The Economist's Craft

November 1, 2020

As a Ph.D. student, it is hard to come by reliable information about how to go about being a scholar. By sheer luck, I stumbled upon this fascinating read by a Finance professor, Michael S. Weisbach, who wrote, as the title of this blog post suggests, a book about it. You can find it here. It is currently in draft format, but it will be published next year by Princeton university press, according to the website.

Who is Michael Weisbach? He is a finance professor at Ohio State University. He works in the area of corporate finance, which isn’t my area of expertise. But, I am familiar with his name, and judging by his number of google citations, he is a top scholar in his field. Why is this important? Because it gives credibility to his advice. More often than not, I see advice being dispensed where the ones offering the advice are not authority figures. In this case, it is just speculation, which can be dangerous and costly to follow.

The draft is easy to read, and I read it in two days. The book aims to advise the scholar, particularly the economic fields or related fields, in all stages of his academic life-cycle. The life-cycle includes Ph.D. to full professor! Therefore, some chapters were not relevant to my experience, but I read them anyway because it offered insight into the later stages of a scholar’s experience. Each chapter is self-contained, which was done on purpose by the author so the reader can revisit the book and the particular interest he has in mind.

A lot of the book’s information resonated with me and is similar in spirit to what I’ve been fortunate enough to be told by my advisor. However, I realize that not everybody is as lucky as I am. So, this book will probably be a valuable read to all scholars, mainly Ph.D. students. There was still information that was new to me that I will apply. The main one being mailing your research to scholars in your field. I always thought that was presumptions and rude and would result in hostility and “spamming.” Prof. Weisbach reassures us that you shouldn’t be shy about sharing your work and letting researchers in your field know your work.1

The book’s preface already introduces us to some valuable information. Prof. Weisbach discusses the importance of capacity. That is, how many papers you should work on at any given time. Of course, this is a matter of personal abilities, but one should know the optimal number. Too many projects, and you become sloppy. Too little, and you could have probably advanced your career further. Prof. Weisbach then shares his method of working on many papers at once. Curiously, it is something I’ve been trying to do myself.

Personally, I try to work really hard on one paper at a time, returns it to my coauthors, and then focus on another paper while the coauthors taking their turn editing the paper.

The Economist’s Craft

Prof. Weisbach continues in the preface to stress the importance of finishing things and not starting too many projects. The excitement of starting a new project can make us forget to finish old ones, and who wants to bother with the finishing touches of an old idea, anyway? He warns not to give in to this temptation. I fell victim to this, and I have gotten a lot better. The fact that Prof. Weisbach mentions this in capital letters means that it is pretty standard among academics.

Part 1 of the book is about selecting a topic for your research and the importance of having a research agenda and specializing. To quote Prof. Weisbach

Once one has done research that has been recognized as a contribution to a literature, it is often easier to make subsequent, related contributions. Often there is a natural “follow-on” paper to the first one. Sometimes it turns out that the project that one was originally working on was interesting but not as interesting as a second idea the research had while working on the first one. Once she has made an investment in the first paper, she has a comparative advantage in writing subsequent related papers.

The Economist’s Craft

Prof. Weisbach recommends an exercise, which, interestingly enough, my advisor has also given to me in the past. The exercise is supposed to help you determine how to evaluate if a research idea is worth pursuing. It goes as follows: first, you should write a short introduction (say three pages long) about your idea and your best guess of the likely results. If you can easily write the draft and convince your colleagues that the idea is sound, you should probably go on and pursue the project. I’ve seen too many colleagues of mine failing at this. They go about doing all the hard work of research for months only to realize that their contribution to the literature is negligible. Had they only considered doing this exercise before they started! What a shame and a waste of their own time.

Part 2 deals with the writing part of the research. Here most of the advice was not new to me (again, thanks to my advisor), but I’m assuming it will be to many who read this. He stresses the importance of writing an excellent abstract and introduction. The importance lies in the fact that this is your paper’s first impression, and most won’t read past it! Therefore, you better communicate the main results and importance in these parts. John Cochrane has a lot of information about writing a good abstract an introduction too.

In the next part of Part 2, Prof. Weisbach goes into specific advice of writing the different pieces of an academic paper. For instance, for the abstract, to quote the author

It is not enough to say that y and x are positively correlated; the author should explicitly state what theory this correlation is consistent with, and also if there are any other implications of this correlation.

The Economist’s Craft

He then goes on and gives a kind-of formula on how to write an effective introduction, which I’ve found to be useful. More often than not, when I write an introduction, I find the need to re-invent the wheel. Here is the list as suggested by Prof. Weisbach:

  1. Grab the reader’s attention.
  2. Say what question you are asking.
  3. Say what approach you use.
  4. Say what the results are.
  5. Say how you interpret the results.
  6. Discuss other implications of your results.
  7. Prove an outline of paper, which can be a formal outline or just a brief summary of each of the paper’s sections.

The book goes on into many more topics, such as writing academic prose, the publishing process, and how to be a good PhD student. I encourage you to read the book if you are an academic in the Economic profession!

  1. Obviously you should have common sense and send your work when it is mature enough so not to embarrass yourself. ↩︎