Confessions of an Economics Graduate

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 21, 2013 in Economics, Non-chess |

I’ve taken a month off from the blog and indeed anything requiring more than minimal mental effort in my post-thesis hangover. Here I’m referring to very much a non-alcoholic hangover. After the thesis defense on Friday August 30, I was in no mood for celebrating – I was in the mood for sleeping.

I slept all afternoon, all night, and all the next morning. The following day, I ate, watched brainless movies (did you know there is a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean?) and slept some more. The next day was the same…and the next…and the next. Almost a month on, my mind still doesn’t seem to have recovered from the trauma I put it through these last two years, and particularly the most recent 100 days.

Finishing the MPhil programme at the Tinbergen Institute was arguably the hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished. I would say that it has been as difficult, as involved and as emotionally draining as obtaining the Grandmaster title. Certainly there were low times over the past 24 months that rivaled the levels of despair I felt when I thought I’d never make GM and wanted to give up chess entirely. The stress of the programme has had a significant effect on my health and well-being, I would say, even once to the point of bringing me to tears.

If this seems like narcissistic hyperbole, it’s not. If anything, the MPhil has been incredibly humbling. It taught me that I’m not as smart as I thought I was, that I’ve cruised through my high school and undergraduate degrees in Australia with a false sense of status. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised; part of the reason I chose the exclusive Tinbergen Institute was because I wanted to rub shoulders with the best and the brightest, and I have gotten to do that. I’ve befriended some of the most intellectually gifted students I’ve ever met. I’ve spoken with the world’s brightest professors and been instructed by the most brilliant teachers – and occasionally met one with both traits. And I survived the programme – but not by my wits, it pains me to admit.

The front page of my final thesis

I worked over 60 hours a week for most of the two years – almost double that during my time working for the Treasury, and certainly at a more intense rate – and this figure climbed to around 80 hours a week for the last few months of my thesis. Monday to Sunday, 12 hours a day, I tirelessly slaved over my books to keep up with the level. I gave up weekends, chess tournaments, and virtually all extra curricular pursuits. To put things in perspective, after two years in Amsterdam, I barely speak any Dutch and don’t even have a favourite cafe. The very real fear of failure provoked me to change almost everything about my lifestyle to put absolute priority on numbers and figures. In the end I didn’t fail, even scraping in to the handful of students receiving cum laude, but it’s an open and very legitimate question as to whether I’d make the same decision to come here if I could teleport myself back to the start of 2011.

I don’t want to give the false impression that the Tinbergen Institute’s programme is in any way more difficult or taxing than, for example, those in Harvard or Berkeley, although they tell me TI is considered one of the very best graduate economics institutes in continental Europe. All I’ll say is that the two years were certainly the hardest academic challenge I’ve ever encountered, and have delivered me the same depressing reality I once had to come to terms with in my chess career: No matter how hard I work or how much luck I encounter, I’ll never be as good as the elite. Again, this seems ever so dramatic from a literary standpoint, and perhaps I’ll regret writing this post in such a fatigued, philosophical state – but I vowed to always write this blog honestly, and I’ve kept to that mentality so far. And perhaps I can fill one small niche in the field that needs filling. Perhaps I can use my experience to offer some advice to those of us who are ordinary citizens considering or starting out a MPhil (Economics) degree.

