Wharton PhD Guide

This guide is intended to aid Wharton Economics PhD students maximize their job-placement potential. Many helpful hints are lost between cohorts but in practice being a good applied economist is no mystery. The rules and rewards are predictable, as if based on a rubric. I organize this paper as a timeline which gives suggestions for each year of graduate school. The main issue is to start with the end in mind, making priorities based on producing an attractive dissertation.

Year One

Coursework will take a significant portion of your time but it is important not to get distracted. Courses are great. And they are interesting. But they have very little to do with good research. In asking successful job-market candidates how helpful first-year coursework was they usually say that the course work was not particularly helpful.

It is tempting for first-year students to invest heavily in coursework. It's what you've done well at for so long. It's measurability helps students feel that they are doing well in something. But this is a bit of a mirage.

Instead, first-year students are at a large advantage when they make it a priority to investigate research topics and datasets and start collecting research ideas. It is helpful to read handbook chapters which lay out a literature and point out where more answers are needed. Read recent papers in the QJE and AER to see what types of topics are being studied and ask your advisers what questions have been unjustly ignored. Lower-level journals are also a good source of research ideas. Many times fundamentally good ideas were not well executed.

I get a lot of interesting research ideas reading books outside of economics, especially books written by governors. The national press tends to focus on the federal government which adopts only a few, normally marginal, policy changes.

In general first-year is a good time to learn your personal production function: What times of day do you work best? Alone or with others? And where do you work best? Be mindful of what distracts you and eliminate it.

Finally, it's very valuable to attend the AEA meetings in the January of your first year. You will see lots of presentations that give you a feel for what people are interested in and what methodologies are convincing.


  • Spend one full day each week looking for research projects and data.

  • The returns to an hour of research are significantly higher than the returns to an hour of coursework.

  • Learn your personal production function.

  • Attend the AEAs.

Year Two

Second year is pivotal. You begin to have choice over your coursework and you embark on a second-year paper of your choosing.

In general, I think it's valuable to have one topical field (Public, Labor, Development, Real Estate) and one methods field (econometrics, IO). In this way you can apply new and interesting methods to established topics which makes you an appealing job-market candidate. There is no better class than Todd Gormley's Empirical Corporate Finance. He is an econometric master who can clearly articulate the issues, and his course is a play-by-play for excellent empirical work.

The second-year paper is critical. Many students reach for the nearest doable project. This is a mistake. A lot of time and effort will be put into the second-year paper so finding a project that can be part of your dissertation is well-worth it. Foraging through papers and handbooks and datasets in your first year will help you identify a need in the literature that you can address. You should aim to have the project be worthy of a high-ranked field journal (Journal of Human Resources, Journal of Public Economics, etc.)

Finally, mentoring is invaluable. The best programs (MIT and Yale seem to out-place conditional on their student quality--for instance MIT and Harvard have similar student quality but MIT places much better; Yale and Princeton have similar student quality but Yale's students excel) have automatic mentoring in which it is almost required to meet with your adviser each week. You can approximate this by finding an engaged adviser and scheduling frequent meetings to review and direct your progress.


  • Take one topical field and one methodological field (public and metrics, labor and IO, but not public and labor)

  • Take Todd Gormley's Empirical Corporate Finance class

  • Take extra time to identify a second-year project that would be publishable.

  • Be proactive in meeting with your faculty adviser at least every other week.

Year Three

Stop taking coursework and start investing heavily in promising research projects. Loosen or cut projects with faculty coauthors.

Find a job-market paper idea that is likely to succeed. There are three big items that tend to make a job-market paper attractive:

  • An interesting/important, unresolved question that is connected to economic theory,

  • a solid identification strategy, and

  • a novel (usually administrative or experimental) dataset.

Begin applying for datasets early because it can take a long time to get the data you need. For many of my projects there was a 18-month lag between data application and data receipt. Lots of data costs money so you may also have a lag associated with grant cycles. Instead of begging for novel data, you can also create it by running an experiment or deploying a survey.

More than anything, be entrepreneurial about research ideas, getting/creating data, etc. Once you see that good economists are part entrepreneurs your mind will open up that you may need to do what others have not done to be successful. The boundaries of the literature are a product of existing approaches.

Attend the NBER meeting. The NBER Summer Institute meetings require an NBER affiliate to nominate you. You will locate an NBER affiliate in your topic area (labor, health, etc.) and ask them to recommend you to the meeting organizer (which you can find by clicking your topic areas here). That email needs to say

  1. I am nominating ------ to participate in the NBER Summer Institute for ------ Economics

  2. ---- is a good student with promising research projects in teacher compensation and employer taxation.

  3. ---- would benefit from attendance.

There's a mental accounting problem in economics programs. The program is five years so people implicitly think they have five years to complete their paper. In reality, your job-market paper needs to be complete at the end of your fourth year when it is submitted for job openings In practice, this means you only have your third and fourth year to write your job-market paper. Some people putter during their third year, not getting much accomplished. But third year lays the foundation for your job-market paper. Get all the data together for two or three possible projects. It's helpful to know upfront that most economics projects fail, often for unforeseen reasons. Make sure you have a couple back-up projects.


  • Transition from coursework to research without delay.

  • Limit your coauthorships with faculty.

  • Select promising job-market paper projects which ideally are interesting, well-identified, and use novel data.

  • Apply for data early and keep in touch with your data providers; be polite but persistent.

  • Attend the NBER summer institute meetings.

  • Realize you only have two years to write your job-market paper.