Supplements to Syllabi

how to subscribe to a listserv list

send an email to containing as the message body the single line of text:
subscribe listname Your Name
where the listname can be found on your syllabus and Your Name is, of course, your name (first and last).
Comment: to subscribe, use an email program that does not add advertisements to the text body. E.g., do not use Outlook unless you know how to turn off the appended advertisement. You will also have best results if you turn off HTML in your email.

how to post to a listserv list

After you have subscribed, wait for a confirmation from the listserver. After you receive confirmation of your subscription, you can send email to the course mailing list. Just send an email to, where listname is the name of the course mailing list. (E.g., if you are in Econ-666, the name of the list may be econ-666-L, but check on the syllabus.) All subscribers will see your email and be able to respond. Similarly, you will see and be able to respond to all messages sent by other subscribers. (Most email readers will let you respond to the list simply by pressing a Reply button.)

If you prefer anonymity, you can email me directly. I will try to remember to strip your email address before forwarding your email to the class email list. (I usually remember to strip this information, but on rare occasions I may forget.)


To enhance student-faculty intellectual contact and substantive interchange I also hold virtual office hours:
To participate in virtual office hours, you must sign up for the course mailing list. (See your syllabus for instructions.)



Unsolicited Advice

by Alan Isaac


Carefully weigh whom you chose for your letters. It is best to have letters from people who know your work, who are familiar with your capabilities, and who know you well enough to judge your personal qualities. This usually means that you will have had more than a single course with your letter writers. Preferably, you will have visited them during office hours or, even better, written a research paper under their guidance. In some situations, letters from senior faculty will carry the most weight.

I am happy to provide a letter of recommendation to any student who has passed a course with me with a grade of A- or better. Lower grades by no means rule out a letter of recommendation, but they should cause you to consider carefully whether I am in a position to make the best assessment of your academic potential.

My letters of recommendation are frank summaries of what I know about you, although I of course try to emphasize the positive and make a case for you. (If I cannot do this, I will suggest that it is best to approach other faculty.) In order to help me shape my case, I require three items, which I prefer to receive by email.

  1. A complete transcript of your coursework and grades. If you are currently an AU student you can generally just email me your student ID and permission to view your transcript.
  2. A vita or résumé, preferably the former.
  3. A statement of your understanding of the nature of the position or program to which you are applying and your qualifications for it. What I usually want is a copy of your cover letter or your letter of intent. (If you are applying for graduate study, your statement of purpose, or whatever equivalent is requested by the schools you apply for, should be a clear statement of your core interests, your ultimate goals, and your perception of how the program you are applying to matches your interests and helps you achieve your goals. It can help to elaborate on how you have come to have the interests and goals that you have, so that these do not appear transient.)
In addition, for each letter of recommendation, you should also provide me with an appropriately prepared (standard letter size) envelope along with a hard copy of any forms I must prepare for this institution. (Usually there is a single page form requesting certain information from me, the recommender.) The envelope must clearly indicate which institution the letter is for. I will seal the envelope and sign across the flap. If I am to mail the letter, make sure the envelope is appropriately addressed and stamped. Please be sure to type the following information on the form as requested:
:Recommender:   Alan G. Isaac
:Position:      Associate Professor of Economics
:Organization:  American University
:Address:       Washington, DC 20016
:Phone:         (202)885-3770

I will write a maximum of six (6) letters of recommendation for graduate study in Economics, so choose your schools wisely. As a courtesy, you should ask me for a letter of recommendation at least three weeks before you need it.

A final observation:
Occasionally I have received a gift from a student as a "thank you" for my recommendations. While I recognize the kind intent, I consider writing letters of recommendation to be a normal part of my job. The only gift I wish in return is that you justify my recommendation in your graduate studies and employment!



For those on the market this year, I offer the following simple vita, but see other (better) examples (e.g., at Purdue’s résumé workshop). Below is some hints on looking for work. For those of you not on the market this year, looking at the following sample vita may help you plan for next year.

Your Name

(Your Email)
(Current Date)
(Your Address, Comma Separated, On A Single Line)


This section is entirely optional.

Citizenship and U.S. Immigration Status (if you are not a U.S.citizen):

Date of Birth:

Home Address: (Optional)

Job Preference: (Academic, Government, Industry, etc.) (optional; use this only if you have strong preferences)


Ph.D. Status

  Dissertation Title:
  Brief dissertation description if title inadequately informative.
  Major Professor:
  Reading Committee:
  Expected Date of Completion:
  (This should match the expectation of your references.)


          M.A. in (field, Institution, date)
          B.A. in (field, Institution, date)
          (Other non-degree work, if applicable)


Fields of Research Specialization

  Primary: (This should match your dissertation area.)
  Secondary: (Optional; a short list at most.)

Additional Teaching Fields

(optional: e.g. undergraduate econometrics)


Teaching Experience

          (Course Title), (Dates)
          (Course Title), (Dates)

Research Experience

Employment History

(optional; use only when relevant to current employment goals)


Refereed Publications

(if any; include here only publications in refereed professional journals or books.)

Journal Submissions

(if any; submissions to journals that are still pending, e.g., “submitted to the Journal of Industrial Relations.”)

Research Papers

(papers you believe could be publishable with some revision; monographs you have authored or co-authored as a research assistant; etc.)

Presentations at Professional Meetings

(if any; list title, exact meeting, date)



(if any, list journal)

Awards or Honors Received

(If applicable; generally include only those received during graduate school)

Foreign Language and Computer Proficiencies

(if applicable)

Less important and entirely optional entries might include ORCID number, membership in professional organizations (e.g. AEA, ES, etc.), or significant administrative or committee work as a graduate student.


(List three, including present address, office phone, and back-up phone number or email address for messages.)

Attach a separate page listing your graduate courses. Please do NOT list grades.

List of Graduate Courses
Course No. Course Title Instructor

On separate sheet, include a brief abstract of your dissertation. Include your title, major professor, and reading committee, centered at the top of the sheet. Provide a URL to your job-market paper.


