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Thread: Things to Do Before Graduate School

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    An Urch Guru Pundit Swami Sage Elliephant's Avatar
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    This has nothing to do with software, but have you considered learning speed-reading? I hear it is a great help in ploughing through the volume of material you will necessarily encounter.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Elliephant View Post
    This has nothing to do with software, but have you considered learning speed-reading? I hear it is a great help in ploughing through the volume of material you will necessarily encounter.
    That's pretty interesting. Do you mean to get through the texts or like case-studies? From what I've read before, speed-reading is very good for getting the gist of something. However, I'm not sure how well it would work with a book very packed with information in every sentence. If this is totally wrong please let me know.

    EDIT: To clarify, from what I've read, speed reading basically helps train your mind to read the text without first processing the word. I'm not sure how well this would work for me with a difficult text, since I would probably have to look back and reread things pretty often.

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    Obviously, there are different types of reading you'll be doing for which you'll need to develop distinct techniques. I recommend the following blog post for advice on skimming journal articles: How to Read an Academic Article Organizations and Markets

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    Quote Originally Posted by whatdoido View Post
    That's pretty interesting. Do you mean to get through the texts or like case-studies? From what I've read before, speed-reading is very good for getting the gist of something. However, I'm not sure how well it would work with a book very packed with information in every sentence. If this is totally wrong please let me know.
    I'm not suggesting it as an alternative to careful perusal of textbooks and content-packed papers assigned for class. However, if you're doing reading around a subject, it can be very helpful. It can take your reading of a full paper to five minutes, and then you can go back and use "traditional" reading to get through the tough/theoretical bits.

    The idea with speed-reading is sort of like Chinese character recognition (bear with me, this is my favourite analogy) in that you train yourself to recognise and process groups of symbols together rather than sequentially. You can't read Chinese by looking separately at each stroke within a character; similarly, you can't speed-read by reading words syllable by syllable. Part of it is taking out the phonation (mini-pronunciation of words as you read them), and part of it is teaching your eyes not to wander; but I think the key difference is the parallel, rather than sequential, processing.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Elliephant View Post
    I'm not suggesting it as an alternative to careful perusal of textbooks and content-packed papers assigned for class. However, if you're doing reading around a subject, it can be very helpful. It can take your reading of a full paper to five minutes, and then you can go back and use "traditional" reading to get through the tough/theoretical bits.

    The idea with speed-reading is sort of like Chinese character recognition (bear with me, this is my favourite analogy) in that you train yourself to recognise and process groups of symbols together rather than sequentially. You can't read Chinese by looking separately at each stroke within a character; similarly, you can't speed-read by reading words syllable by syllable. Part of it is taking out the phonation (mini-pronunciation of words as you read them), and part of it is teaching your eyes not to wander; but I think the key difference is the parallel, rather than sequential, processing.
    Alright, thanks for clarifying. I will try to give it a look at some point. Nice analogy .

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    Quote Originally Posted by whatdoido View Post
    Alright, thanks for clarifying. I will try to give it a look at some point. Nice analogy .
    'How to read a book' by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren might help:

    Amazon.com: How to Read a Book (A Touchstone book) (9780671212094): Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren: Books

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    I would caution against speed-reading through everything. One way or another, you will need to "learn to read" academic literature (most likely in your second year). But there's really (at least) three types of reading that you will need to do:

    1) Read and understand both the main points and nuances of the article in order to be able to regurgitate them at some future (e.g., field exam, discuss it during a presentation of your own work, etc).
    2) Read in order to learn how to be a better academic writer.
    3) Read in order to assess whether or not an article is worth a more thorough review in order to better inform your own research.

    The "speed reading" techniques that I'm familiar with are extremely useful for #3, marginally useful for #1 (nuance is often a causality of reading too quickly), and counterproductive to #2.

    My impression is that second year students focus too much on #1 (as they do have a ton of material to cover on their own for field courses) while third focus on #3. But what frustrates a lot of fourth and fifth year students is that they don't really get around to figuring out that #2 (reading to become a good academic writer) until they've already started trying to put together a dissertation and job market paper. And that's part of what frustrates a lot of PhD candidates.