Lessons for Students Undertaking a Master of Philosophy (Economics) Degree

  1. Know what you’re getting into. It’s all very well and good to have the drive and the desire to take on the most difficult and purest postgraduate programme of the social sciences. But an admiral notion requires considered understanding to be worth anything. What’s the ultimate goal? What do you really want to do in the future, what’s driving you to pursue this course, and is it the best channel to get there? Don’t underestimate the work load, nor the risks of failure, in deciding whether the course is the best avenue to get where you want to go.
  2. Sacrifice the non-essentials. Unless you’re a genius, you’re going to have to make lifestyle sacrifices to cope with the workload. Work out what’s really important to you and what isn’t, and cut the chaff.
  3. Prioritise. In my programme, we usually had about 25-30 hours available to study for the final exams (usually worth 50-75%). Homework assignments, which individually were worth 4-10%, could easily require this long or more. At some point, it simply doesn’t make sense to labour on for perfection for hours to fight for that extra 10% of an assignment. If it’s worth less than one percent of the final grade but is going to take more than a couple of hours to finish, it’s just not value for time. When it comes to grades, choose your battles, and be prepared to give up a little ego to make your path to the finish line just that little bit easier.
  4. Accept that your extra attention is limited, and proportion it towards things that matter. It’s a nice notion at the beginning of each block to imagine you might complete all of the extra readings and non-compulsory exercises for each subject, but it rarely happens. After the core requirements are completed each week, your time is limited. If you’re going to pursue anything above the mandatory tasks for a subject, choose the courses that really interest you or might benefit your thesis or research in the future. That way you’ll score better and impress professors in those subjects that really matter to you, and keeping an eye on what you’re really interested in will help the big picture to stay in focus. Speaking of which…
  5. Keep the big picture in focus. It’s easy to get bogged down with surviving week by week, day by day, assignment by assignment. But at the end of 18 months you’ll be asked to write the lion’s share of your degree on a single topic, and you may well have forgotten why you started out the programme in the first place. Take the blinkers off every once in a while and remind yourself why you’re here. Read books related to your field – and here I’m talking about fun, interesting books and articles, preferably free of mathematics. Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Gladwell’s Outliers and Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds will keep the microeconomists and behavioural economists going. Don’t discount Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics if you’re interested in econometric or empirical research and want to make an impact on the real world. Development economists who’ve managed to keep their save-the-world ideology through all the rational-choice hatred of the programme should keep their fires burning with Duflo and Banerjee’s Poor Economics or Richard Dowden’s fantastically insightful read Africa. Articles and current affairs shouldn’t be ignored, either; get yourself a subscription to The Economist – and read it!
  6. Choose at least one creative and one athletic pursuit to keep yourself sane. I know I said ‘Sacrifice!’, but sanity is important, too. Note  here that I don’t recommend an intellectual pursuit. I certainly couldn’t keep chess going, but even trying to learn a language in my spare time proved too taxing. The brain is like any other muscle and needs time to rest and repair; keep it out of the game when it’s not needed. On the other hand, you’ll find late-night junk food and sitting at a desk for the majority of each day a real drain on the body. A healthy brain requires a healthy host, so choose some sort of sportive hobby. And if you want to keep a smidgen of your creative soul, find something not too labour- or time-intensive to act as an outlet. Guitar, painting,..even a blog 🙂
  7. Don’t forget about the real world. At times it can seem like the current assignment is really ALL that matters in the world. Sometimes this isn’t such a bad mentality in order to get things done – but use it as a tool, nothing more. Remind yourself that at the end of the day, scoring a 6 or a 9 on one homework assignment in one course is highly unlikely to affect the remainder of your life in any way, shape or form.
  8. Don’t forget about the people in the real world, either. I came to the programme as a single man, but others weren’t so lucky. Wait, what did I just say?! It’s only natural that such an intense programme will affect those around you, particularly significant others. I’ve witnessed enough of this first-hand from my colleagues that I can definitely recommend taking the time out to focus exclusively on your partner. Aside from it being a nice and proper thing to do, even the rational economist would concede that it saves time and stress in the long run, too. Help your partner to understand the pressures of your course, and that you’re not willingly ignoring them. On the other hand, promise them time each week that you will solely devote to them – and stick to it. When I say solely, I mean it – it’s no use being there if your head’s elsewhere in a mathematical model. It’s also better for your own health – there’s not much love in the economics programme, so enjoy it when you can.
  9. Give 100%, but no more. I worked myself to the limit quite a few times, and at least once went over it. I’m not afraid of hard work, but everyone has their own maximum, and it’s important to spot when it’s coming up. Take breaks. Go outside. STOP. Realise that the lower productivity after four hours of sleep usually outweighs the lost study time from sleeping seven hours. And working nine hours straight is never as constructive as two four-hour sessions with a healthy lunch break. Take the extra winks, enjoy an extra sandwich, force yourself to walk around the park. Know your limits, and don’t exceed them.
  10. Laugh. Laugh with your colleagues, and make them your friends. Make fun of your workload, if you want, but do it together. You’ll find that it reinforces your collective sense of solidarity. You’re all going through this trauma together, and it definitely helps to remember that from time to time. When someone suggests having a dinner break together, take it. It’s only 15 minutes of your time, but the social interaction is very healthy and exactly what you need, whether you realise it or not. At the end of a long day, if a colleague suggests going for a beer, go – and encourage the rest of the group to follow. Remind yourselves that things are easier together, that there’s a world outside the offices…and that world serves beer.