Applications for academic positions should be made in October and no later than mid-November. Some positions will be announced somewhat later; apply for these as soon as the announcements appear. Make sure you include all the information requested in the announcement. One piece of information sure to be requested is a vita or résumé. For this reason I offer you the sample vita above. Experience has shown that the information in this format is more than sufficient for most prospective employers' needs. It is in your best interest to keep the vita short---a maximum of four pages.

Most students have their vita printed single-sided and on high quality bond paper. Make 30 or more copies, unless you think you might want to revise it during placement proceedings. I recommend the appendix on vitae from A Handbook for Scholars by Mary-Claire van Leunen for advice on how to prepare a CV. It recommends the following sections in the following order (blank sections should be omitted): Degrees, Additional education, Experience, Honors, Grants, Memberships (optional, depends on field), Personal information, Publications. I will note that the market has changed in the last 10 years: if you are hoping to apply to academic positions, you would do well to have one or more refereed publications on your vita.

Most aspects of the sample vita are self-explanatory, but there are a few worth emphasizing.


Suggestions Concerning Graduate Study

These are my personal observations and are not official department views.

Your graduate work should focus on three priorities: general professionalization, developing true expertise in a particular field, and finding a faculty member whose research you like well enough to do it. At the dissertation stage, most students feel they should look for ``big'' topics. Just get a piece of the action from someone who is an active researcher. You will end up with a modest contribution, a lot of professionalization and field specific skills, and a completed dissertation. In addition, you may well end up with your name on a publication, which is increasingly important on the job market (especially if you seek academic employment).

Success in our program requires just a B.A. in Economics and a willingness to really sweat over the math. (In fact true sweat is the only thing that makes an economist, whether it is sweat over a useful mathematical technique or sweat over that last nuance in the intuition behind a model's behavior.) Assume each of your courses requires at least 12 hours/week of study outside of class.

If you take five years instead of four to finish, you have foregone an entire year of income and professional experience. Most students do not adequately foresee this cost, and completion times are often even longer. Summers should be devoted to full-time study. When comps are done, it's dissertation time. See the Fellowship Guidelines (available from the Ph.D. Advisor) for a good set of expectations. If you can get it, a little summer teaching is a good idea. A record of good teaching evaluations can be a big ``leg up'' in the job market.

Our department is, in general, not a training ground for theorists. I have never (here or elsewhere) had a student I thought should be a theorist. My hope is that our program will generate good applied economists: careful, policy oriented, and broader in perspective than those produced by most departments. Of course, good empirical work requires a considerable mastery of theory.

It is very hard to communicate to students just how high the expectations are in the job market. If Economics does not become your life in graduate school, the post-graduation prospects are not pretty. Professionalization and expertise come only through extensive involvement with the field. In a job interview, it is obvious when this has not taken place. Nowadays, being underprofessionalized implies becoming underemployed with high probability. If you find you are spending less time on your studies than you would on a full-time job, it is time to question your commitment to graduate study.

The good news is that making graduate study the center of your life for a few years can be fun as well as valuable. Do not waste these years. Focus on your studies, not on your work or social life.

Mentoring is absolutely crucial. Unfortunately, most students prefer to pursue their individual research interests, which generally lack professional perspective. The right thing to do is to jump onto an existing research project, as long as it is reasonably close to one's interests.

Becoming professionalized is a long task. My experience is that most students do not take the details seriously enough. So, for example, programming errors and logical gaps in crucial arguments to not get the exhaustive attention they require. All I expect from students is that they refuse to be satisfied until they believe with good reason that their work is above reproach. This does not mean that it is impeccable, but rather that its shortcomings have been fully articulated. My experience is that most students take several years to achieve this level of professionalization. A rare few arrive with it in place, usually as a result of job experience and a perfectionist attitude. Many more arrive with a misplaced confidence in their own judgment of the profession and of their own work. A good deal of the process of professionalization is the development of an understanding of one's own limits.

This does not mean you should never find yourself pondering deep questions over a few beers. It does mean the questions should be linked to Economics and your interlocutors should be fellow students. There is far too little of this kind of interaction among the students. (Similarly, there is far too little use of economics oriented mailing lists---including my course lists---and economics oriented newsgroups.) An absolutely critical part of professionalization is critical discussion of economics with other students. I try to foster this by setting up course ``mailing lists'' and by encouraging group homeworks. But, if you can excuse and economist for speaking this way, it is a cultural thing. Some years all the incoming students talk economics; other years they do not. Those who rest on the sidelines are doing themselves a great professional disservice.

Two final observations:

On a Lighter Note
You might be a graduate student if...


Guidelines for Dissertation Guidance

These are my personal observations and are not official department views.

After completion of all your comprehensive examinations, you will conduct your dissertation research under faculty guidance. Your primary guidance will come from the chair of your dissertation committee. When you select a dissertation committee, you agree to work under the guidance of the committee and particularly under the direction of the chair of your committee. Here is some information about how I perceive the guidance process to work.

What dissertations will I direct?

I will only direct dissertations when I feel interested in the proposed research and qualified to provide guidance. There are many interesting topics that I will not direct because they are not close enough to my expertise. If I decline to guide your proposed research, you should not assume my decision reflects poorly on your idea. It may well indicate my sense that I lack expertise in your topic area. However, it may also indicate my sense that you lack expertise in your topic area. I am reluctant to guide dissertations when a student has not adequately prepared. At a minimum, a student should take all possible coursework related to the dissertation topic, including special offerings (like occasional seminar courses), and not just the required coursework. And naturally, the student must have passed comprehensive examinations in the relevant fields.

Dissertations under my guidance will generally focus on one or more of the following topics: applications of agent-based modeling (including macropolicy applications), Post Keynesian macroeconomics, the influence of monetary policy on the distribution of income, agent-based simulations of the transmission of wealth inequality, and occasionally certain areas of philosophy and economics or exchange rate economics. (You can get a good idea of my interests by looking at my publications.) Any student working on a macroeconomic topic should pass the macro theory comp and take the Seminar in Empirical Macroeconomics.

I have a goal that guiding a dissertation will generate one or more joint publications.

