How to become a superstar economist

This was an interesting little section in a thought-provoking article about Alan Greenspan’s ambivalent relationship to the economics profession:

Step 1 is to attend an elite college, like Harvard (Bernanke), M.I.T. (Summers) or Brown (Yellen), followed by a top Ph.D. program at a place like M.I.T. (Bernanke), Harvard (Summers) or Yale (Yellen). Next, establish yourself as one of the smartest kids on campus, though not necessarily one of the most popular.

While in graduate school, find a prominent mentor. For Bernanke, it was Stanley Fischer (later governor of the Bank of Israel). For Summers, it was Martin Feldstein (later Ronald Reagan’s chief economist). For Yellen, it was James Tobin (a former adviser to John F. Kennedy).

If your dissertation is good enough, you get to become an assistant professor at yet another elite institution, like Stanford (Bernanke), M.I.T. (Summers) or Harvard (Yellen). There you spend your time teaching and, more important for your future career, writing scholarly papers. These papers may be unintelligible to mere Muggles, but that’s O.K. Your goal is to impress your fellow economists.

If your articles are sufficiently numerous, well published and widely cited, you are eventually awarded a tenured sinecure in a top economics department or business school, like Princeton’s (Bernanke), Harvard’s (Summers) or Berkeley’s (Yellen). Having achieved this rung of success, you are on your way to becoming an economist’s economist.

At this point, paths diverge. Most economics professors are content spending their careers at universities. Some temporarily depart from academia to make a small contribution to the policy world. (Full disclosure: From 2003 to 2005, when I left Harvard to serve as chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, I regularly interacted with Greenspan, who was then chairman of the Federal Reserve.) But most of these professors-on-leave soon return to the comforts of the ivory tower.

Yet a few tenured economists become restless with the obscurity, slow pace and petty politics of academia. They yearn for the fame, fast pace and petty politics of Washington. With the help of political benefactors, they find themselves in positions of real authority. Bernanke, Summers and Yellen are examples.

Would it even be possible to write a similar article about becoming a superstar sociologist? Perhaps this is a very good thing.

Categories: Committing Sociology

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