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RA at the Fed


veryconfused06
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Hi everyone,

 

Will you consider the opportunity to work as an RA at the Fed for 2-3 years if you're already admitted to a top 20 school with funding? I might be in that situation. Should I be considering the opportunity at all or just go straight to PhD first? I understand the benefits of working experience at the Fed, but also some people told me it's better to go to PhD fresh from undergrad. Besides, will working improve the chance of getting into a better program?

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Hi everyone,

 

Will you consider the opportunity to work as an RA at the Fed for 2-3 years if you're already admitted to a top 20 school with funding? I might be in that situation. Should I be considering the opportunity at all or just go straight to PhD first? I understand the benefits of working experience at the Fed, but also some people told me it's better to go to PhD fresh from undergrad. Besides, will working improve the chance of getting into a better program?

 

Depends what program you got into, and what your goals are. If you are aiming to get into a top 5 program, then doing an RA will probably not help significantly, in my opinion. However, of course a 2 year RAship will improve your profile and you may get into more schools in the top 20 2-3 years later. But unless you are writing papers, doing an RAship will add only one thing to your application. I guess I'm not too familiar about what RAs at the Fed do... but I'm guessing their tasks will vary quite a bit.

 

My suggestion though is to just go with the PhD. You don't know what's going to happen in 3 years and I honestly don't think an RAship will cause you to jump from a top 20 school to MIT or Harvard. If that's the case, then the difference between your school and a school that you may get into will probably be small. Why add risk to something when the reward may not be too high? It's a different story if you got into a top 20 school that you don't really want to go to though.

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I understand the benefits of working experience at the Fed, but also some people told me it's better to go to PhD fresh from undergrad.

Why? There are also benefits to waiting. No rush. Judge for yourself whether you'd benefit from time off, or if you'd rather keep plugging away. It's ridiculous for anyone, esp. an economist, to claim they have a universal answer to this question.

Besides, will working improve the chance of getting into a better program?

Maybe, maybe not. Do you think the Fed will add value to your application? The Fed can help you get additional coursework. It can get you some research experience you might not otherwise have. It cannot change the grades already on your transcript. It'll give you another opportunity to win the NSF (I know Boston Fed RAs have had 4 NSF winners in the last 3 years). But the value added isn't the same for everyone.

 

We can't give you definitive answers here, but these are the kind of questions to be asking yourself.

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And just to add, if I had to guess at an answer to my questions, I do agree with the sentiment in this thread. Also, the admissions value-added from a Fed RA position is larger for people who came from lesser-known schools or LACs and didn't have the same opportunities for grad coursework and research. But if you have personal reasons for wanting to take time off, I wouldn't stop you. You don't have to go if you don't want to, but if you're considering the Fed just because you think it'll improve your admissions chances, that's probably not a great idea.
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Thanks guys, I am from a LAC with no prior RA experience, that's why I thought RAship might add sth to my profile and the experience will help when I start my own research paper in Phd program. I'm just wondering because I was recently rejected off the funding wait list of a slightly better school (where the program fits my interests much better than my school), I don't know if this is due to the lack of RA experience in my profile. You guys have the point that I totally agree to though, that I don't know the chance of getting into better programs or even the same one right now in 2-3 years.
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I see. I think you're misguided to think that simply having "RA experience" will improve your outcome. Producing pre FOMC memos and running regressions at the Fed for 2 or 3 years will not distinguish you from any other top 20 applicant. The value added in research will come from evidence in your profile that you're a capable independent researcher, which means either you win the NSF or you initiate some kind of research of your own while at the Fed which can be credibly reflected in an LOR (which is not necessarily easy while you're busy with your regular work commitments and perhaps other coursework, and it requires a lot of your own initiative). And by initiate research, I don't mean you just get your name attached to some paper for which you did not generate the main idea. Don't get me wrong -- plenty of people have improved themselves a lot at Feds. You just seem to be thinking that putting RA on your resume is what will get you into a better school, and I doubt that. I write this all because I don't think you can make a wise decision without fully understanding where the value-added from the Fed would come from.
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I see. I think you're misguided to think that simply having "RA experience" will improve your outcome. Producing pre FOMC memos and running regressions at the Fed for 2 or 3 years will not distinguish you from any other top 20 applicant. The value added in research will come from evidence in your profile that you're a capable independent researcher, which means either you win the NSF or you initiate some kind of research of your own while at the Fed which can be credibly reflected in an LOR (which is not necessarily easy while you're busy with your regular work commitments and perhaps other coursework, and it requires a lot of your own initiative). And by initiate research, I don't mean you just get your name attached to some paper for which you did not generate the main idea. Don't get me wrong -- plenty of people have improved themselves a lot at Feds. You just seem to be thinking that putting RA on your resume is what will get you into a better school, and I doubt that. I write this all because I don't think you can make a wise decision without fully understanding where the value-added from the Fed would come from.