Idiosyncratic Requirements

I expect empirical dissertations to include an attempted replication of an important piece of closely related empirical work. I expect all results referred to in the dissertation to be produced by a fully commented computer program, which will be included as an appendix to the dissertation. The comments must be detailed enough that I can easily understand your program. I prefer that your programming be in EViews, SAS, or ideally GAUSS, although this is not strictly speaking a requirement. I insist that the data appendix to your dissertation document your data in painstaking detail, and with the exception of large data sets I require that the actual data set be provided as an appendix to the dissertation. (Large data sets can be given a stable location on the internet.)

To reiterate, your data appendix should be an actual listing of the raw data that is imported by your programs. (Usually this means it will be in CSV format, an ASCII format that pracically everything can read.) You should include data and program codes from your actual data and program files using the \verbatiminput command. So your .tex file should have a line like \verbatiminput{mydata1.csv} to include your data, another line like \verbatiminput{myprog1.prg} to include your econometrics code (SciPy or GAUSS or EViews or whatever), and when we look at the listing for myprog1.prg we should see that it imports mydata1.csv and performs the transformations that you will discuss in your notation table. By reading in the actual raw data files that you use and the actual program files that you use, there will never be a difference between what we see in your dissertation drafts and what you are actually working with.

The requirements so far derive from my goals of transparency and replicability in economic research. My last requirement is more idiosyncratic. I expect dissertations written under my guidance to be written in LaTeX. Use of Scientific Word is acceptable but not preferred. You will format your dissertation using the authesis class. You will document your programs by including the actual program files, not copies, by using the \verbatiminput command provided by the verbatim package. Or if you want to be fancy, try the listings package.

My rigidity about attribution and quotation might also be seen a slightly idiosyncratic. I insist on extreme care in the attribution of ideas and explicit quoting of text. For example, prefacing a long theoretical discussion with "the following discussion draws on Author (2001)" is not adequate: you need to repeatedly make attribution throughout the discussion to the appropriate sources, except when the work is your own. I will immediately cease guidance of any dissertation where I detect anything less than the strictest care in this area. Note that I am not talking about intentional plagiarism, which obviously is grounds for dismissal from the program. I am talking about a higher standard, reflecting a commitment to academic professionalism.

When will I be a committee member?

I will serve as a committee member on a broader range of topics than I am willing to direct. You need only persuade me that I can provide useful responses to your research project. (I leave guidance to the chair of your committee.) I find I am most often useful in providing criticism and focus to a theoretical section of a dissertation. I still expect that a student will pass the comprehensive exam and applied seminars relevant to the dissertation topic before I begin my participation.

What is a dissertation proposal?

If I agree in principle to be part of your committee, you may then submit a formal dissertation proposal.

I consider a dissertation proposal to be a general description of the area in which you intend to work and of the contribution you intend to make. Of course, the more specific you can be the better.

The proposal should include an outline of the dissertation down to the section level, possibly in an appendix to the proposal. If the proposed research is empirical, at least one chapter should be devoted to the replication and extension of an important paper close to your proposed research. The proposal should contain a brief review of the literature, structured to indicate the areas where (and why) further research is warranted. The lit review should not simply be a sequence of notes on the extant literature. Rather it should highlight areas where questions remain unanswered and develop the framework within which your proposed research will fit. It should also contain a clear description of the question or questions you intend to answer and how you plan to answer them. In particular, it should describe any theoretical modifications you will you make, your empirical method, and your data sources.

When I think your written proposal satisfactorily describes a research plan that will lead to a dissertation, I will sign it. When all of your committee has signed your proposal, you may proceed to the dissertation writing process.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I do not consider the dissertation proposal to be a firm contract that delineates the exact limits of the completed dissertation. Both you and I will generally discover things during the research process of which we were unaware at the outset, and the final dissertation may diverge considerably from the original vision. Specifically, I will not sign any dissertation until I am satisfied with it regardless of its fit with the proposal.

How does the dissertation writing process work?

A description of the dissertation process is difficult to provide. Each dissertation and dissertation writer is different. Nevertheless, the following brief generalities may be useful. (I provide additional detail in another document.)

After the approval of the proposal, the student pursues the proposed research. The student should regularly present written chapter drafts to the dissertation committee so that we can read, evaluate, and make suggestions. This process will continue for each chapter until I believe it is satisfactorily completed. (Both here and throughout the process, you must consider the comments of all members of the dissertation committee.)

When you have presented your completed project in written chapters to the satisfaction of the chair of your committee, you and your committee will set a date for a dissertation defense. At this time, your committee will consider the dissertation as a whole. At this point, if (and this could be a significant "if") you have followed our comments throughout the process, further comments usually will be few.

Nevertheless, until the committee approves the dissertation, further work may remain. Typically, the version presented at the defense is not approved ``as is". Instead, we will enter what I consider an explicit contract detailing the additional work you need to do to satisfy the committee. When that work is done, you will have completed your dissertation.

Recapitulating, the dissertation process will involve a continual evaluation---on a chapter-by-chapter basis---of your written work by your committee, and I stress that the dissertation is not finished until it is approved by all members of the committee.

I emphasize my need to see written work because I wish to avoid long general discussions about possibilities that waste your time and mine. I do not wish to discourage specific questions about problems you confront, which may help both of us to avoid unnecessary or unproductive effort. You should, however, always keep in mind that the dissertation is your research project, not mine. Part of the research process is to confront and solve new problems on your own. My job is to provide guidance and to evaluate the product of your work. This is best done through written work.

I emphasize the chapter-by-chapter evaluation process to discourage you from going off by yourself after I approve your proposal and returning with what you consider a completed dissertation. In all likelihood, I will not find satisfactory what you have done without guidance, and I might even ask for changes that require starting over. Obtaining my step-by-step evaluation of your work should eliminate this risk of going off in the wrong direction.

Finally, I emphasize that your dissertation is completed when I and the other members of the committee consider it satisfactory. I do so to discourage you from thinking that completion can be defined as some specified amount of work. Some dissertations have been completed in less than a year; others have taken many years. Still other proposed dissertations have never been completed. If you work hard and follow the advice of your dissertation committee, I would expect most students to be able to finish in a reasonable amount of time (a year or two of full-time work, where ``a year of full-time work'' is about 2000 hours). I cannot make any guarantees, however, because too much depends on the student's own effort and competence and on the inherent riskiness of producing original research.