    Being a good academic writer is not the same as writing a good term paper for an undergraduate seminar (or even a senior thesis) or scoring well on the GRE AWA. There is a very delicate balance that needs to be struck between presenting a novel idea in a way that will be readily accessible to people who are accustomed to digesting academic literature in a recognizable form. The most prolific economists are those who can apply good data analysis and sound economic theory in order to present complicated concepts in simple, easy-to-digest terms. And it's a skill that great academic writers (e.g., David Card) make look easy, but is actually quite difficult to master. You acquire that skill not only be practicing, but by observing how prolific, successful economists express themselves.

    The second year (when you'll be most tempted to get through assigned articles as quickly as possible) is really the ideal time to start studying how to be a good writer. And becoming a good academic writer requires more than just reading McCloskey once or twice and making sure to run a spell-check.

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    Quote Originally Posted by OneArmedEcon View Post
    I would caution against speed-reading through everything. One way or another, you will need to "learn to read" academic literature (most likely in your second year). But there's really (at least) three types of reading that you will need to do:

    1) Read and understand both the main points and nuances of the article in order to be able to regurgitate them at some future (e.g., field exam, discuss it during a presentation of your own work, etc).
    2) Read in order to learn how to be a better academic writer.
    3) Read in order to assess whether or not an article is worth a more thorough review in order to better inform your own research.

    The "speed reading" techniques that I'm familiar with are extremely useful for #3, marginally useful for #1 (nuance is often a causality of reading too quickly), and counterproductive to #2.
    Right. No one is advocating speed-reading as a substitute for thorough reading. But it does make a good supplement.
    Last edited by Elliephant; 12-27-2010 at 09:17 PM. Reason: confused prepositions

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    (1)party
    (2)party some more

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    Quote Originally Posted by Elliephant View Post
    Right. No one is advocating speed-reading as a substitute for thorough reading. But it does make a good supplement.
    It's a helpful skill... but much later on in one's graduate career (i.e., after the 2nd year). The OP's question is "what should I do before starting graduate school given time constraints." Since presumably the OP is seeking maximize the return on his investment and assuming there is some time discount factor as well as depreciation associated with acquired knowledge, then a rational, utility maximizer would want to focus his/her attention on skills that will be relevant sooner rather than later. For reasons enumerated earlier, speed reading is a skill that's most helpful in the second half of a graduate student's career. Certainly not in the first year (e.g., you're not going to get anything useful out of speed reading through MWG)--and even in the second, it's really not a good idea to speed read through articles assigned in field courses. A lot of econ graduate students treat the second year as an "expenditure minimization problem" and that's really a myopic strategy for your overall development as an economist.

    I think that it's interesting to note that there seems to be a difference in the advice coming from the aspiring graduate students and the current graduate students. For example, mathemagician, treblekicker and I all mentioned relaxing and having fun before math camp, not learning Python or speed reading. Those are helpful skills--for when you're doing your own research or possibly assisting professors as an RA--but not for your first or even second year.

    If you've never learned Matlab, then it's probably not a bad idea to get familiar with it before your program starts. If you've never used Stata, then getting familiar with it might be helpful (although I suspect that you'll use it far less in the first year than you expect--most of core econometrics is theory, not application). But regardless, Stata commands are really easy to pick up as you go and the best way to learn the software is by experience.

    The hardest part of the first year is staying motivated. Yeah, I know you think that you'll be different because you love economics... let's see how you feel in late October of your first year. The simple fact is that very few people enjoy the first year. Halfway through midterms this past semester, everyone in my cohort went through a stretch where he/she wondered why the hell they were subjecting themselves to this. It's not that any individual assignment or concept is too difficult--rather, it's just surviving the constant onslaught from several different directions. If you've been admitted to a program, then you have the requisite knowledge to do well in it... provided that you can stay motivated, manage your time effectively, and not get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it.

    So I'd focus on making sure that you enter math camp well-rested and relaxed as well as motivated. Read some papers, go to a seminar, listen to old episodes of Econtalk, read DeLong or Mankiw's blogs. If it's finacially possible, fly down to a conference (WEA is in late June down in San Diego). What has kept me (semi-)sane this past semester was occasionally attending an empirical micro seminar and having a chance to engage with someone doing something interesting so that I remembered that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But for the love of god, do not spend the time between now and August studying texts or mastering computer programs or other skills that you will not use in your first year.

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