Steve Levitt’s Graduate School Advice

By John-Henry | October 2, 2018

When I lived at Chicago I was able to catch up Steve Levitt with a small group of students talk about his opinions on going to graduate school. His advice was tailored towards economics students, but I think other people will may find it valuable as well.

He started by saying that our presumption that being a professor at a top school is correct. Being a top professor is indeed an awesome job. But then, he said the chance of becoming a top professor is low. So low. Like the chances of becoming a professional athlete low. We shouldn’t count on going to graduate school to become a top professor. He said for very few people is it a good idea to go to graduate school. He said if you have any social skills at all, the opportunity cost of graduate school is too high. In general it’s a huge mistake, with not a good market return.

Instead he recommended, is that we should become data scientists. The skills to become a data scientist are about equal to getting into an economics PhD program. A lot of the skills overlap. Both need common sense about how to think about data; both value asking the right questions as a really important part of the job; but with being a data scientist he said, the supply and the demand is mismatched. “It is the single best path to success”. Even if you are a mediocre data scientist, it will still be an awesome job, lots of fun, and you will get paid well, with opportunities to move. If you have any social skills at all, you will end up ahead being a data scientist rather than if you went to a PhD program.

If you must go to graduate school, he finished, you should work for a year or two before you go. Even as a research assistant. You will get a feel for what graduate school is really like.


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