Suggestions On Writing A Dissertation

This is not an official department document but rather an idiosyncratic collection of suggestions. I intend this document to supplement to the guidelines in ``Procedures for Dissertations,'' which is available from the Department of Economics. You may also find it useful to look at Surviving Your Dissertation (Rudestam and R. Newton, 1992), In Pursuit of the Ph.D. (Bowen and Rudenstine, 1992), and S. Joseph Levine's online guide.

A dissertation is a significant original contribution to knowledge in a field. It cannot duplicate any other published work or any other dissertation. For many students the prospect of such a project is as daunting as it is exciting. Here is one view on how to get going with your dissertation.

Although many dissertations will meet all of the guidelines below, many will not (e.g., history of thought and methodological dissertations will find some of the later discussion irrelevant.) The only approval that matters when it comes to the form and content of your dissertation is that of your committee (and especially that of the chair of your committee)!

Step 1: Finding a topic.

The best approach is to find a faculty member who is currently engaged in an active research project on a topic of interest to you. Propose an innovative twist to the research, and hope to jump on board! Short of this, the key here is to talk with the faculty, follow your interests, and read. Remember that you need to find a topic that is of interest both to you and to the faculty that you will need to help you.

Too many students are confident in their ability to master a new field without expert guidance. I urge you in the strongest terms to keep your research as tightly linked as possible to the research interests of the chair of your committee.

Keep reading current articles (i.e., within the last three to five years) that interest you until you find an area which you feel deserves a more extensive treatment than that available in the current literature. (Use hints from the section on the literature.) Write a brief Informal Research Proposal, say five to ten pages, summarizing your view of the literature, its gaps, and your potential contribution. (You may find it useful to consult Proposals that Work.) Present your proposal to appropriate members of the faculty, presumably the same ones with whom you have been talking all along, and ask them if they find your idea interesting and promising. If they do not, request more guidance in choosing a topic. If they do, you are ready to begin!

A final comment on your choice of topic: This still being an age of relative job scarcity (relative to your educational attainment), it would be fatuous to ignore the link between your dissertation and your employment. I would therefore encourage you to ensure that the interests that determine your preferred employment are closely related to the interests that determine your preferred dissertation topic. Employers generally will care about your dissertation much more than about your transcript. Your dissertation will be assumed to represent your primary expertise. For a discussion of the job market, I recommend Carson and Navarro (1988). For some profession-wide perspective on the links between underlying interests and selected research topics, I recommend Colander and Klamer (1987). For some general perspective on what you are doing, you might try McCloskey (1993).

A bonus: Your Informal Research Proposal should provide a strong basis for the Introduction (Chapter 1) of your dissertation. The first chapter of your dissertation should lay out the issues central to your research, discuss the methodology to be employed in exploring these issues, and illustrate the interest, importance and appropriateness of your issues and methodology--all the things that you have done in developing a proposal. (Of course, you will want to rewrite this chapter as your research proceeds and you develop a better idea about the difficulties and promises of your research.)

Step 2: Choose a Committee.

Although formally the Department Chair appoints your committee, the actual choosing is done by you. You must first find a member of the Graduate Faculty who is interested in being the chair of your committee. (The Department Staff can give you the list of Graduate Faculty.) Choose someone with specializations and enthusiasms which match your topic as closely as possible. Don't be shy--ask any good prospects if they are interested. Don't give up if rebuffed--a faculty member who tells you your topic is not of personal interest is not disparaging your idea. If no one is interested, you forgot to talk to the faculty in Step 1. Start over again.

The rest of the committee will be selected by you and your Chair. Normally you will select two or three more Economics Department Faculty members. You may wish to choose one person from outside the department if that person has knowledge or skills that are necessary to your research but lacking in the department. (Note: At least the Chair and one other member of your committee must be full members of the Economics Faculty.)

Step 3: Write a Review of the Literature.

Before you start writing, read Thomson (1999 JEL). 1 Then read it again.

Now you will put all your reading to use by writing a literature review for your proposed research area. You must exhaustively review the recent literature on your topic while providing adequate background to illustrate the historical development of its most important component ideas. Most students find it convenient to develop the early literature as a historical progression but the current literature by issue. You may also want separate reviews of the theoretical developments and the empirical evidence; however, be sure to indicate how the evidence influenced theoretical development. Keep in mind your goal here is to show exactly what theoretical and empirical gaps need to be filled (by your dissertation!).

For each paper you discuss, explicitly indicate how it is relevant to your research in terms of a) issues addressed, b) contribution, and c) shortcomings. Target your writing on readers who possess only a moderate technical background and who are not specialists in your area. This will force you to develop the theory at a level which shows your understanding and is most useful to your readers. Discussion of empirical papers must include a) estimated coefficients and summary statistics for any key regressions and b) an assessment of the data used (quarterly or annual, nominal or real, seasonally adjusted or not, etc.). I think it is very useful to include a table of key papers in your literature review. For example, the table for your empirical review would list the study (authors, date, sample period), key aspects of the model structure, the dependent variable, important non-focus explanatory variables, the focus variables, and the key findings for the focus variables.

Define variables as they appear in your literature review and then again in an appendix (or possibly as front matter). Choose a single consistent notation for the entire literature review---do not simply adopt the notation of each paper you are discussing.

Present an integrated, well written, consistent, coherent final draft to all three of your committee members. The operative word here is synthesis'. You must show that you have succeeded in synthesizing the literature in a way appropriate to your research: a series of paper summaries does not constitute a review of the literature. Make sure you indicate at the beginning of your literature review which literature you will review and why; at the end, give a concise, focused summary of the contribution of your literature review to your dissertation project.

A bonus: literature review for your research proposal will probably form the core of the second chapter of your dissertation: your Review of the Literature. (However, rather than summarize your notation in an appendix, in the dissertation you may prefer to include a notation summary as front matter.)

