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Orhan Torul

Assistant Professor of Economics at Boğaziçi University

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Over the couple of years I have served at the Department of Economics at Boğaziçi University, I realized I was repeating myself when giving advice as the academic adviser. In order to do less of it, I took the liberty to list some tips for our graduate students. Clearly, many of these recommendations are subjective, and by no means they reflect the unanimous view of the members of the Department. That being said, I acknowledge that I have benefited immensely from my exchange with the faculty at the Department, and I am particularly indebted to Prof. Mehmet Yiğit Gürdal.

Here are some tips in no particular order:

  • Do your best with your coursework.

    • Regardless of your future research interests, give your best shot in learning everything you encounter in all sub-fields. Our coursework mainly intends to teach you the necessary toolkits in addressing important concepts and questions, and not just for the particular topics covered in class. We do know that graduate coursework is pretty intense and tiresome, be that as it may, your investment in the material can (and probably will) come in very handy when the least expected. (e.g. game theory in macroeconomics, economics of institutions when designing a lab experiment, mechanism design in behavioral finance, …) Besides (and perhaps more importantly), your grades serve as a signal that you are competent, hard-working, and self-disciplined students who can thrive even in the top-notch PhD programmes.

  • Postpone criticizing (and complaining about) how realistic and reliable economic models are for a bit.

    • Economic models are obvious simplifications of reality. They intend to keep only the relevant first-order channels, and they do so deliberately by stripping away things that you may find relevant. (By now most of you are probably familiar with the map analogy). After digesting economic models, their virtue can become more evident, and you may (and probably will) come to terms (and perhaps appreciate) why such details are perhaps deliberately omitted. Keeping a critical approach is clearly most valuable. However, learning more about how things are done in the discipline and establishing a more thorough perspective before criticizing is probably be healthier.

  • Come to terms with the fact that no single economic model can successfully explain reality (and predict future outcomes) correctly and universally.

    • Human interactions are really, really, really complex and multi-layered. There is practically no way of capturing everything at once.

      • Physics tells us that the boiling point of pure water at 1 ATM is ~100 Celsius, regardless of where you do it. When you repeat it over and over, you get the same results and make sure that this is a universal result.

      • When you analyze human behavior (and say experiment with policy changes), you will probably get different results under the (seemingly) very same economic conditions!

        • Take two fictional persons with identical socio-economic backgrounds, incomes, consumption bundles/saving patterns and even future expectations. Try to predict how they will react to the same policy change (e.g. a tax increase). They will probably respond differently. Why? Say, the grandmother of the first advised him about the virtue of being precautious when needed (which accords well with skin in the game), and say those teachings stick with the grandson (e.g. never spend more than 50% of your income, or make sure your rent does not exceed 40% of your income). Say he takes that word of caution very seriously when responding to the policy change, thereby reacts differently in consumption and saving decisions than the second person. This is a very very subtle thing that can be overlooked when designing a policy, yet might have first-order implications. Suppose such words of caution is not uncommon in the land of the grandmother and grandson, and in fact such teachings have become the part of a culture so that most residents of the region react alike. Think of other possible subtle foundations. And think of their feedback mechanisms and other amplification channels. Beware, that your model will almost always miss something critical, and your prediction will almost lack some degree of accuracy.

    • If there is so much we could miss or get wrong, why come up with economic models in the first place?

      • Think about meteorology. Meteorologists predict future (or probability distribution functions) quite well in most instances, but not so much in others. Albeit getting it wrong (at least) occasionally, their predictions do come in handy often times. Clearly, state institutions are bound to take critical policy decisions, and clearly there is no escape from them. (Note that not doing something (status-quo) is also a policy decision, and these policies could affect the lives of millions immensely.) For instance, the Central Bank has to decide on what to do with its target interest rate or money supply. Obviously, in order to take the best decision and enact the wisest policy, you will need some structure. Economic models can serve to provide that structure. Your best guess for average temperature level in Istanbul throughout June will probably not be 16 Celsius (as in London) or 35 Celsius (as in Riyadh), but something around 23 Celsius. Why? You probably factor in Istanbul’s longitude and latitude along with its other geographical properties and peculiarities, you make use of past realizations (of previous months and years), and perhaps you incorporate global warming trends. Likewise, ceteris paribus, if the Central Bank doubles the money supply, it will probably not expect the price level to stay the same or increase by a thousand-fold, but double as well. Economic models can serve as the proper tools to deliver such insights.

    • In his book, the Turkish economist Dani Rodrik discusses why we use models in the social sciences, what makes a good model, and more. He also proposes ten commandments for economists and non-economists, which I believe is very good advice:

      Ten commandments for economists

      1. Economics is a collection of models; cherish their diversity.
      2. It’s a model, not the model.
      3. Make your model simple enough to isolate specific causes and how they work, but not so simple that it leaves out key interactions among causes.
      4. Unrealistic assumptions are OK; unrealistic critical assumptions are not OK.
      5. The world is (almost) always second-best.
      6. To map a model to the real world you need explicit empirical diagnostics, which is more craft than science.
      7. Do not confuse agreement among economists for certainty about how the world works.
      8. It’s OK to say “I don’t know” when asked about the economy or policy.
      9. Efficiency is not everything.
      10. Substituting your values for the public’s is an abuse of your expertise.