 

I have a few friends that RA'ed at the Fed (BOG in DC) and the best take away they seemed to have was 1) better LORs than from their relatively unknown econ dept and 2) reimbursed math courses at nearby universities during those two years. If your math background and LORs are already adequate the RA position may not do much to add to your profile, unless you're a special case as noted above (which can hardly be counted on). That said, it wouldn't negatively impact your chances (I think) and there's something to be said about spending part of your "youthful years" in a big city making a decent wage before diving headlong into the books and grad student lifestyle for five or more years.

Edited by icebear
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That said, it wouldn't negatively impact your chances (I think) and there's something to be said about spending part of your "youthful years" in a big city making a decent wage before diving headlong into the books and grad student lifestyle for five or more years.

Yeah, that was the primary benefit in my opinion.

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In my opinion, the opportunity cost of RA (pecuniary) is the salary difference between your RA pay and your pay 5-6 years later as a PhD from a top 20 department. It will be roughly 100k, not that much if you discount it to present value.

 

But there are some definite benefits of RA at a Fed. First, your result cannot and should not get worse, given you do not screw up your last semester. In two years' time, the application is unlikely to get more competitive than this year and schools should be more well-endowed. But of course it is still unpredictable. Second, you get to work closely with economists (even well-known ones, if you are lucky) and your recommendation will be glowing in two years. That is the biggest factor in application as we all agree. Third, most Feds reimburse you for tuition for you to take grad level econ or undergrad level math classes to make up for course deficiency. That is the second biggest factor in application. Fourth, some capital accumulation is probably useful and you can even apply in two years' time without asking for first year funding. That again might improve your result. Fifth, you will become much more familiar with academic research as well as the tools and methods, which will help in grad school. Sixth, there is always the non-zero chance that you figure out you just hate research during the job. The exit strategy after Fed is pretty good and you won't get stuck doing something you don't like for the rest of your life. Seventh, you are asking this question because you want a better offer, which means you will be motivated and goal-oriented during the job. It is not very difficult for someone like you to co-author with your economist at the Fed and publish before you apply again.

 

Sorry for the rant. As you can see I am all for the RA experience (with profs at big schools is the best, but Fed comes very close too). In fact I was going to turn down a top 10 offer for a Fed RA opportunity (For me, the research at the Fed matches my interests exactly too).

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In my opinion, the opportunity cost of RA (pecuniary) is the salary difference between your RA pay and your pay 5-6 years later as a PhD from a top 20 department. It will be roughly 100k, not that much if you discount it to present value.

I assume you mean 50K per year for two years. But you also should consider leisure and actual hours worked. The actual hourly wage of an RA compared to a professor is not bad at all. And then how much do value leisure in your early 20s?

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I assume you mean 50K per year for two years. But you also should consider leisure and actual hours worked. The actual hourly wage of an RA compared to a professor is not bad at all. And then how much do value leisure in your early 20s?

