Everything You Wanted to Know about the Ph.D. Program in Economic Analysis and Policy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business but were Afraid to Ask.

By David Ahn. A Postscript version.


Before I started at the GSB, I was very afraid that my experience would resemble the tenth circle of hell. I was wrong, although there are occasional demons. This is intended to let you know what a wonderful program this is and to disavow you of any preconceived fears. The economics program here is very quirky, much like its students. You should know about its personality before you arrive.

Note: I use the collective first person at various points. But, these opinions are not necessarily those of the entire group. This will be a good introduction to abuse of notation, which is something you will have to learn to deal with if you're going to pursue a career in economics.

What about Bob?

No discussion about our group would be complete without some mention of Bob Wilson. Bob started the group and is involved with all of us in some way. He runs a weekly game theory seminar for the students where we present our own research. He is very committed to the program. Last year, Bob had podiatric surgery and limped back to teach class and run the seminar, despite the fact one of his feet was the size of a small watermelon. He is one of the few people possessing real economic wisdom, and we are convinced he has memorized every paper written in economics since John Stuart Mill. Bob also has a superhuman ability to draw perfect equilateral triangles, which he shows off whenever he has a chance. An inevitable pleasure of being a graduate student here is to discuss a new research idea with Bob, wait nervously as he strokes his beard thoughtfully, then have him draw a little picture that explains the entire issue and makes all of your rarefied mathematical analysis seem totally redundant.


The economics program here produces research economists. Because of our location in a business school, many people unfortunately think that our program will prepare them to enter business positions. Due to a dramatic deterioration of their social skills, some current students are probably less qualified to do actual business work now than they were when they entered. We learn how to think abstractly and theoretically about the important business decisions that, fortunately for the world, we will never make. On average, our students are more technically sophisticated than those at top economics departments. The very large proportion of us, relative to other programs, that pursue pure theory further attests to the importance that we place on rigor and crisp thinking.

The small size of the group means that not all areas of economics are covered. As a result, most of us had clear pictures of our research interests before entering the program. In a large department, it would be easier to switch topics and find an advisor. If one of us suddenly decided to pursue economic history, for example, she might be more likely to find an appropriate advisor by scanning the audience at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.

While the faculty here is very open to meeting students and discussing ideas, the impetus usually lies on our shoulders. Most are not happy with unannounced or naked visits, but an e-mail or phone call to set up an appointment usually works. It is also considerate to have a specific model or result to discuss, rather than your general interest in those environments where people sell things. Second year, we start working with faculty as research assistants. The amount of work involved depends on the professor, ranging anywhere from thumb twiddling to indentured servitude. For the most part, the work is minimal, especially for those in theory. Assistantships are a great excuse to get to know potential advisors and talk about our own research. Finding professors to work with is not a problem in our group, given the few students in the program.

As an aside, there are professors in the strategy group that are listed among our faculty. We have been told these professors actually exist, but we have also been told that a corpulent man from the North Pole delivers our Christmas gifts in a flying sled. Who the strategy professors are and what exactly they do are mysteries to us.


We used to take many of our core classes at the economics department. Lately, a combination of scheduling conflicts and professors named Amemiya has pushed the GSB to offer more of its own economics classes. Our core classes are much smaller than those in the department. As a result, we're less anonymous. So, professors notice if we skip class or perform poorly.

Compared to those in most traditional departments, our professors assign fewer but more difficult questions. Other students spend more total hours on their homework, but those additional hours are often spent doing tedious algebra. The faculty expects that we master much of the basic material on our own. To really learn the material we actually have to read the textbooks and do additional problems. Especially in microeconomics, our classes are much more like guided directed readings than actual classes. But, I think this was a calculated move, as we all think we understand economics better after figuring it out ourselves, rather than hearing lectures. However, since more students from the other GSB groups are taking our classes now, I suspect classes are slowly changing into more traditional lectures to meet the more diverse demand.

The micro sequence starts with E600, also known as "Arrow and Debreu: Greatest Hits", and covers fundamentals of choice theory and market equilibrium. One of the many things we learned in that class is that David Kreps is possibly the smartest human being to have ever roamed the planet. He would prove things off the top of his head that had stumped us for weeks. The next quarter is either taught by Bob or taken in the economics department and is an introduction to game theory. If Bob teaches the class and you want a diversion from equilibrium refinements, ask him about electricity auctions. His face will become absolutely aglow.

Because we aren't required to take a year of macroeconomics, we have space in our schedules to take additional classes. The lack of structure is great for students who want to tailor their own plans of study to master technical tools or develop interdisciplinary perspectives. This is not so great for students who want structure and guidance with courses. We often take classes in math or statistics. The grad students in those departments are interesting, but at times forget to bathe. Some students also take physical education classes with undergraduates, such as, and I am not making this up, "Weight Training for Golfers." They say this is to better their health, but I think it's actually an attempt to meet attractive others. The fact that the some students repeatedly enroll in these classes quarter after quarter speaks to their success. But, if you ever see a muscle-bound economist holding a five iron, you'll know it's one of us.

Outside of classes, the group hosts two weekly seminars. First year, nine out of ten times we had no idea what the speaker was talking about. But, the seminars are still a good way for students to learn about the research frontier and for faculty to squeeze a nap into their busy schedules. Also, at some point we finally begin to understand what the speakers are discussing, which is one of the very satisfying realizations of graduate life.

The field exams are the primary cause of stress in the first year. We take exams in microeconomics and econometrics, usually early in the summer. Although the prospect of failing the exams is frightening, failing the exam is not a disaster. Almost everyone who fails is given a second chance. The general and totally uncorroborated feeling is that passing micro is more important than passing metrics. While failing metrics is met with a slap on the wrist, failing micro is greeted with a very strenuous caning, mercifully administered by an emeritus. We think the field exams are actually a good idea. It gives the faculty some way to gauge our progress in the program, and is an early signal for whether this program is a good personal fit.

Friends and Neighbors

The first year students usually like each other very much. Sometimes they are the only ones who do. It is imperative to meet people outside of the economics group, otherwise the social dynamic in the cohort starts to resemble that of a small leper colony. The best thing would be to meet witty and charming people. Since they want nothing to do with us, we move to other options, like the students in the other groups at the GSB. They never fail to delight us with their fantastic fairy tales of consumers with intransitive preferences or managers who do not maximize profits.

Because we take so many of our classes together, we are very friendly with the students in the economics department. For the most part, they resemble us. This is good in some ways and bad in many others. In any case, if your idea of a good party is twenty poorly dressed men cracking hilarious puns about the Slutsky conditions, the economics department is the way to go.


Date: February 2002