      Ten commandments for non-economists

      1. Economics is a collection of models with no predetermined conclusions; reject any arguments otherwise.
      2. Do not criticize an economist’s model because of its assumptions; ask how the results would change if certain problematic assumptions were more realistic.
      3. Analysis requires simplicity; beware of incoherence that passes itself off as complexity.
      4. Do not let math scare you; economists use math not because they are smart, but because they are not smart enough.
      5. When an economist makes a recommendation, ask what makes him/her sure the underlying model applies to the case at hand.
      6. When an economist uses the term “economic welfare,” ask what s/he means by it.
      7. Beware that an economist may speak differently in public than in the seminar room.
      8. Economists don’t (all) worship markets, but they know better how they work than you do.
      9. If you think all economists think alike, attend one of their seminars.
      10. If you think economists are especially rude to non-economists, attend one of their seminars.
    • If you still cannot help yourself postponing to criticize economics, do read what early intellectuals discussed

      • An excellent critical book I recommend is by Jon Elster. While many economists and political scientists would disagree with him on several accounts, I believe most will appreciate his insightful criticism on obscurantism in social sciences.

      • To lighten up the mood a bit, a sarcastic piece on bad criticism in economics might help you with learning about economists’ take on stereotypical critiques.

  • Graduate coursework differs a lot from undergraduate coursework, and this is not just a phase, but the part of a new trend.

    • If you have already taken graduate-level courses, you would have noticed that the first year of the graduate coursework can hardly be considered continuation of the undergraduate programme as its fifth year. The graduate coursework is considerably less-structured (and often less pedagogical), and requires significantly more creative and flexible thinking. Just memorizing things, as you might have done throughout your undergraduate (or prior) studies will probably not get you anywhere. Come to terms with the fact that as you specialize more and more (as you do throughout your graduate studies), you will not be able to find an easy-to-read textbook to grasp everything at once. Instead, you will have to learn how to dig deep and learn from contrary views and form opinions of your own. Doctoral studies are full of learning (and researching) in such unstructured settings, and trying to get comfortable with the lack of structure sooner than later is probably the wiser way to go.

    • As you struggle with the lack of structure in your graduate studies, remember that you are not alone: your classmates probably go through similar difficulties. You can learn a lot from your peers (and sometimes more so than from your professors or textbooks/articles). They probably experience the same hardship as you do: they were also high-achieving undergraduate students who attended classes regularly, solved problem sets meticulously, and excelled at exams (that were often simple extensions of in-class exercises and problem set questions). Studying together with, trying to learn and getting support from your peers will probably help you keep a more positive outlook that will prove invaluable throughout your studies. On a personal level, I would find myself perform better when surrounded by positive and excited classmates than ever-frustrated, resentful and complaining ones, so remember the type of externality your attitude could result in.

  • Learn to plan, organize and prepare in advance.

    • Whether it be about your coursework, master’s thesis, or preparation for standardized tests (e.g. GRE or TOEFL), keep it tidy, keep it organized, keep it planned and keep it error-free to the best of your ability. Work with timetables, and keep buffer zones (in case things go south, and they do go south). It is understandable for you not to do your best in an exam or pop-quiz, but failing to devote proper time and energy to what you should is hardly excusable. For instance, when submitting an application to a PhD programme, I believe a CV or statement of purpose with typos and formatting errors will not only look unprofessional but also signal that you have not ironed out simple mistakes that you could have easily done so, should you prepare well in advance.

  • Try not be overly ambitious with your master’s thesis.

    • Hold your horses in explaining everything with your master’s thesis. Being ambitious is great, but two or three years of graduate work will probably not suffice to prepare you address your ambitious questions with academic rigor. In order to figure out what’s not overly ambitious but just ambitious enough, do not shy away from consulting with your thesis adviser.

    • Motivate your research questions not based on your subjective evaluations and judgments but by factual evidence and data. Read (and read a lot) on what other researchers did when addressing similar questions. One of the key integral parts of writing a good thesis is figuring out (and discussing) where your work lies in the literature. Failing to discuss the earlier relevant literature and doing a poor job in outlaying your contribution to the literature will not make you look smarter and more accomplished (as the first-doer of your thing) but instead will reduce the overall quality and value-added of your work.

  • Here are some tips from Gregory Mankiw for undergraduate students:
  1. Take as many math and statistics courses as you can stomach.
  2. Choose your economics courses from professors who are passionate about the field and care about teaching. Ignore the particular topics covered when choosing courses. All parts of economics can be made interesting, or deadly dull, depending on the instructor.
  3. Use your summers to experience economics from different perspectives. Spend one working as a research assistant for a professor, one working in a policy job in government, and one working in the private sector.
  4. Read economics for fun in your spare time. To get you started, here is a list of recommended readings.
  5. Follow economics news. The best weekly is The Economist. The best daily is the Wall Street Journal.
  6. If you are at a research university, attend the economic research seminars at your school about once a week. You may not understand the discussions at first, because they may seem too technical, but you will pick up more than you know, and eventually you’ll be giving the seminar yourself.

Despite intended for undergraduate students, even if you are done with your coursework, I think 4. 5. and 6. would still be valid. Regarding 4. and 5, this post might come in handy.

  • Finally, here are some recommendations to our previous students regarding their Economics PhD applications.

  • For your inquiries, do not hesitate to send me an e-mail at orhan.torul@boun.edu.tr