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Fun with Econ: Would Steven Levitt get into MIT today?


OneMoreEcon
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We all keep trying to figure out what gets you into the top schools. So, to break some of the tension around here, I thought I'd throw out the question to see what kind of responses people have. Profile: Harvard undergrad (summa cum laude), econ major Math courses: one calculus class, nothing else Honors: Young prize for best senior thesis in economics dept LOR: I'm guessing thesis advisor, probably two other well-known Harvard profs ***Levitt won an NSF, but I think he won it during his first year at MIT. (NSF Fellow '92-'94, and was awarded his PhD in '94. I'm pretty sure he finished his PhD in 3 years, but that means he entered in Fall '91, and won NSF the following spring... the point here being that an NSF Fellowship didn't help him get into MIT, since he was already there). About only having one calc course, that was mentioned in the JEP article announcing the Bates Clark Medal going to Levitt. So, what do you all think... would Steven Levitt get into MIT if he applied today?
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I think its pretty fair to say that, holding their backgrounds constant, most economists would have a hard time getting into grad school these days. As applicants, we've got better information, and, IMHO, the applicant pool gets a little better and hence more competitive each year. So I'm going to say no on Levitt. There's still the "you got it or you don't" factor. It can buy you an awful lot. Levitt's got 'it', though, no question.
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I keep going back and forth on this one. While I think the connections may have gotten him in, I can't help but think the total lack of math background would have gotten him into the auto-reject pile, even before they read the recommendations. But, then again, maybe the Young prize was the signal that he had 'it'. My final answer is no, he wouldn't make it... and if he still would, then I know we'd all get depressed knowing that the investments we've made were overlooked in favor of a backdoor admission. (Not that I stood a chance of getting into top schools in the first place, but still...)
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[quote name='OneMoreEcon'] ***Levitt won an NSF, but I think he won it during his first year at MIT. (NSF Fellow '92-'94, and was awarded his PhD in '94. I'm pretty sure he finished his PhD in 3 years, but that means he entered in Fall '91, and won NSF the following spring... the point here being that an NSF Fellowship didn't help him get into MIT, since he was already there). quote] He graduated from Harvard at 1989, he spent 5 years on PhD? [URL="http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/LevittCV.html"]http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/LevittCV.html[/URL]
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Ross, his CV doesn't say when he started at MIT. I know we usually assume that people begin a PhD right after the BA, but I seem to recall reading that Levitt finished his PhD in three years. Also, if he was an NSF fellow from 92-94, he didn't hold the fellowship for three full academic years (92-93, 93-94, and maybe an extra semester). Since NSF is good for three years of study, it seems that he finished very quickly.
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I think it depends in his ec classes. Graduating summa cum laude requires almost a 4.0 which at Harvard is very hard to get. Now imagine one of his economic courses was graduate micro and he got an A in it. Does it really matter he only took calculus? Furthermore, there are a couple of math courses that only the top kids at Harvard take that teach metric topology, linear algebra, multivariable calculus, ode, and some analysis in one year. If you get an A in that class you don't really need to prove yourself any further. In addition to that, everyone who says the letters are important is absolutely right. Writing the best thesis at Harvard is also a huge deal and any hot shot professor would be happy to sponsor a kid like regardless of how many math courses he took.
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Someone told me that his undegrad thesis was published, which may be this one : "Using Repeat Challengers to Estimate the Effect of Campaign Spending on Election Outcomes in the U.S. House."[I] Journal of Political Economy[/I], 1994, 102(4), pp. 777-98. If Levitt did someting publishable in undergrad, it was a good signal to the ad com that he is a good potential researcher, which is strictly better quant guys. In addition, as far as I know, the ad com are more concerned about the research ability of the applicants rather than their math skills. As you know, it is common that many top 5 grads with excellent math skills cannot get a paper published in a top-tier journal.
