Economics graduate program aims for change

At the heart of incoming chair Thomas Nechyba's plans for the Department of Economics is a massive overhaul to the graduate program.

"The graduate program needs a lot of work," said Lewis Siegel, dean of the Graduate School. "They have a completion rate of about 50 percent. This has bothered us a lot because it has been the largest program in the social sciences. We're concerned that the faculty here - it seems in keeping with the discipline - have a very Darwinian approach and didn't seem to be bothered by it."

Graduate students in every department are often the crucial link that make or break a top department because of their utility - not only do they teach undergraduate classes, but they help out with faculty research projects.

The economics doctorate is usually completed in five years, unusually fast for a program outside the natural sciences. However, the program - and the economics discipline in general - has one of the highest attrition rates at the school. Of the first-year students, about 40 percent leave the program after failing prequalifying exams.

In its resolution on the economics external review, the Executive Committee of the Graduate Faculty found that the department's high attrition rate stemmed from two underlying problems: "an inability accurately or fully to assess the potential of current applicants; and a first-year curriculum and mentoring system that does not provide adequate support and integration of incoming students."

Nechyba, with support from the University administration, is beginning to hire more of the tenure-track, middle-level faculty members who are most likely to contribute to mentoring graduate students.

"[We need more] mid-career faculty members who have tenure, who seek out graduate students and mentor them," Nechyba said. "That's really a crucial state where there's one-on-one work with faculty."

Normally, younger faculty are busy producing research to assure themselves tenure and older faculty spend more time interacting with peers and editing journals, so the lack of middle-range faculty has been particularly devastating to the graduate program.

He also hopes to foster more interaction between faculty members and first-year students. Currently, students do not specialize in an area until their second year and are then assigned a faculty member with whom they work.

But Siegel said the department should focus on recruiting better students in the first place and determining which students - out of a pool that exceeded 550 applicants this year - can actually make it to the second year.

"From my point of view... it looks like too much attention is paid on the sheer numbers, on GREs, and much too little on previous research experience," Siegel said.

He said the department has a special endowed fund to support its first-year students and so it can afford to enroll a high number, only to have almost half of them leave the program.

"[The department members] feel it's their money, so they don't have to worry if they waste it," Siegel said.

He added that the department should take in fewer, better-prepared first-year students, and use the money to supplement summer support programs like those Nechyba has proposed. One such proposal would have the University host the American Economics Association's summer minorities program to recruit potential doctoral students, much like the Department of Political Science's Ralph Bunche Institute summer program.

But Nechyba said he thought the department did as well as it could with recruiting. Adding to the problem, he said, are marked differences in international students - who often already have a master's degree and are trained in highly technical programs to prepare them for graduate study - and American students, who may have a firmer grip on theory than on mathematical aspects.

He said that EcoTeach, the center he established for undergraduate support, could also be helpful for graduate students. Meanwhile, Nechyba's restructure of the undergraduate program has eased the need for teaching assistants. Now, graduate students are no longer forced to teach mainstream courses, but can offer classes based upon their own areas of research.

Others have suggested that graduate students in the Fuqua School of Business's doctoral program could also help teach.


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