How I Made it Through the 1st Year of my Economics PhD
My tips for surviving the first year and passing your qualifying exams
Since it’s the beginning of the academic year and a new group is starting their economics PhD journey, I thought I would share what I did to help me get through the first year and pass my qualifying exams.
A caveat before getting started: this is what worked for me. I am a sample size of one, so I can’t claim that this if going to help everyone. However, when I was getting started, a couple of Twitter threads and posts like this one helped me, so I’m hoping that some of what’s here will be helpful to others.
- I set a schedule for studying during the week. I was in the office at the same time in the morning, and I left around the same time each night. I tried to treat the first year as a job. Grad school and especially my PhD courses are a lot less structured than any of the courses I had taken before, so I need to create and enforce that structure for myself. It helped to create boundaries, so I didn’t feel like I should always be working (a super common feeling I still struggle with today). Which leads to…
- Take breaks. I felt pressure to study every minute of every day, but that can lead to burnout and poor results from that studying. I had a professor tell me that I should spend 70 hours/week on being a grad student. That may work for some students, but it didn’t work for me. I needed to have time each day to not think about economics or the qual exams. I took time to read, watch tv, bake — anything not to think about grad school. You may feel like you’re wasting time, but if you’re exhausted and stressed, the time you spend studying won’t pay the dividends you want it to. Try to fight the guilt of not working by telling yourself that you’ll work more effectively and efficiently after a break.
- If you are feeling like you’re at your breaking point talk to an advisor/mentor/trusted professor. I almost quit in February. I was drained and feeling hopeless. I couldn’t fathom continuing like this for 3 more months, but a meeting with my advisor helped to put everything in perspective. It’s likely that most of what you’re studying/learning during your first year isn’t what you want to focus on. In addition to the stress and pressure of the first year, you may be questioning if economics is even for you. Speaking to a trusted mentor, someone who’s been in your same situation, can help to give reassurance and perspective. People won’t know you’re struggling if you don’t tell them.
- Along with meeting with trusted mentors, I started going to the campus therapy about 2 months into the year. It was helpful to have an objective perspective that was a sounding board for my rants, fears, stress, and anxiety. It’s incredibly easy to become so busy/stressed/exhausted that you start to unknowingly isolate yourself from anyone who’s not in your program. I know not everyone feels comfortable going to professional counseling, but finding someone to talk to is important. It’s also someone who can check in with you to make sure the pressure of the first year isn’t getting to you too much.
- Find at least one person in your cohort that you can talk with about non-econ stuff. It makes classes and office time more fun. Plus sometimes you just need a break from the pressure of the first year. My cohort would spend time talking about our home countries, sharing food, and chatting about our hobbies. This takes time, but small moments of putting yourself out there definitely have increasing returns to scale.
- Ask 2nd and 3rd year students what they did to pass their courses and maybe most importantly their qualifying exams. I received so many helpful tips from the upper level students. I wouldn’t have gotten through the game theory section of my micro course without some of the extra resources that they shared. Unlike your professors/mentors, these students were just in your position and may have some practical information on what works best in your department. Plus, these students are a reminder that it’s possible to get through your first year successfully and in relatively one piece.
- Most of all, know that if you were accepted into your program, it’s more than likely that your program believes you can succeed there. It can be really hard to remember this, and I definitely felt like I was going to be the one person that would fail my quals. It’s hard not to feel the imposter syndrome, and unfortunately the feeling that I would fail didn’t go away until after the exams. So to try to minimize those feelings, I made sure I was as prepared as possible, and I talked through those feelings with my peers, family, and therapist.
I hope these tips help the incoming first years in some way. This upcoming year will likely be very hard, but know that you can do it. You have a community ready to help you in any way!
*Adapted and expanded from a Twitter thread posted in August 2022.