Finding Economic Literature for Your Review

A bibliography may be the best starting point for your research. Each article in the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Modern Economics (Gen. Ref. HB 61 M16 1983) lists significant literature on its topic, as does each article in the North Holland Handbook series. See the Bibliographic Index for significant bibliographies in books and periodicals. You should also consider the bibliographies others have compiled for current dissertations in your area. These dissertations are listed in the AER on an annual basis.
  1. The Journal of Economic Literature lists articles by journal and by subject. It is accessible online in the Knowledge Index. The subject entries are cumulated annually, with additional references taken from books, as Index of Economic Articles. This has a lag time of five years.
  2. Key to Economic Science has abstracts with semiannual subject and author indexes. Before 1976 its title was Economic Abstracts.
  3. Social Sciences Citation Index allows the user to find later articles which cite a given article or book. It also has author and title keyword indexes. Ask the reference desk for help.
  4. Social Sciences Indexes. PAIS Bulletin and PAIS Foreign Index cover social science literature with high quality indexing and short time lags, but indexes only the major economics journals.
  5. Ask the reference librarian about the listings of current articles and dissertation abstracts on CD. This is often the most efficient way to find recent literature on your topic.
To keep up with current books, see the annotated listings in Journal of Economic Literature and Economics Selections.
Working Papers
This is the best source of truly current research. A useful reference is Abstracts of Working Papers in Economics from Cambridge University Press. You can also check the World Wide Web archive of Working Papers in Economics.

Step 4: Proposal Preparation.

Many students will find it appropriate at this point to rewrite their informal research proposal and bundle it with their review of the literature to produce a formal dissertation proposal. (Once again, you may find it useful to consult Proposals that Work.) Your proposal must clearly indicate the intended theoretical and empirical contribution of the dissertation. It must be prepared in accordance with "Procedure for Submitting Thesis/Dissertation Proposal," which is available from the CAS Dean of Graduate Studies.

Before you can submit your proposal to the Dean, department guidelines state that you must gain approval for your topic by passing an oral examination by your entire committee. (This satisfies the university's oral comprehensive requirement.) While many students find this prospect intimidating, a high level of contact with your committee during the stage of proposal preparation will help you anticipate any concerns or reservations on the part of your committee.

Note: Some committees prefer to delay the proposal stage until more of the dissertation has been written. Other committees are comfortable with a relatively sketchy literature review at this stage. Find out what your committee prefers.

Step 5: Develop a Theoretical Model (Chapter 3?).

This may prove a short or long endeavor. For some students it will be the bulk of the dissertation. Others will save most of their effort for the empirical section. In either case, the theoretical model should be developed and constructively criticized in light of the review of the literature. Algebraic and graphical presentations of all relevant comparative statics will be contained in this chapter.

Students writing "purely empirical" dissertations may consider replacing this chapter with a review of the relevant theoretical literature, which should motivate your expected coefficients in your empirical work. My view is that you need to illustrate a deep and technical grasp of the relevant theory, which I think will be a crucial piece of professionalization in the job market. Others place less stress on this.

As with every chapter, be sure to provide extensive guidance to the reader. This does not simply mean repeating points made in early chapters, but it does mean that you will explicitly relate your theoretical work to the goals of your dissertation. At the beginning of the chapter, indicate what you are going to do and why; at the end, explain precisely how the chapter has contributed to the goals of your dissertation.

Step 6: Estimate Your Model (chapter 4?)

If you are writing an empirical dissertation, you will want to formulate an econometric model based on your theoretical work, estimate the model, and interpret the results of the estimation. Be sure to consider the model's purpose (e.g., prediction or policy evaluation). Check data availability early in your work. Interesting models and relevant data sources will be suggested by the existing literature. The first section is on The Empirical Model. Define each variable. Present and discuss the structural form, indicating the expected sign and magnitude of each coefficient. Be sure to indicate which variables are being treated as endogenous and why. Refer to any relevant comparative statics experiments. Then formulate your structural econometric model. When appropriate, write it in matrix form and derive the reduced and final forms. Indicate the expected sign of all reduced form coefficients. Identify the short run and long run multipliers. Finally, make sure all equations are identified: check order and rank conditions. (Of course some of you will prefer nonlinear estimation techniques.)

The second part of this chapter will discuss your Estimation procedure. Discuss your data briefly at its beginning and in detail in a Data Appendix. Data refinement may be necessary before estimation (e.g., real per capita magnitudes are most relevant for many macroeconomic variables). Is your data detrended or seasonally adjusted? Should it be? Should any observations be excluded (e.g., war years)? Are data limitations likely to introduce problems (selectivity bias, specification errors, etc.)? Mention your estimation procedure and the package used. Report all reduced form and structural form coefficients and their standard errors (comment on correction), as well as any relevant F-statistics and specification tests (e.g., for serial correlation, heteroskedasticity, or multicollinearity).

In the next section discuss your Econometric Results. Focus on the signs and magnitudes of the estimated coefficients, comparing them with your expectations and with previous results. Are there implications for future research? Are your hypotheses confirmed (refer to test statistics)? You may want to compare forecasted and actual values in this section.

Again, be sure the chapter opens with an explanation of what you are about to do and why; it should close with a summary of how your results contribute to the goals of your dissertation.

Step 7: Finishing Touches

The dissertation ends with a conclusion that summarizes major results and suggests future research, a complete bibliography of your citations, and a data appendix which includes your data, the data source for each variable, and mention of any data refinements. (I also insist that any programs written to perform the econometrics be included as an appendix.) The conclusion is your opportunity to highlight what you have achieved in the dissertation, so don't skimp here. Give a nontechnical discussion of your results that emphasizes their relationship to other research. This is your chance to provide a lively synthesis of your accomplishments, so don't just summarize. Mention shortcomings as well as strengths, and suggest how any shortcomings might generate future research. Your conclusion should be the place where you i. lay out the themes that persisted in your dissertation, ii. summarize what you have done and how it relates to other research, iii. give a clear statement of your key contributions, and iv. suggest specific future research projects that follow from your dissertation. Be as specific as you can about possible future research projects, for this is your best opportunity to show that you have developed a research agenda based on your dissertation research.

NB: Be sure to consult the Guide to Preparation of Theses and Dissertations for the style guidelines you must follow for the university to accept your dissertation. This has moved around a bit, but should be at the Provost's Office.

