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+6 votes
asked ago by (1.2k points)
edited ago by
Predoctoral programs have recently become very popular.  There are dozens listed here on an NBER website.  http://www.nber.org/jobs/nonnberjobs.html

How do these help students?  Why have they become so popular recently with faculty and students?  How do they work? How do they help increase diversity in economics?

10 Answers

+4 votes
answered ago by (3.4k points)
Additonal resource: look on Twitter for @econ_ra.
+3 votes
answered ago by (6.3k points)
They have certainly become popular as a step on the path to applying to Ph.D. programs...
commented ago by (3.4k points)
Among those graduating from the top 50 PhD programs who were undergraduates in the U.S., about 40 percent did a pre-doc research assistantship. The fraction is higher for the very top programs.
+6 votes
answered ago by (260 points)
These are great opportunities.

Among the benefits: build a close relationship w/ faculty members who can communicate your strengths to grad schools; see the inner workings of large scale research projects up close and learn tools for organizing and managing them; strengthen coding, empirical, and communication skills; have time in parallel to take classes that will flesh out your grad school application and to build up your portfolio of independent research with the guidance of a faculty member.

One thing predoc program have been particularly successful in doing is helping outstanding students who do not come from the very top name-brand US undergraduate schools. You could have perfect grades and strong letters from a small US liberal arts college, or a top univeristy overseas, and still have a hard time standing out from the hundreds of other grad school applicants with similar profiles. Faculty hiring predocs can do a much more careful evaluation and identify students with outstanding potential, then make sure grad school admissions committees know those students are special.
+2 votes
answered ago by (3.3k points)
edited ago by
Why have they become popular?

 I think a number of foundations (Arnold, Koch, Spencer, Russell-Sage) are increasingly interested in economics questions, and the strong stock market probably means the endowments have more cash to invest in the goals of the foundations.  

No doubt these are great opportunities and open doors, help you get great skills, and let you be integral to a research team, without any of the pressure of coming up with your dissertation/ideas that you might face as a grad student.

Also a number of research organizations not directly affiliated with faculty offer similar research positions.  For instance, Crime Lab in Chicago or New York, the other Policy Labs Arnold Foundation has started up, all have positions for research analysts that would allow you to work closely with faculty and research directors.  I've seen research analysts from these institutions go to top academic departments.
commented ago by (3.3k points)
My first down vote!!! What did I do??!!!??
+1 vote
answered ago by (360 points)
It can be a great way for students to both prepare for a PhD in economics and find out more about whether academic research is something that is a good fit for them. Working with professors on concrete research projects provides a lot more information about whether one will enjoy being a researchers than taking classes. These positions typically last for two years, so that those interested in doing a PhD can apply in the beginning of the second year. The RA position can help in a PhD application both because of the experience acquired in the process and because the letters of recommendation gained from the role can help open additional doors.

A great place to find many RA opportunities is also https://apply.povertyactionlab.org/
+3 votes
answered ago by (230 points)
The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and Stanford Economics Department have a joint Predoctoral Research Fellows program which provides one- to two-year fellowships to promising candidates at the completion of their undergraduate/master's degree programs.  The program matches fellows with SIEPR-affiliated faculty who provide high-quality training that bridges the gap between undergraduate and doctoral programs.  

Our program can appoint up to 20 fellows at a given time who work with 1-2 faculty mentors.  In addition to the training received from working closely with their faculty mentor(s), fellows are able to take 3 courses each academic year earning them a Stanford transcript, and are invited to participate in a weekly seminar series that involves presentations by SIEPR-affiliated faculty and sessions geared towards applying to graduate programs.  Fellows also benefit from informally interacting with their peers and other members of the SIEPR/Economics community.  More information about the program is here:  https://siepr.stanford.edu/research/student-opportunities/predoctoral-fellowship

I think these types of programs can help candidates figure out whether a career as an academic economist is a good fit.  They can also fill any gaps in their applications that may otherwise make them less competitive for graduate programs (e.g., lack of math preparation, lack of recommendation letter from someone who can speak to their ability to succeed in research) and can therefore increase diversity in economics by broadening the pool of candidates who may pursue PhDs in economics.  They are also extremely useful to faculty who can expand their research output with dedicated research assistance from the predoctoral research fellow, especially as empirical research makes more use of large/complex datasets.  I also think having an institutional program can help both faculty with the administrative costs of hiring/managing a predoc and the predocs themselves who have a natural community to slot into.
0 votes
answered ago by (610 points)
Economics is taking an increasingly science approach with huge teams working on massive datasets. As a result there is more demand for data focused researchers that can work full-time. Also for some people another attraction is they also do not get co-authorship, unlike RAs for which this is now standard.
0 votes
answered ago by (680 points)
Another useful resource for people considering predoctoral work is the Harvard Economics Research Scholar Initiative:

According to a recent National Science Foundation survey of earned doctorates, less than 5 percent of PhD recipients in economics or related fields are underrepresented minorities. The changing demographic of the US and the growing demand for economists in various sectors highlight the importance of remedying this issue. The Research Scholar Initiative strongly encourages applications from underrepresented minorities.

As a Research Scholar in Economics, you will:

- Serve as a part-time research assistant for a Harvard faculty member
- Take undergraduate and/or graduate coursework in economics or related fields
- Participate in Harvard Department of Economics workshops
- Have access to Harvard University resources, including faculty, libraries, tutoring, and professional development seminars
- Receive full funding, including a stipend, health insurance, and tuition
- Receive individual or group GRE preparation

https://gsas.harvard.edu/diversity/research-scholar-initiative
+2 votes
answered ago by (180 points)
I work with the Stanford GSB Research Fellows Program, which is a two-year predoc program. Fellows work on research with GSB faculty and are eligible to take classes. We posed this question to our former fellows and received the below response (with permission to share):
 
"I do not think I would be in an economics PhD program today without having completed the Research Fellows predoc program at Stanford GSB for two reasons: my academic background and access to professors conducting economics research at a research university.

First, I was not a typical economics phd applicant; I did not major in economics or math, but rather in Chinese and political science. My interest in economics developed towards the end of my undergraduate career, but at that point I was unable to change course, being a double major. As a result, I had not taken any economics or math classes. Clearly this creates an issue in the application process. Participating in the Stanford GSB program allowed me to fill these gaps in my transcript by taking math classes and graduate level economics classes.

Second, coming from a small liberal arts college, I was not exposed to graduate students or the rigorous/fast-paced environment of a research university. The Fellows Program gave me the opportunity to work with professors on economics and related projects, strengthening my empirical and coding skills. I was able to look at questions from an economics mindset (increasingly so as I took more economics classes), and begin to develop my own framework and questions. Additionally, I got to interact with other graduate students and gain a realistic understanding of the rigors involved in a PhD program at a top university.

Given the  high barriers to entry into an economics PhD, the Research Fellows program afforded me the opportunity to apply and gain entry to an Economics PhD program."
0 votes
answered ago by (2k points)
Would a graduate fellowship such as a Gates, Marshall, or Mitchell be an equivalent boost for the application to a doctoral program?  For example, if an undergrad had a choice of either a predoc or a Gates, which should she choose?
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