7. You will know your data extremely well if you collect it yourself. Far better than using a set of overly-analyzed public data, where you don’t know who collected it and if she counts Acacia thorns as “protection” when she codes “protected well” as the source of drinking water.
6. It builds character. I am realizing that a strong character is not necessarily a prerequisite for a career in academia and not related publication ability. However, I find that having told off a group of drunk heckling men in Swahili makes answering tough econometric questions during a lecture of students my own age, in English, a relative breeze.
5. Because you gain a fuller contextual picture and experience the local culture, you learn things you never expected. This is particularly useful for new research ideas and hypotheses. For example, when I conducted focus groups, which I imagined were only for narrowing down my household survey questions, I discovered a completely different variable that was affecting family size. Bride price. It’s in the works now, but big ideas and a possible dissertation chapter are stewing. All I had to do was ask.
4. It is a LOT of fun. Far more fun that working in a window-less office without interacting with a single other human being. Fun is clearly another non-requisite for academia. And I am finding that I may be in the minority of academics, and academic economists in particular, who likes working with people. I enjoy things like getting stuck in a rural river during a lightening storm and pretending to get sexual jokes during a Swahili condom demonstration. Honestly, the first two years of my PhD were miserable. Preliminary exams and coursework in economic theory are NOT fun. An adventure in Tanzania collecting data is good for the soul after a humbling month of 80 hour/week study sessions and a micro theory preliminary exam. This is clearly an impractical reason to do fieldwork, but this leads me to the fact that…
3. Frankly, getting a PhD is impractical. Evidence here, here and here. Don’t do it unless you’re completely confident that it’s the right life choice. But if you are that confident, you’re probably impractical. So go have fun.
2. Economics is a SOCIAL science. There is so much to learn about people in economic development. We should learn language, culture, institutions (all the rage), social norms, gender roles, education structure, financial system, and infrastructure for the full contextual picture. If you write about people and haven’t spoken much to the people you write about, to hear their point of view, how social is that science? I am a little skeptical of that sort of seemingly removed expertise in economic development. It’s a cliché, but it seems inappropriate and arrogant to sit high in the ivory tower in North America giving advice about people in poverty if you haven’t actually interacted with people in poverty.
1. Chris Blattman recommended it... six years ago. Well, given that I’m responding to his post in the first place, I should definitely get this right. He did not strictly recommend fieldwork; in fact he cautioned against big long-term field projects and encourages good field preparation and minimizing risk. But in the post that reminds me that I won’t lose my soul in grad school, he wrote “How to get a PhD *and* save the world:”
3. Take chances…Where I think [my committee] were wrong is that they told me to abandon my plans for risky and expensive fieldwork. They favored the less risky route that could get me to a completed dissertation faster. My chair’s response: “Hey, if you really want to do this, why not? Give it a shot. If it doesn’t pan out after three months, then come back and work on something else. Worst case scenario: you lose a few thousand dollars and a summer, but you have a great experience.” I plan to give the same advice to my students.
I’m sure all the risk-management conditions still apply, despite the fact that this recommendation was six years ago. But, in the most polite and respectful manner possible, I’d like to point out that timing matters for this sort of advice. I’m still a single twenty-something graduate student with a fierce grip on my ideals and sense of adventure. Blattman wrote the initial post when he was either a post-doc or still a grad student. With all due respect (which is a lot), he has since become 1) a professor and 2) a father. These two facts and his experience makes him a bajillion times more qualified to give informed advice than this inexperienced blogger.
And I might tame my impractical advice as well if I ever grow up. But in the meantime, I’m still thinking about how to get a PhD *and* save the world.
Hat tips: LZ, BLK