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My vote is a definite no. But econosaur is right; Levitt would have had more math now. Anyway, he isn't one of the really big publishers. A lot of posts seem to cite faculty with a prominent public (as opposed to research) profile as key to a department. The people with the most pages in top 30 journals (according to the Kalaitzidakis et al. definition) in 1994-2003 were: [FONT=Arial]Phillips, Peter C B [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Yale U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]1536[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Heckman, James J [/FONT][FONT=Arial]U Chicago [/FONT][FONT=Arial]1141[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Acemoglu, Daron [/FONT][FONT=Arial]MIT [/FONT][FONT=Arial]1099[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Smith, Bruce D [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Texas [/FONT][FONT=Arial]951[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Tirole, Jean [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Toulouse [/FONT][FONT=Arial]929[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Neumark, David [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Michigan State U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]862[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Andrews, Donald W K [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Yale U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]850[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Pesaran, M Hashem [/FONT][FONT=Arial]U Cambridge [/FONT][FONT=Arial]796[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Gruber, Jonathan [/FONT][FONT=Arial]MIT [/FONT][FONT=Arial]741[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Samuelson, Larry [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Wisconsin [/FONT][FONT=Arial]722[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Laffont, Jean Jacques [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Toulouse [/FONT][FONT=Arial]693[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Rustichini, Aldo [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Boston U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]652[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Jackson, Matthew O [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Caltech [/FONT][FONT=Arial]632[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Besley, Timothy J [/FONT][FONT=Arial]LSE [/FONT][FONT=Arial]630 [/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Blundell, Richard W [/FONT][FONT=Arial]IFS [/FONT][FONT=Arial]628[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Rosenzweig, Mark R [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Harvard U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]621[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Keane, Michael P [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Yale U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]610[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Krueger, Alan B [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Princeton U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]607[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Bovenberg, A Lans [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Tilburg U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]583[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Svensson, Lars E O [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Princeton U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]580[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Wolpin, Kenneth I [/FONT][FONT=Arial]U Pennsylvania [/FONT][FONT=Arial]579[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Glaeser, Edward L [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Harvard U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]573[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Angrist, Joshua D [/FONT][FONT=Arial]MIT [/FONT][FONT=Arial]551[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Fudenberg, Drew [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Harvard U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]545[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Lee, Lung Fei [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Ohio State U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]536[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Canova, Fabio [/FONT][FONT=Arial]U Pompeu Fabra [/FONT][FONT=Arial]531[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Linton, Oliver B [/FONT][FONT=Arial]LSE [/FONT][FONT=Arial]529[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Turnovsky, Stephen J [/FONT][FONT=Arial]U Washington [/FONT][FONT=Arial]522[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Ray, Debraj [/FONT][FONT=Arial]NYU [/FONT][FONT=Arial]513[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Shleifer, Andrei [/FONT][FONT=Arial]Harvard U [/FONT][FONT=Arial]512[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Epstein, Larry G [/FONT][FONT=Arial]U Rochester [/FONT][FONT=Arial]509[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]White, Halbert [/FONT][FONT=Arial]UCSD [/FONT][FONT=Arial]508[/FONT] [FONT=Arial]Levine, David K [/FONT][FONT=Arial]UCLA [/FONT][FONT=Arial]505[/FONT]
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Yes, Levitt would get in. I know for a fact that there is a first year student at MIT now with no undergrad mathematics at all. These things happen. Dont believe all these bullies who claim you need advanced topology and twenty other math classes to get into and through grad school :).
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[quote name='Emperor']Yes, Levitt would get in. I know for a fact that there is a first year student at MIT now with no undergrad mathematics at all. These things happen. Dont believe all these bullies who claim you need advanced topology and twenty other math classes to get into and through grad school :).[/quote] If you don't mind, I don't believe that. There must be something in his background you're not aware of or don't realize the significance of. It's not possible to graduate from a PhD program without any college math. Even at MIT.
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Not taking math doesn't necessarily mean inability in math. By the way, if you can prove you're a very very promising researcher and it is also supported by superstar professors, then I believe you can get in at any program. If you don't (just like most of us), then you should send signals to adcom about your abilities on grad level econ, proof type math, etc, etc, to say like "look, I can survive the first year, and then follow your guides to be an economist."
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Ross The article that you're referring to in JPE was published while Levitt was in grad school at MIT.. His undergraduate thesis at Harvard for which he won the award for best undergraduate thesis was on thoroughbred breeding. Also, regarding Levitt's math background when he began at MIT, 'Levitt had taken exactly one math course as an undergraduate and had forgotten even that. During his first graduate class, he asked the student next to him about a formula on the board: Is there any difference between the derivative sign that's straight up-and-down and the curly one? "You are in so much trouble," he was told.' All of this information is taken directly from Stephen Dubner's 2003 New York Times Magazine article on Levitt, which burgeoned into Freakonomics.
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hmm...just a speculation: what if ad coms nowadays are dominated by junior faculty that needs to publish a lot to get tenure and what if they dont really care about the research potential of the student but only his/her potential as a research assistant? this makes sense: you don't want a co-author but you want a brilliant kid who can solve your problems and prove your propositions/theorems. can the trend of wanting more math from applicants be due to this shift of the preference of ad coms and their private benefits? i dont really buy the idea that more advanced level math is needed to get published. maybe if you're doing mathematical economics or macro (e.g. nonlinear dynamics and chaos) or econometric theory, you'll need it. but just look at the level of math in AER, QJE, JPE, IJIO, etc..rarely does it go beyond the calculus series (my supervisor even "scolded" me for writing too mathematically when preparing for a submission into one of these journals (actually 2)...he told me to reserve that for JET) or maybe it's just that econ phd has become so popular and you need a quick and easy instrument to screen applicants. definitely it's hard to read writing samples from applicants (as practiced in Europe) if you have tons of them. hence math ability may be an an imperfect but workable instrument to predict research potential (some of you might be familiar with the belief that if you were good in math as a kid, people tend to think that u are "smarter") so now on the Leveitt issue. if explanation 1 (first paragraph) is true, then Levitt won't be accepted. if explanation 2 (2nd paragraph) is true, then coming from Harvard and all, he has a big chance especially due to the proximity of Harvard to MIT since he won't need to attract ad coms with math...heck i dont think he even has to mail his apps to the grad school (his application will be personally handed in by professor X to professor Y who happens to chair the ad com at MIT...) sorry for the long post!
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[quote name='PseudoRandomThoughts']This is a 'counterfactual conditional', an 'unsolved' problem in philosophy. :) [URL="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unsolved_problems_in_philosophy"]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unsolved_problems_in_philosophy[/URL][/quote] Not really. I know someone who got into Harvard despite being dead. Not all universities forbid applications on behalf of dead people. But given this handicap, they have to compensate with excellent LORs and demonstrated research ability. Which Tucker has. (Sorry Emperor, coudn't resist ...:))
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