To Mises U students – especially those planning to enter economics as a vocation – an autobiographical note:
TL;DR – You’re amazing. Act like it.
After this week, you may feel inspired and overwhelmed. This is normal. It happens to me, too. Still. Every year. The level of interest, talent, and devotion to the study of good economics that I see among the students and my colleagues on the faculty is inspiring. And overwhelming. I know there are many of you – and I’m speaking of the students and young faculty here, not just David Gordon – who have out-read me. Easily. Many – possibly most – are cleverer and more insightful than I. Many of you will out-write me – if you haven’t already.
I write these not as mere empty words of encouragement – I don’t believe in such things. I write them because they are true – and that is something that I find encouraging, and believe you should, too.
I also write these things with very little regret, regardless what the tone may sound like. The reality is that I love my life and the balance that I have achieved between the various aspects of it.
So, here is my advice to you based on my own – admittedly limited, but rapidly becoming less-so – experience:
(1) I was asked today what the threshold of significance is to write a paper and send it to a journal. My answer: Do you think it is worth your time to write it down? If so, then share it. The reality is that, early in your career, you haven’t the slightest clue how significant your ideas are. You don’t have the experience to make that call. That’s what editors and referees are for. So, simply tell yourself that the odds of rejection are fairly high (which is true even for excellent papers, by the way), do your best, and send the thing out. Yes, rejections hurt. Especially the first few. But, you will learn more from being shot down in a rejection than you will learn from any acceptance. Maybe what you learn is that that editor is a jerk, but far more often, you will receive feedback that will help you refine your ideas or the presentation of your ideas.
(2) At first, follow Carmen’s advice I mentioned in another post – that is, add to what the Masters are doing. Expand, explain, defend, and apply (in no particular order). I especially advise doing this with people who are currently alive. One paper I’m still working on connects Mark Thornton’s Skyscraper research with some basic, fairly mainstream, urban economics and Rothbard’s theory of wages. I presented a draft of this paper at the Austrian Economic Research Conference. What happened? Mark Thornton asked me to coauthor a response to a critic of the theory. It should be obvious but, DON’T SAY NO TO THAT. Coauthoring with an established economist is amazing. It’s far less work than working alone. You get the benefit of their name attached to what you’re doing. You get to observe their research process. And you get to build a relationship with them that can lead to further projects.
(3) Get started early. You’re lucky. Austrian economics is still a small field. As a result, we, frankly, can’t afford to be as credentialist as most other fields. You don’t have a PhD. So what? Look at the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. It’s pretty common for there to be articles in there that are not written by PhDs – they might be grad students, or even undergrads. But, they all go through the same double-blind review process. Yes, if you have a PhD, your odds of acceptance are higher – but that’s because people with PhDs probably have more experience with academic writing and publishing than you do. So, get that experience. Read academic articles – I mean QJAE, not Mises Wire, for this purpose – and try to write them, too. You’ll learn.
(4) Go ahead and write popular pieces – like for Mises Wire and others. This is good practice for writing clearly – something that is far too often missing in academic writing. Confession: when I was a Fellow at the Mises Institute in 2004, I spent a great deal of time commenting on the Mises Blog. This caught the attention of Lew Rockwell, who asked to see me in his office. Yes, I thought I was in trouble for not taking the Fellowship seriously, and spending too much time arguing with people in comment threads instead of doing real economic research. Instead, he said he was going to set me up with a password so that I could post on the Mises Blog on a regular basis. This writing was important for my development, as I had to think far more about being sure that I was clear. Now, it’s true, I haven’t written a popular piece – self-published or published by anyone else – in a LONG time. But, that’s not my focus right now, and it doesn’t take away from the fact that you may learn a lot from doing it.
(5) Keep your life in balance. What that means is purely up to you. But don’t wear yourself out, beat yourself up, or put yourself down just because you don’t write 80 pages a day like Murray Rothbard did. You aren’t Murray Rothbard. Now, that doesn’t mean you aren’t as brilliant as he. But, it does mean that you very well may have different preferences. If you do, don’t pretend otherwise. Austrian economics may be a small field – but there are far more of us than there were just 20 years ago (before I even knew of Austrian economics). We each have a part to play in the division of intellectual labor. Take a break when you need to, and let others take on their roles.
It has been 14 years since I was in your shoes. From this side, it’s a very short time. Make the most of your time – whatever that happens to mean to you. I can only hope that, in 14 years, when you have filled my shoes again (and likely have outgrown them!), you will also find yourself inspired and overwhelmed – but, most of all, encouraged by the days ahead and the bright minds that will lead us there.