NB: Don't forget to discuss your progress with your committee, and especially the Chair, at regular intervals. They will give you a clear indication of what remains to be done to make the dissertation acceptable. If you work in isolation, you should not be surprised if your work is not acceptable to your committee. Your committee will sign the Dissertation Completion Form only when they are satisfied that it has met their standards for an acceptable dissertation.

NB: Your dissertation should be written so as to facilitate reproducibility, as should all your published research.


Barnes, Rob, Successful Study for Degrees (NY: Routledge, 1992)

Bowen, William G., and Rudenstine, Neil L., In Pursuit of the Ph.D. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992). (Includes info on completion rates and the role of aid.)

Carson, Richard, and Peter Navarro, ``A Seller's (& Buyer's) Guide to the Job Market for Beginning Economists,'' Journal of Economic Perspectives 2(2), Spring 1988, 137-148.

Colander, David, and Arjo Klamer, ``The Making of an Economist,'' Journal of Economic Perspectives 1(2), Fall 1987, 95-111.

Locke, Lawrence, et al., Proposals That Work 3rd Edition (NY: Sage, 1993). See especially the first three chapters.

McCloskey, D., ``In Pursuit of the Ph.D.: A Review Essay,'' Economics of Education Review 12(4), Dec 1993.

Peters, Robert, Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Masters or a Ph.D. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992)

Rudestam, K., and R. Newton, Surviving Your Dissertation (NY: Sage, 1992).

Thomson, William, 1999, ``The Young Person's Guide to Writing Economic Theory,'' Journal of Economic Literature 37, 157--83.


A student sent me this view of the proposal process:
Many of the first-year grad students ask questions about the "thesis proposal".
Such as, "What's a thesis proposal?" and "How will I know when I've had one?"

Well, first of all, a thesis proposal is not that different from a marriage
proposal.  You make sincere promises, you sweat profusely, you hope the
other party says yes. A marriage
proposal is in fact good practice for a thesis proposal.  All first-year
grad students are encouraged to take the marriage minicourse.

On to basics.  Here is a sample thesis proposal:

  I would like to propose solving X.  The traditional way to solve X is
  stupid, while my way is most excellent.  The traditional way suffers from
  all sorts of problems.  My way suffers from none of these problems.  I have
  built a prototype that takes "input" and converts that input into what I
  call "output".  The output of my prototype is excellent, although I could
  make it even more excellent.  This is what I would like to propose to do.

You should submit a draft like this to your advisor.  You should then
organize a "committee".  Your committee will behave roughly like any other
committee, for example, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
This committee has the power to make your life utterly miserable.  On the
other hand, the committee can solve all of your problems with the stroke
of a pen.

During your proposal, some member of your committee will ask, "How will
science be different after your thesis?"  There are two possible answers
to this question:

  (true)  "Science will be about the same."
  (false) "Science will be far better off, like, incredibly."

Should you lie?  In the words of Alan Perlis, "Why not?"

At the end of your proposal, you must then give a schedule for your thesis
work.  A schedule for scientific research looks like this:

  November:  Have major conceptual breakthrough.
  December:  Apply breakthrough to solve problem.
  January:   Discover new problem.
  February:  Have another major conceptual breakthrough.
  March:            ...

You should know that failure to comply with your thesis schedule is grounds
for dismissal.

So when should you do your proposal?  You will know when the time is right.

last update: 15 Oct 97

Suggestions for Writing Homework, Exam, and Comp Answers

First and foremost, be sure to comply with the Academic Integrity Code for American University. Read and understand this code, since failure to comply can terminate your academic career. Second, note that faculty are not expected and are generally not willing to ``review'' past exam questions with you: this is the job of your study group. This applies perforce to comprehensive examinations.

There is no mystery about writing good answers. Just answer the question clearly, completely, and with an appropriate level of detail. Violations of this common sense are the most common errors.

Common Errors

Three common errors are digressive verbosity, cryptic brevity, and failure to follow directions.

Digressive verbosity involves excessive length, such as long summaries of background material or digressions on obliquely relevant topics. That wastes your valuable time, indicates (and may cause) a lack of focus, and suggests you do not understand the essentials of the problem. Answer the specific question asked; don't discourse on the general topic area. Avoid redundancy: don't derive the same result three different ways, and when possible combine the derivations of multiple results. Don't define terms that aren't used, state assumptions that aren't relevant, write equations that aren't necessary, or answer questions that weren't (explicitly or implicitly) asked.

Cryptic brevity is the opposite extreme: answers that are too short, not sufficiently thorough or rigorous, and don't adequately answer the questions. Be thorough and rigorous: every term or variable used should be defined (briefly), necessary assumptions should be stated, and results should be carefully derived with intuition provided. Provide full the math and intuition to accompany any graphical "proofs" of results. This is crucial. A graph cannot stand on its own: it must be supported by a full explanation. Just drawing a graph and summarizing it is generally not a complete answer. Always provide an intuitive explanation for the slope of each curve, and similarly provide an intuitive explanation of any curve shifts. Likewise, your mathematical derivations and proofs should be accompanied by clear intuitive explanations---not just descriptions that merely repeat in words what your graphs or math already say.

Failure to follow directions is a surprisingly common problem on exams and even on homeworks. The most common mistake is failure to read the directions for each section of the exam. These directions often include i. restrictions on the choice of questions, and ii. restrictions on the length of answers. Violation of these restrictions can cost you dearly. Even when sections do not explicitly restrict your answer length, there may be implicit suggestions about the level of detail. (E.g., points may be allotted, or the question may be labeled as a "long-answer" or "short-answer" question.)

General Comments

Here are a few other observations, which apply regardless of how long or short your answers are.

