Starting to work on a Ph.D. thesis

I would also like to use this Blog to share some advice to Ph.D. students. Let’s start with advice for Ph.D. students who have just completed the first two years of courses (small aside: In some European countries, the first two years of a Ph.D. program are referred to as the “Research Master” or “MPhil” Phase and after that one starts in year one; in the U.S. and other countries, one would call this year three).

So, it’s August now and you are about to get started with the thesis phase. I would suggest that you first think about where you want to be by the end of the Ph.D. Of course, you want to have a degree, but you also want to have a job. And the idea of a Ph.D. program is to prepare you for a job as an academic. For that reason, I find it helpful to already now read Cawley’s guide on the academic job market, available at the AEA job market website. There, you will also find other interesting papers that look at this question from a different angle.

The most important thing to realize is that when you want to have a job on September 1, then you need a single-authored job market paper in November of the previous year.

Next, I suggest you do some more preparatory reading that is related to the actual activity of doing research. I personally liked the book “How to write a lot“, because it does not only help you to overcome the writer’s block, but also gives you advice on how to organize your day so that you are as productive as possible. I’ve also heard good things about the book “Writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day“.

It’s also time to acquire some software skills. I suggest to look into LyX for text processing, programs to organize your bibliography files (such as JabRef) and to have a look at R, as more and more people seem to use it, especially when they deal with big data sets. Moreover, get your IT environment in good shape. Buy a tablet, install all necessary apps on it (most importantly a PDF reader with annotation function, such as Goodreader). And come up with a good file structure on your hard disk so that you find things. I personally have everything in my Dropbox. This makes it easy to share folders and to synchronize files between your devices. And you automatically back up your files. You can also use any other such service, such as the SURFdrive here at Tilburg University.

Generally, get everything out of the way so that you can get started. All this can be done in one week. Or even less time.

Next, start thinking about research ideas. An idea is a question you would like to answer and that you think one can answer (it doesn’t matter if you don’t know how exactly). Most research ideas won’t work out, but some of them will. Compose a list of your 10 best ideas. Then, take the most promising one and ask yourself how the ideal data set would look like with which you could answer the question. Think about the ideal natural experiment you would like to exploit. And do a google (scholar) search on the topic. Don’t be disappointed if somebody else has already (tried to) answer the question. Instead, ask yourself whether you think it’s possible to give a much better answer.

Actually, you should actually start thinking about ideas already in the second year, before picking an adviser and starting the thesis phase. From then onward, think about new ideas all the time. Discuss them with your classmates and also with faculty. More junior faculty are usually very approachable, while the senior ones are more busy. But you should also talk to the more senior ones about your work. Try to make an appointment if necessary. This could be part of the process of looking for a good match for your adviser(s). Refine your list by getting rid of the less promising ideas and replacing them with more promising ones. This list will be helpful when somebody asks you the important question “What are you working on?”. And many people will ask that question.

Talking to others about will probably lead to a joint project at some point. Sometimes, it is very helpful to start a research project with a junior faculty member, preferably if he or she will likely be on your dissertation committee or your advisor. This will foster learning by doing, which will help you for your future projects. At the beginning you will think that you have a lot of stupid questions and make a lot of stupid mistakes. But you will learn that this is just part of the thought process that (sometimes) leads to insights that are all but stupid. And this is what counts.

But will all this, keep in mind that your most important goal is to have a single-authored job market paper at the end of your dissertation phase. Start talking to your advisor about this already after a few months.

Join a group such as the structural econometrics group in Tilburg. Here, ideas are discussed almost every week. Check the seminar schedules and make a plan which seminars to attend in the upcoming semester.

Start reading. In general. Make it a habit to browse through the recent issues of the top 5 journals. Learn how great work looks like. Learn how to get the main idea of a paper without spending days reading it.

Also read the original versions of the classic articles. For example, Arrow’s classic piece on health economics. Or McFadden’s classic articles on travel demand (he has a very nice website with lots of linked articles). This can be very inspiring because the original articles are often very clear and explicit, and in some sense easier to understand than more recent textbook treatments of the material. You can also browse through Train’s book, for an introduction on using simulation techniques to incorporate random-coefficients into your empirical model. Also find out about recent important developments, for example by reading Varian’s article on big data.

I assume that you already know which field you want to be working in, because you have made a conscious choice after having attended comprehensive field courses and you’re already paired up with an adviser. If you still have the feeling that you are not so sure what the current topics are that are being discussed in the field, then go back to the overview articles you have been referred to in the field courses. For empirical industrial organization, for instance, I would suggest you read the article by Ackerberg, Benkard, Berry and Pakes, among others of course.

This brings me back to Cawley’s article. Go talk to your supervisor about the plan for the next months, ask him which chapters or articles you should read, and start thinking about multiple projects at the same time. But only work on one or two in the beginning. Nevertheless, keep in mind that you should update the list with the 10 research ideas. One of them will be your job market paper, but it’ll be a while until you know which ones.

Let the journey begin!


About kleintob

Tobias Klein is an Associate Professor at Tilburg University. He is an economist by training and obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Mannheim, Germany. Before that he visited the University of California at Berkeley Ph.D. program and the Ph.D. program at University College London, respectively for a year. He is passionate about economics, politics, food, and travelling. See for his professional website.

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