For graduate students in economics (and also potential graduate students), the message is that becoming a successful research economist is difficult. The good news is that one does not have to go to a top department in order to become a successful research economist. The bad news is that wherever one goes, only the very best of each class is likely to find academic success as defined by research publications.
Indeed, to become a tenured professor of economics one must cross many hurdles. Admission to an economics PhD program is difficult: most well-ranked departments receive several hundred highly competitive applications for entering classes that generally number between 10 and 30. Many of those admitted to a graduate program will ultimately fail to complete their degree. For example, Stock, Siegfried, and Finegan (2011) find that graduation rates from economics PhD programs are on the order of 30 percent by the fifth year after admission, rising to around 60 percent by the eighth year. (There is wide variability, but the higher-ranked programs seem to have higher graduation rates in general.) Even for those who do complete the PhD, the likelihood of ultimately accumulating a research record that might gain tenure at a top-100 department (much less a top-30or top-10 department) is not very great.
Thus, students thinking about applying to PhD programs in economics would be well advised to have “Plan B’s” for every stage of the journey—including the possibility of not being accepted into a PhD program, the possibility of not completing the program, the possibility of not finding a suitable academic job, and the possibility of not receiving tenure. We hasten to add that there are many rewarding and worthwhile nonresearch and nonacademic career paths open to those who obtain masters or doctorate degrees in economics, and many students discover, either while in graduate school or during their untenured years, that they actually prefer these sorts of jobs to the academic life.
These results also raise some concerns for those of us who sit on admission committees and teach in graduate programs. To be admitted to a top PhD program in economics, an applicant has to have great grades, near-perfect test scores, strong and credible recommendations, and package these credentials in a way that stands out to the admission committee. Thus, successful candidates must be hardworking, intelligent, well-trained, savvy, and ambitious. Why is it that the majority of these successful applicants, who apparently did all the right things up to the time they arrived at graduate school and even managed to complete their PhDs, have such unimpressive careers as researchers? Are we failing the students or are the students failing us?
Our evidence is based on the accumulated record after six years, which unfortunately is not the information available to the hiring committee at the time the hire is made. Some evidence suggests that hiring committees may not be very accurate at forming expectations of quality when a new PhD hits the job market. Smeets, Warzynski, and Coupé (2006) explore the efficiency of the academic job market in matching students to positions. They study the 1992 and 1993 PhD cohorts fromthe 26 best graduate schools and discover that the matching of quality students to quality first jobs is not as tight as one might hope. They further show there is substantial, mostly downward, movement from the first to the final job hold, and overall, the research productivity of students who get first jobs of various qualities does not differ as starkly as we see in Table 1. This finding suggests that the students who are identified as top graduates in a given year (and who get top jobs as result) might not line up with the students who end up being the most productive six years later. For example, our data show that publishing a paper before graduation is uncorrelated with the productivity over the six-year probationary period before a tenure decision."