  1. Graphs do not stand on their own. A graph by itself, even if it is the "right" graph, is often worth nothing. Each graph must be carefully labeled and fully explained. Note that the graph must be explained, not just described. An explanation must provide the economic reasoning behind the graph. Whenever possible, make your intuitive explanation clear enough, detailed enough, and simple enough that someone who has not had the course can understand it.
  2. Equations or algebraic formulae do not stand on their own. The comments about graphs apply directly any math in your answer. Merely restating in words what your equations show is not an ``intuitive explanation''. An intuitive explanation explains: it provides the economic reasoning for your final results (e.g., in terms of the behavior of the agents/classes involved, the way markets adjust, and the underlying assumptions). Do not just say, "x goes up and this makes y go down and therefore z falls". That is not an explanation. You need to explain the causal mechanisms, economic interactions, or behavioral assumptions that account for why x goes up, why that makes y go down, etc. The object is not just to give a correct answer. It is to display understanding of the fundamental concepts at play.
  3. The results of a model are not very interesting absent an explanation of the economic reasoning behind the model that leads to the results. Related to this, you cannot "compare and contrast" models by just listing their differing results: you must discuss how and why they differ. Here is how Robert Blecker made this point to his students in comments on a past comp question:
    A rise in the saving rate out of profits causes the long-run equilibrium growth rate to fall in the Robinson's neo-Keynesian model but not in Kaldor's. This happens because Robinson assumes an independent desired accumulation (investment) function that is increasing in the profit rate, and the profit rate necessary to finance any given level of accumulation falls when there is a higher saving rate out of profits, whereas Kaldor has no such independent investment function and assumes that in the long run growth occurs at the exogenously fixed 'natural' rate. But both models show that a higher saving rate out of profits results in a higher equilibrium real wage, because the profit rate falls in both cases and they both assume full utilization, which implies an inverse relation between w/p and r.
    It is the "because...." parts in italics that supply the intuition and that make for a complete comparison!
  4. Variables should usually be defined as they are introduced or used, rather than in an introductory section several pages before you use them. Even more important, a long list of assumptions on the first page of an answer is not very helpful, unless you plan to refer to these assumptions by number. Generally you should wait until the assumption is actually used, and then state only the important, essential assumptions that enable you to reach your specific results. This is more effective, and demonstrates more understanding about the role of your assumptions.
  5. Pay attention to the questions! If there is a general question about a type of model, then certainly more detail on that model's background and general assumptions or purposes is appropriate. But if a question asks for specific comparative static/dynamic results (e.g., what are the effects of a change in variable v in model m?), you do not have to say everything you know about model m or discuss other applications of it in order to answer the question. In fact, you will demonstrate greater understanding if you show that you know which aspects of model m are important for analyzing the effects of a change in v, and which are not!
  6. Furthermore, any answer to any question should begin with a thesis statement of some kind: summarize in advance what you will demonstrate or argue. DO NOT under any circumstances begin an answer with several pages of definitions and equations. That is not how to start an answer to any question! Summarize what you will show, and then do what you have to to show it (including stating necessary definitions, math, intuition, etc.), and lastly write a (brief) conclusion reviewing what you showed and how you showed it. Think about what a question is asking for and how you will go about answering it; then focus your energies on what's important.
  7. How much math is required? Use your common sense! Think about what the question is asking for, and focus on what is most important to (thoroughly and rigorously) address that specific question. If a question only asks for the general n-commodity model, don't discuss the 1-commodity version (and vice-versa). If the level of generality is not specified, you should offer the most general analysis of which you are capable. Too many students answer questions about consumer behavior, for example, by treating only the two good case. This is fine for an illustrative graph, of course, but generally inadequate as an algebraic analysis.

    While unsupported conclusions asserted without adequate derivation/proof/explanation of the main results are not acceptable, it is also the case that no one expects 20 pages in answer to one question. If you are writing that much you must be going overboard. Think about what parts are not essential, and cut them out!

  8. Be careful about how you write numerators and denominators of ratios, especially if you use slashes (/) like in computer programs. For example, if you mean to say (1 + a1) /a0, do not write 1 + a1/a0.
  9. Your homework answers should not sound like they are copied out of your notes or some book, though of course you should refer to your notes and the readings in working on the problems. Similarly, your test answers should not be a dead, mechanical regurgitation of memorized material. Your answers should be living answers to the question, in your own words, that provide your own explanation of the analysis or concepts involved. Show some evidence of independent thought, as long as it's logically coherent and rigorous! Do refer to the readings where relevant, but don't just repeat phrases out of the books where they don't apply. As much as possible, when restating what you learned from the lectures, notes, or readings, use your own words. Demonstrate your own, personal understanding of the material.

One final comment: study groups are very helpful. They are a fundamental component of serious academic inquiry, and are especially crucial for examination preparation. In addition, for graduate students, they are a core part of one's graduate education and professional formation.


Thoughts on the War on Drugs

15 Aug 2001

Every thoughtful person wishes to see less substance abuse in our society. But current law is not a good way to achieve this.

The U.S. experimented with criminalizing alcohol during Prohibition. We recognize that as a failed experiment, yet we are repeating it with other abusable substances.

I find it odd that so few people wonder why our laws treat other drugs so differently than alcohol, which is addictive, abused, and tremendously costly socially. More disturbing is a serious disconnect between beliefs and facts. Many people are believe that the damage caused by illegal drugs exceeds the damage caused by legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. The truth of course is the opposite. Policy makers are too often willing to pander to this mass illusion rather than educating their constituents. Current law reflects a misunderstanding of the available evidence combined with ingrained prejudices against people who have chosen to abuse substances other than alcohol and tobacco.

We are all too ready to believe that other drugs are the devil's playthings, and all too ready to play down the damage done by legal substances like alcohol and tobacco. Consider the hysteria about ``crack babies'' in the 1990s. Our readiness to assume babies were being damaged by crack---a drug not popular among the middle-class---led us to ignore the primary role of alcohol abuse. We must give more priority to preventing damage to the innocent, and that requires facing the fact that the legal drug alcohol is more of a culprit than illegal crack cocaine.

Policy should be based on a realistic assesment of costs as well as benefits. In the case of the "War on Drugs," the costs far exceed the benefits. In 1990s, the number of Americans in jail and prison skyrocketed due to harsher drug sentencing, approaching 2 million million by the end of the decade. Two million! Keep in mind that this was a period of declining violent crime in the U.S. That is twice as many prisoners as Russia and almost twice as many as China. Another 3.5 million adults were on probation or parole. A primary contributor to these horrifying statistics is the War on Drugs.

