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Thread: Competitive culture at grad school? / Why do Econ students drop?

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    Competitive culture at grad school? / Why do Econ students drop?

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    I was reading through some of the older posts and came across a lot of references to "certain schools" being extremely cutthroat, and, overall, just not a friendly environment. I was wondering, based on some personal experiences, what schools people thought fall into this category. Chicago's the only one I have seen consistently put in this group. I am just curious because I will be applying in the Fall, and although this wouldn't play a huge role in the schools I choose, it certainly would not hurt to know what I am getting myself into when I apply to particular schools.

    On a mildly related topic, why do you think econ students end up dropping out of grad/Ph.D. programs? Do you think it is more that they cannot handle the coursework; they realize an econ Ph.D. is not what they thought it was; they do not like the environment; or something other than these? Obviously it would be some combination of all of these reasons, but I was just interested to see what some econ students saw the most in their peers who dropped out.

    I am a little worried about the work in grad school, I have done well as an undergrad, and I am not afraid to put forth the effort necessary, it is just undergrad definitely was not a complete breeze for me. I had/have to study for every test a good amount, and it just makes me wonder if I will be able to handle the work of grad school. I am taking a couple grad econ classes this fall, so that will give me a good idea hopefully. Sorry for the long post, but I hope we can get some interesting responses.

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    It's a very good question.

    I think that the biggest reason that students leave econ programs without their PhDs is that they have trouble moving from coursework to research. They pass their first year classes, they pass the prelims -- but then they get stuck. They have trouble coming up with an idea, aren't sure how to proceed without direction or manage their time, or don't know how to write up their work. If I had to guess, I would say that on average, more people leave econ PhD programs after passing their prelims than because they fail the prelims. Sure, there are some schools where failing prelims eliminates a substantial fraction of the class, but I suspect that a lot of the attrition comes in the transition to research.

    Other reasons that people leave programs include a bunch of things you've mentioned, including discovering that they just don't like the material, or that graduate economics is not what they expected. Because -- be forewarned -- it is nothing at all like undergrad economics, at least in the first year. People come in thinking that because they liked their undergrad econ classes and were good at the material, grad school is going to be more of the same. And it's not. It is more work, less concrete, and utilizes very different skills. The very best thing you can do to keep yourself from falling into this group is to start reading some journal articles now, to see if you like economic research. Sit in on a couple of graduate classes, or at least flip through the text books to have a sense of what the material is like. Talk to your econ TAs -- they will be more than happy to ***** about life as a grad student. And when you start the program, go to seminars, read interesting papers, do the things that remind you of what you like about economics and why you decided to do this in the first place. Graduate school can be rough, and if you aren't sure what you want out of it, it's hard to find the motivation you need to push through. I think that the sort of feeling lost reasons for leaving PhD programs are more common for those who came straight from undergrad and haven't had a chance to experience non-student life.

    There are a whole other set of personal reasons that also sometimes contribute to leaving any PhD program. Circumstances change -- people get married, have kids, realize that they need to renegotiate their career/family balance, or have financial reasons they can't stay.

    As for which particular schools are most cutthroat, it's somewhat a matter of personal taste. Chicago certainly has the reputation. I thought Wisconsin felt very competitive when I visited. In general, schools where substantial fractions of the class are asked to leave after the first year prelims are less congenial in the first year, because of the added pressure and the knowledge that either you or your new friends stand a reasonable chance of not being around for year two.

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    Stolen shamelessly from Chris Silvey's site; this was an email from an unnamed PhD dropout @ Vandy:

    "A lot of people who start a PhD program do not complete it. I think this due to a lack of preparation; whether it be in the classroom or actually finding a good match with what they expect of a doctoral program. My first year we lost half our entering class to the former, and since have lost another quarter (including myself) due to the latter. "

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    Quote Originally Posted by shootermcgavin7
    Stolen shamelessly from Chris Silvey's site; this was an email from an unnamed PhD dropout @ Vandy:

    "A lot of people who start a PhD program do not complete it. I think this due to a lack of preparation; whether it be in the classroom or actually finding a good match with what they expect of a doctoral program. My first year we lost half our entering class to the former, and since have lost another quarter (including myself) due to the latter. "
    Well, IMHO, this says more about Vandy's adcom than much else.
    University of Wisconsin - Madison: Took my Masters and ran.

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    In answer to your question you MUST check this out:

    http://www.aeaweb.org/joe/articles/2006/attrition.pdf

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    Quote Originally Posted by snappythecrab
    Well, IMHO, this says more about Vandy's adcom than much else.

    I don't know that their attrition rate is higher than any other comparable school.

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    Nalfien -- that's a great article. Thanks for the link!

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    Quote Originally Posted by rdblots

    I am a little worried about the work in grad school, I have done well as an undergrad, and I am not afraid to put forth the effort necessary, it is just undergrad definitely was not a complete breeze for me. I had/have to study for every test a good amount, and it just makes me wonder if I will be able to handle the work of grad school. I am taking a couple grad econ classes this fall, so that will give me a good idea hopefully. Sorry for the long post, but I hope we can get some interesting responses.
    I think that there are varying levels of quality when it comes to undergraduate programs. At some very highly regarded institutions, you can get an A without very much effort. When it comes to graduate school, the level of difficulty is much higher, and many students are caught off guard by this. Plus - now, you are in a pool with top students. If you are doing well (As) relative to the rest of your class (that are getting around, say, a 60-70% avg), I think you're probably in a fairly challenging program. Then, the rest is up to you. Knowing how to study and time manage seperates those who succeed from those who fail. Nothing is impossible.

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    Quote Originally Posted by shootermcgavin7
    I don't know that their attrition rate is higher than any other comparable school.
    Not exactly what I meant, but I think depending on how one interprets the comments, that's an attrition rate of 62.5% or 75%, which, when compared to the numbers produced in Stock et al, is pretty sharp.

    I was speaking more along the lines of the adcom's selection of students into the program. Vandy, while a great undergrad, is hardly known for being a graduate-level powerhouse. As a result their average student quality is much lower than higher ranked schools, and I suspect the variation in student quality is much higher as well, leading to comments regarding lack of student prep. Lack of student prep is likely much less of a problem at top schools.
    University of Wisconsin - Madison: Took my Masters and ran.

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    Quote Originally Posted by snappythecrab
    I was speaking more along the lines of the adcom's selection of students into the program. Vandy, while a great undergrad, is hardly known for being a graduate-level powerhouse. As a result their average student quality is much lower than higher ranked schools, and I suspect the variation in student quality is much higher as well, leading to comments regarding lack of student prep.

    Point taken - although I'm not one to sneeze at any US Top50 school as competitive as econ is.

    Slightly off-topic, but still on point about mid/lower-tier schools: Uni of Pittsburgh says that they admitted 10-12 out of 600 applicants last year. That struck me as a little bit odd considering their rankings.

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