Does it work in theory? Reply

This week we are hosting something of a pitch session for the new crop of postgraduate students in the School. It is not a seminar, nor a colloquium. It is simply an opportunity where they can pitch the ideas that they have for their dissertation or thesis and get a few inputs right at the start. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel or build a highway to nowhere! So if you left it late, here are a few ideas.

future-economists-1Everything starts with a problematic situation, like slow growth in developed economies, or the fall in global trade, unemployment in South Africa. But these issues cannot be addressed in a single dissertation of thesis. You need to identify aspect of it that your study can address.

You can start by thinking whether you will try to answer some question from a macro or micro perspective. Macro would be for the economy as a whole, probably using a public data source. A micro approach would be from the perspective of households or firms. Big issues like unemployment, inflation or poverty all have macro and micro perspectives.

The next step is to consider how economists think about your topic. Where does it fit into the literature? Does it work in theory? Asking, Why doesn’t South Africa export more? is too broad. Narrowing it down means fitting it to the macro theories like comparative advantage, or love of variety and home market effects, or trade costs. From a micro perspective you have to consider the intensive and extensive margins of exports, or the Mellitz model of exporter firms. You need to show that the question is something that other researchers are thinking about – and that your voice will add to this discussion.

Once you have delimited the background / problematic situation and then the problem, it becomes easier to think about your study’s objectives and methods. At this early stage you don’t need to know exactly what econometric tests you will be doing. But you do need to be sure that there is data available, or that you will be able to gather it with the time and money that you have. There is no sense in proposing a Master’s degree study that will require collecting longitudinal data of a representative sample of households or firms in South Africa. Something slightly less ambitious will be fine.

So what are others doing? In a good FiveThirtyEight post Oliver Roeder had a look at the papers that PhD students presented at the conference of the American Economic Association. These are their so-called job market papers. As the graph shows, it is mainly the big picture Macro topics of economic growth, unemployment and inflation. But he explains that there are overlaps between a number of the other categories and boils it down to a macro-micro-metrics split of 45-45-10. He then goes on to have look at the titles: “On the whole, this is unsurprising. Economists tend to look for evidence of effects in markets using models built on theory and so on”. At the Centre for Global Development’s blog, Justin Sandefur summarized 17 Development PhDs in tweet-length format. There is some macro, but a lot more micro. Have a look at the details in both posts, it might inspire you.

Finally, listen to the comments with an open heart. These are not criticisms. You don’t need to defend anything, but you can try and convince us. The staff and your fellow postgraduates will want to make sure that you start with with a sound idea and end up doing good work.

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