Sep 22, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Congrats on finishing the thesis Dave!
What’s next on the agenda? Staying in Europe (and possibly learning some Dutch)? Returning to Oz? More adventures in Treasury? Something else? Maybe even some chess?
The occasional ICC commentary efforts are still worth watching – and you’re far more easy on the ear than Yermo & Larry C!

Sep 30, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Hi David!
My name is Marco. I’m Italian but I live in Sydney cause my wife is aussie and after three years in Rome we decided to move to OZ. Congratulation for your thesis and for your blog.
I am a chessplayer, well not a good one as you, but I share something with you: the portuguese – not the language – and economics but more with an Accounting focus – I got a master’s degree.
Freakonomics is definitely a good book. Did you read Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Rumelt?And what do you think about it?
Another good book – an old one – that I can recommend is Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter.
Anyway you decided to study at Tibergen Institute. Instead I am forced to study the CA/CPA in Australia otherwise I can’t get recognised my full experience/skills developed in Italy.
It looks like that in OZ you can’t go anywhere without qualifications. Sometimes I am worried that even to go to the public toilet you need some membership here!
However Australia is a great country and I am enjoying my life experience here.
Are you going to write this book on the portuguese variation?

Ok see you mate!Enjoy Europe!never been to Italy?


peter (not that one, the other one)
Oct 9, 2013 at 1:04 am

My insightful book of the moment is “Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World”
by Liaquat Ahamed. A story about what caused The Great Depression of the 1930s.

I’m presently reading about how those four (yet-to-be) central bankers were situated mid-career when World War 1 breaks out. The heads of the banking institutions are begging the politicians not to declare war. The London bankers fear they will never recover the massive loans they have lent to European countries. LLoyd’s of London has insured the German fleet. They will have to pay up for German boats sunk by British guns. There are queues at the banks. Many want their money in gold as they are entitled to. In Germany the general perception is that they are victims of an English conspiracy to deny their country its rightful place among The Great Powers. This fires up their politicians, aristocrats and the populace. As war breaks out in early August 1914, inter-bank lending is frozen. Bank holidays are declared. Stock exchanges are closed.

This crisis is shaping the ideas of men who will later be the key central bankers when the stock market collapse in 1929 triggers The Great Depression. What lessons will they have learned?

Dec 7, 2013 at 3:17 pm

I like your blog for the chess style, and also appreciated the plug for good development economics in this post – enjoyed Duflo and Banerjee. So here’s my book picks in return. Development is so dominated by rich nations’ self interest, there isn’t much, so I’d recommend books that set out sound economics plainly. Personal favourite is Stiglitz’s insiders view “Globalisation and its discontents”; Ha Joon Chang’s “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism” is evidenced and fun; and Australia’s own Satyajit Das “Extreme money” is the only book that really lays out what’s going on in today’s economy.



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