Life Advice for the Aspiring Young Academic Economist

You may not have realized it at the time, but that youthful decision to enroll in a doctoral program paved the way for what now threatens to be a lifetime of teaching courses at $2-3k a pop, tutoring out of a car (for quick escape from parking inspectors), grading papers in the campus library (until moved along), feeding at soup kitchens (so long as appropriately attired), fraternizing in parks (and other open spaces) and sleeping on footpaths or church steps when city law permits (which is occasionally). All that, and more, while kowtowing to your tenured seniors, the social products of a bygone era who are paid ten times as much as you and are certainly ten times more important.

But what if I were to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way? That, instead, you could have ten times their income and ten times their free time – time that you could then devote to the scholarly research of your dreams? There would be no need to waste any more energy on teaching. Your efforts are not valued in that direction. And you would never have to grade another paper. No more guilt about flunking those dazed and confused undergrads. And you are right to feel guilty.

Apart from a minimal time commitment far less onerous than your current one, your waking hours could be opened up for what you love best. Not safe, pointless research that doesn’t need doing other than to tick some justify-my-existence box of university administrators but an idealistic fixation on grand, important questions entirely of your own choosing such as, “Why is the economy here?” or even “Is there an economy?” Complete research autonomy.

Now, I should temper the above with a warning that homelessness, unemployment and disgrace among one’s family and former friends may quite easily catch up with those who attempt to put into practice the action plan about to be outlined. If that turns out to be your fate, please, in advance, accept an “apology” (yes, in scare quotes, for legal reasons).

Personally, I was able to avoid outright homelessness. (I believe the occasional night sprawled on a dewy knoll beneath the Sydney harbor bridge shouldn’t count. Not when the summer nights are so barmy.) And, anyway, if worst comes to worst, as it almost did for me, and almost certainly will for you, there is always the option of trying your hand at economics blogging.

Consider the perks of the blogosphere. There are no gatekeepers. You can write whatever you want. (You’ve alienated your former friends by now, anyway.) And you can do it from the comfort of your own bus shelter, shielded from the sleet, invigorated by the blustery winds, tapping merrily on a laptop or comparable gizmo.

Sure, Google might not “search” your pearls of wisdom quite so diligently as it will the outpourings of fully paid-up opinion shapers, but you’ll have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that while you’ll never make a difference – ever – you are giving it your “best shot”. Unlike a few people who are yet to start blogging and tweeting, you won’t go down quietly! (Just impotently.)

In offering the advice about to be offered it is assumed that, as an economics graduate, you are comfortable with mathematics, or at least that you are not completely averse to numbers as an idea. As a doctoral candidate in economics, you’ve unleashed far too many streams of mathematical squiggles across the page or whiteboard for this not to be the case. True, your education on the actual economy has been limited. But as a third-rate mathematician with physics envy, you are almost without peer.

It turns out that there is at least one way to cash in on your ease – or, at least, not downright antipathy – toward numbers. And, better yet, you can do it without in any way contributing positively to society, which makes it the next best thing to being an economist!

It will, unfortunately, involve venturing into casinos, which admittedly is one step down from conducting business on park benches. In these dens of thriving stupidity you’ll find a wide array of opportunities to finance your future intellectual endeavors. With the right perspective, knowledge and skill – or plain dumb luck – people have been known to beat just about any of these games. How, I don’t know (not for lack of trying) but beat them some people do, at least sometimes, so maybe you could too. Then you’d be set.

Of course, the casinos will not exactly like you winning what they consider to be their money. (When you’re losing, they’re mostly okay with it.) Although you will not need to break the law, casinos can kick you out or restrict your style of play – depending on the jurisdiction – if they detect you playing with an edge.

Ideally, then, you want an edge that is difficult to detect. By that, I don’t mean a nonexistent edge. (Though that works.) Rather, you want to appear not to have an edge, even though you do. This is possible (I’m told) because there is a lot of random fluctuation in results. So an onlooker can’t tell, at least over a relatively short period of time, whether you have an edge solely from observing your results.

Normally it is best never to admit to anyone, including other players, or friends, if you still have any, that you know how to win money at a casino game. This can be lonely, but as a graduate student you’re used to that. In the casinos themselves, it is best to come across as a math-challenged, hapless, perhaps problem gambler. Until you learn to detach yourself from others’ perceptions, this can be tough on self-esteem, but as a would-be indentured servant this should be right up your alley.

The “committed gambler” image does not necessarily require you to seem degenerate in other ways. On the contrary, in most cases it is perhaps preferable to exhibit your degeneracy in a “safe and middle class”, or even “affluent”, way. (Of course, how you will be able to afford this is anyone’s guess.) A “homeless”, “drug addict” or “drug dealer” persona can lead to unwanted scrutiny, especially if caught at airports with large sums of cash (or drugs) stuffed in your socks or after getting pulled over by road patrol when traveling by car. So, try to look affluent, but keep it middle brow. Resist the temptation to wear your Mensa sweater or MIT blazer at the tables. (Unless you can’t help yourself.)

Once you find yourself with a sizable bankroll – for example, initially, once you’ve borrowed it but before you’ve had time to lose it all – you will want to present an image that answers, without words, the question, “How can this incompetent fool afford to wager such large sums of money?” Popular approaches include pretending to be a “mining magnate”, “financial adviser” or simply “sub-contractor” with a view to signaling money-making capacity without, necessarily, intelligence. In other words, you want to appear smart enough to make money, but not smart enough to make money in a casino.

Okay. That’s about it.

Good luck.

2 thoughts on “Life Advice for the Aspiring Young Academic Economist

  1. “You’ve alienated your former friends…”

    Like uni mates (or **that** former girlfriend), and family (particularly **that** mover-n-shaker cousin of yours).

    “… by now anyway”.


    Glad to see you writing again, Pete!

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