 

Exactly. That's why I used "pecuniary" :)

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If you need more math or advanced economics courses, or if you are sure you can get an excellent letter from a Fed economist, spend a year or so at the Fed. Otherwise, go to grad school now.

 

Obviously your lack of research experience didn't hurt that much if you got into a top 20 school!

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So I actually came from a LAC and did an RA at the Fed before re-applying to grad school. I turned down admission to a fully funded top 15 program to take the RA position, although I was able to get into writing that I would be offered the same package etc. if I reapplied within 3 years (so I basically had 0 risk). My undergraduate professors encouraged me highly to take the RA position and so I did even though I felt like I was ready to go straight to grad school. I certainly didn't get the research experience at the Fed that I was hoping to, basically due to the crisis making a lot more policy work than usual, but I took some grad. level Stats classes and by taking time off, my senior year grades and honors were on my transcript. I actually didn't get a rec from the Fed so I didn't even have that benefit, but I did decide to apply to B-school PhD programs instead of pure econ -- so narrowing down/changing interests is definitely another potential benefit. Feel free to PM me if you want more info.
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I currently RA at a regional fed and can honestly say that I have in some ways wasted the last year. Unless you are given some pretty big promises regarding the quality of your work, you are an idiot to delay grad school for 3 years. Edited by 2010app9357
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I imagine it depends somewhat on which regional Fed, and which department. Who your boss is also probably matters. I know the research department at the Boston Fed is pretty well respected, and there are several current U-Mich students and recent alum who were RAs there and speak highly of the experience.
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I agree with asquare that it's really dependent on a lot more factors than just working at the Fed. Like the OP, I was debating between going straight to grad school (I got decent offers from a few top 20 schools) or work at a regional Fed and I decided to do the latter. The main thing that adcom look for is LOR. If you get to work for an economist who is well-known and is willing to write you a fabulous LOR, I say it's really worth it. In my case, I ended up getting good LoRs from my economists, will get a few co-author papers by the time I leave, and I'm going to a top 5 school next year, so clearly it's not a waste of time, ex-post.

 

I'm not saying that working at a Fed is the ticket to top programs. As 2010app9357 said, conditional on getting good quality work and getting great LoR from a well-known economist, I say it is a value-added for your application. Plus you get lots of $$$ and learn tons of programming, and in my case, some economic theory.

 

So before accepting an RA offer from the Fed (or any RA offer for that matter), be sure to know who you will be working for and be willing to work more than what an average RA might put in.:)

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Will you consider the opportunity to work as an RA at the Fed for 2-3 years if you're already admitted to a top 20 school with funding? I might be in that situation. Should I be considering the opportunity at all or just go straight to PhD first? I understand the benefits of working experience at the Fed, but also some people told me it's better to go to PhD fresh from undergrad. Besides, will working improve the chance of getting into a better program?

 

The first question I would ask is whether you are satisfied with you current offer. If you are not willing to go anywhere but top 5 schools (with funding), then working as an RA for 1-2 years is not a bad bet. Otherwise, I would to straight for a PhD. Remember, all that matters at the end is the quality of your dissertation, but not because you are from MIT or Harvard.

 

Will working improve the chance of getting into a better program? As Kronecker and Asquare pointed out, IF conditions such as getting good quality work and getting great LoR from a well-known economist are met, then the answer is certainly yes. You can minimize the uncertainty by knowing in advance who you are working for, as 2010app9357 suggested.

 

A positive experience as an RA at the Fed will benefit more than just your application package. You can work with established economists, learn invaluable programming skills, attend academic workshop, take classes at nearby colleges, and more importantly, what you do and don't like. Barring from a few exceptions, what would be your reaction a fresh undergraduate claims that her research interest is, say, econometrics? RA is an opportunity to understand economic theory more in-depth and why they are useful. For example, at the Fed you will learn how macroeconomic theories are applicable to policy debates.

