’t argue with your professors, certainly not on basic issues. Your job is not to convert them to laissez faire capitalism, to Austrianism, to libertarianism or anything else. It is only to get that phd, asap.

4.Pick a relatively non controversial dissertation topic. Pick a professor to guide you who has prestige within the department (if your committee rejects your dissertation, it is a slap at your advisor too; so pick one who will not likely get slapped).

5.I found the most difficult part of getting my phd was writing the dissertation (although the oral exam was tough). I was accustomed to classes, but never to a long protracted period of research and writing. Grit your teeth and write that material! After a while, I found working on that dissertation to be boring (it was mostly gathering of statistics, and running econometric studies). So, to perk myself up, I gave myself a reward system. If I did thus and such on my dissertation, I would reward myself with a day or two when I could do anything I wanted. On these days off, I would write things in defense of the pimp, or blackmail, or counterfeiting counterfeit money. By the time I finished my phd I had about 30 of these essays, which I later published as Defending I.

6.Make sure you “pack” your dissertation committee to the best of your ability. At Columbia, where I got my phd, Gary Becker was my dissertation advisor, my topic was rent control, certainly not controversial within the econ dept; when Gary left for Chicago, Bill Landes took over this role. At Columbia, a student needed 5 people on his dissertation committee; 3 from the econ dept, one from Columbia but not in econ, and a fifth from outside of Columbia. As my fourth person I picked someone from the business school, Eli Ginzberg. He said to me, he knew someone interested in rent control, would I like that person to be the fifth member of my dissertation committee. Like an idiot I agreed. This guy was a rent control commissioner! The entire defense, practically, was me arguing with this guy. The exam took 2 hours. Right afterward, the committee met to decide whether or not I would pass. They deliberated for 3 hours! I later learned this guy wanted to fail me. To pass I needed a unanimous vote on the part of all five members. Finally, I passed. The argument that finally convinced this guy, as told to me by a friend of mine on the committee was this: “Yes, sure, Block’s dissertation had a lot of errors in it. You were very right in pointing them out (this was bs, to mollify this guy). But we’ve sat in on, oh, hundreds of dissertation defenses, and we say this one is as good as many others that we’ve passed. As for you, Mr. Rent Control Commissioner, this is your first experience with this sort of thing. If thanks to you Block fails, this would be very unfair.” Had that argument not convinced this guy, I would have had to take two more years to write an entirely different dissertation. When Ginzberg asked me if I wanted this guy on my committee, I should have said “no.” I could have picked any fifth member for this committee I wanted (who had a phd and wasn’t associated with Columbia as a professor). Heck, I could have chosen Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner or even Ludwig von Mises himself. What an idiot I was. Do not make this same mistake! Now, you may not be able to choose the members of your committee. But, usually, you will have a least some say in its make up.

7.I emphasize the dissertation stage so much because a lot of people leave grad school with an ABD (all but dissertation). They don’t get the phd. Sometimes, they can leave with a masters degree if they don’t pass their dissertation stage, but not always.

Walter Block earned his PhD in Economics at Columbia University. He is an author, editor, and co-editor of many books which include Defending the UndefendableDefending the Undefendable II: Freedom in All RealmsThe Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic FactorsThe Case for Discrimination.

The above originally appeared at


  1. "If you need money, take out loans, don’t work and let that interfere with your studies."

    (siren) Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!

    1. There are numerous people today usually are just what several phone "addicted for you to education", meaning they're continuously over a highway to further their own schooling. Yet, your dilemma will be, usually are they looking for the best amount of schooling they can so that you can get their wish phd educational research

  2. Do NOT take out loans to obtain a PhD (or any other degree). Work, scrimp, save, have roommates, seek scholarships, etc. Better to graduate with a PhD at 32 with no debt than 25 with 100K in student loans.

  3. I'm a "johnny-come-lately" type and earned my bachelor's degree at age 41. I'd like to earn a MBA at some point, if I can get the money together. But, I will mirror the two previous comments - don't take out loans for a degree. Work part time (or full-time in my case as I have a family), earn scholarships, look for employers who will reimburse tuition, but do not take out loans. They're a death sentence.

    I work with a gentleman who is about my age and who completed two out of three years of law school and decided to drop out, because being a lawyer wasn't really what he wanted. He is now saddled with nearly $50,000 in student loans he is trying to pay off. Not a path I ever want to go down.

  4. Take these pieces of advice seriously!

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