Our jails and prisons are overcrowded. In choosing to jail drug users we therefore choose to release more serious criminals. A telling example arose in Florida: mandatory minimum sentences for drug convicts led to the release of convicted child molester Frank Potts, who police believe killed 13 girls after his early release.

Current drug laws victimize women, minorities, and the poor. For example, from 1985 to 2000 the number of women in US jails and prisons tripled, often due to new, punitive drug laws. In violation of international human rights standards, these women are often subjected to male prison guards. Most states allow these male guards to conduct pat-down searches of the women prisoners, which may include touching their breasts and genitals through their clothing. As one would expect, reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault are on the rise.

In placing the importance of drug arrests before civil rights, we cause innocent people to be killed. A chilling example arose in Boston, when police acting on bad information barged into the wrong residence. The resident died of a resulting heart attack.

In 2001, American surveillance planes helped Peruvians track and shoot down a missionary plane, after misindentifying it as carrying contraband drugs. Missionary Veronica Bowers and her six-month-old daughter were both killed by the Peruvian gunfire, as a single bullet passed through the woman's body and penetrated the child's skull as she sat on her mother's lap.

Harsh laws do not eliminate drug abuse. In the 1990s, methamphetamine use spread throughout Asia, despite some of the "toughest" drug laws in the world.

If we spent on treatment and anti-drug education what we spend now on the war on drugs, we would have a safer, saner, freer, and even more drug free society. We need to decriminalize drug use and punish only drug related behavior that is a direct threat to society, such as driving while under the influence.

Thoughts on TV and Videos

11 March 1996

While doting on my first toddler, I began to notice our cultural norms for the entertainment of young children. Children's television shows and children's videos shocked me in two ways: the nature of the "entertainment" and the general acceptance of it. I believe that both are need of serious critique, although it is difficult to attempt this without seeming to participate in the "culture wars". Here, however, I offer only a couple personal reflections.

There are wonderful videos out there, even for very young children. For ages 2-6, I think my favorite film is Mary Poppins. For ages 7-12, I think my favorite film is The Thief Lord. For teenagers, the film world opens as fast as their minds do. If we take our parental responsibilities seriously, I believe that our children can profit from videos and television programs. But increasingly our society is judging as appropriate for very young children material that may damage them. It can damage them by endowing them with a fundamental store of images that breed an uneasy superstition, promote materialism, desensitize them to violence, sexualize their understanding of human relationships, promote gender stereotyping, and generally attack the precious innocence of childhood that we should be striving desperately to protect.

Not so long ago, children had to rely on their imagination when hearing fairy tales or tales of modern life. No longer. Most kids get their fairy tales from a television or computer screen, where tales of modern life come in the form of sitcoms, thrillers, and "reality" TV. The change in the medium changes the potency of the messages. Many parents never ask whether these changes can prove destructive of childhood.

Concepts of childhood change over time and across cultures. Our culture is very privileged: it can afford to prolong and protect childhood in ways other cultures could not. In any modern developed country, most parents can afford to provide young children with a sheltered environment that is both safe and enriched. For those who can afford this luxury for their children, I claim there is a duty of to provide it. As part of this, each child should be allowed to enjoy the early years with sustained innocence and feelings of fundamental security.

Early childhood is a time when the sights and sounds surrounding a child are used to build up the child's basic, lifelong picture of the world. Contemporary norms tolerate assaulting children with inappropriate, powerful, distorted images of the world. The primary medium for this assault is television and other video entertainment.

Parents know that a child may enjoy something that is bad for it. Part of growing up is learning to avoid short-terms pleasures that have large long-terms costs. The old psychoanalytic notion that maturity requires acting on the reality principle rather than the pleasure principle is quite right. Children are not born with this maturity; they must be helped to develop it. We should not expect young children to exercise good judgment about what is appropriate for them to watch. Parents have a corresponding duty to actively censor the entertainment of young children.

The people who produce modern television and video programming are sophisticated professionals who understand how to manipulate images and sound to produce a powerful emotional effect. It is natural that these professionals pursue their art and lose sight of the limits appropriate to the intended audience: young children. The result is all too often stories and images that force precocity on our children; they lose their lovely innocence with needless speed. When we show such videos to children, we plant in their receptive and innocent minds a distorted and unhealthy picture of the world.

Let me make the point by giving a specific example that many people would consider harmless. Consider the movie The Little Mermaid, released by Disney in 1989. It is well made and a lot of fun for young kids. At what age is it appropriate? While every child is different, I would guess age seven. Yet I know two and three year olds who have seen the whole movie many times. Let us not even consider the gender stereotyping and the unfortunate emphasis on physical appearance as a basis for a marriage relationship, as disturbing as these are. Consider instead the part that many parents do not think twice about: the "scary" scenes. If you own the movie, go to the sea witch scenes. Watch them from the point of view of a very young child, and note how powerful they are in presenting the idea of a powerful, horrifying, evil force.

Now for an older child or an adult, all these images just compete with an entire lifetime of memories that shape one's view of the world. We are familiar with video technologies. Accumulated experience trains us to distinguish fantasy and reality. In short, an older child will never get nightmares from such images. An older child will just be entertained or amused, and will not even feel a bit more scared of the dark. Even much more frightening or distorted imagery is usually harmless to educated adults: we understand how artists (and others) try to manipulate us, so we can put our emotional responses in perspective.

How different it is for a young child! A child's world view is largely unbuilt. It is so easy to forget that they do not have our points of reference. For a child, each additional image of the world faces relatively few competing images. A young child has not clearly drawn the lines between reality and fantasy. Children do not understand the craft of emotional manipulation at a sophisticated adult level. It follows that parents have a duty to be active censors.

When you share a video or television show with a toddler, look at the images with a child's eyes. Ask yourself if you want responsibility for lodging those images permanently in the basic structure of your child's mind.

Send me your comments.


  • Stock, Wendy A. and John J. Siegfried, 2001, &lquot;So You Want to Earn a Ph.D. in Economics: How Much Do You Think You'll Make?&rquot; Economic Inquiry 39(2), 320-335.