 

Is being an RA always fun? No, not even if you are fortunately enough to work with the most friendly and famous economist. There are always menial tasks such as collecting data, making crazy graphs, checking references, proofreading. But only in a dream would you find a job that pays well and you can do whatever you like. Also, menial tasks is also a learning process. For instance, collecting data teaches you how to construct a database, and proofreading allows you to read the early draft of a publishable paper.

 

Negative experience due to external (e.g., assignment of bad economists) or internal factor (e.g. insufficient work because one is lazy and careless ), however, does exist. In this case, people usually get paid well and leave after a year.

 

Now, with both up and down side, their priori probabilities, the variance of these probabilities (uncertainty), a utility function, and your subjective time-discount factor, I trust you can come up with a good model for your decision. :D

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Remember, all that matters at the end is the quality of your dissertation, but not because you are from MIT or Harvard.

 

 

In fact, the quality of your dissertation may not matter all that much in the end, at least not as useful as the connections/fame of your thesis advisors. An equally well-written job market paper, as a professor told me, may not even get read if your advisors are not famous. In that sense it is similar to the PhD application process. But of course, there may very likely be positive correlation between your performance and the impact of the names you put on your resume.

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the quality of your dissertation may not matter all that much in the end
I think what chris_tyman is saying is that after 10-20 years into your career in academia, it doesn't really matter which school you got your PhD from. Sure, the connection is going to help, but that's only initial condition; convergence is all that matters. The connection is going to help you get good job placement, but then you have to prove your worth. At the end of the day it's going to be how well you are at producing good-quality research paper-- and dissertation (and LoRs, again) is a good indicator of that.

 

Regardless, the correlation kudo pointed out is definitely there.

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In fact, the quality of your dissertation may not matter all that much in the end, at least not as useful as the connections/fame of your thesis advisors.

 

Let's not argue about the first part of this sentence. I agree with you on the later part - remember here the catch is that the OP is talking about top 20 schools, and of course the implicit assumption that OP does well in his program, regardless of ranking.

 

I think chris_tyman is saying is that after 10-20 years into your career in academia, it doesn't really matter which school you got your PhD from. Sure, the connection is going to help, but that's only initial condition; convergence is all that matters.

 

I agree, again, the OP is talking about top 20 schools. Connection opens the door for you, but after that it's all yours. Only true gem will eventually shine.

 

Here I would add the rate of convergence also matters because of time-discount factor.

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I just started working at the Fed BoG about a month ago. I decided to go to the Fed for a few reasons.

 

1) While my GRE and GPA were very strong, I had no good source of LoR's.

2) I had no research experience.

3) I wasn't sure if I really wanted to do a phd in economics and, if so, what area of economics.

4) I had very little experience with statistical packages, even though I was very familiar with programming.

 

So far I'm very happy with my decision. I can tell that my time at the Fed will fix all of these issues, and I think I will come out of it with a MUCH stronger application than I would have had otherwise. I told my economists that I'm planning on an econ PhD and they have been very supportive. One has already invited me to co-author a paper (on a subject that I have quite a bit of experience in). I find the research topics interesting and I'm learning a lot. The work-life balance is also very nice. The environment is very academic and laid-back. You almost never have to work overtime, and you have pretty good annual leave (3 weeks) and benefits. Also, the pay is decent ($47,500 at the BoG, more than you'd make at almost any other RA job).

 

You have to ask yourself if it's worth 2 years of your life though. If you really want to get into a top 5 and you think the RA job will fill those holes in your application, then go for it. But be sure you know exactly what you're getting into. Ask the economists what research you might be working on, where their past RA's have gone, and ask the RA's in the section what they think. Look up the economists you'll be talking to and see what papers they've written, what journals they've published in, etc. Also, keep in mind that an RAship at the Fed, even an excellent one, won't guarantee you to get into any top school.

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