Why FSU for Grad School?

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I have received several e-mails from students who are considering FSU for grad school and want some insider advice.  Overall, many of the concerns seem to overlap.  Instead of replying e-mail-by-e-mail, I thought it'd be easier to have a "FAQ" page.  I posted on TestMagic so you might want to go there to learn about my feelings for the program at FSU and how the curriculum is improving (username: wdoerner)

A quick background to put my opinions into perspective . . . I went to a small (4,500) liberal arts school (Furman University).  When I graduated, I spent a year as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Guatemala where I took Masters classes in development and worked on humanitarian projects.  Not too long thereafter I got married.  For my first go-around, I enrolled at Johns Hopkins University for doctoral work in economics.  I chose the institution because I was told to go to the highest ranked school that I could afford.  The experience was not what I had expected and I left after the first semester to teach mathematics for a private company.  The following Fall, I got a fresh start at Florida State University.  Below are some of my reflections on FSU.

How taxing are the TA, RA, and teaching duties?  Do you have enough time to study??

The work is not overbearing and, yes, you will have plenty of time to study.

The assistantship hours are quite reasonable.  Officially, a half-time appointment entails working 20 hrs/week (TAs are given two courses), but you may work 10 in some weeks and 25 in others.  For students with quarter-time appointments, the requirement is half.  I find the workload to be reasonable because the professors understand that your top priority should be your graduate classes.  In many cases, you might teach or lead problem sessions for the intro classes.  Getting in front of a group of students to teach intro material will solidify your intuition.  

We teach our own courses starting the summer after our first year core courses.  Preparing your own classes is a bit of work.  However, like most everything else in grad school, the rest of your cohort is going through similar growing pains so you can rely on them for advice.   In my 2nd year, I was given chances to  "guest lecture."  I've done it twice for the Ph.D. Econometrics II course, which is a really cool experience to have.  After taking a course on Stata, I have put together lab sessions for the Ph.D. class on Limited Dependent Variable Models to share tricks on what I consider most useful.  My teaching experiences have also ventured into areas where my undergrad and 1st year grad course experiences were limited (so I had more planning), like the philosophical debates in Market Ethics.  By the time I get out of here, I expect to have an eclectic mix of teaching (and research) experiences, which should be helpful for me on the market. 

Do you have time to study?  Yes, you've got plenty of time but oddly never enough.  Part of grad school is learning how to maximize your time.  The challenge includes becoming efficient at time management.  Everybody goes through the same steps so at least you aren't alone. 

What are the student-professor interactions like?

Excellent.  I cannot think of a better word to summarize my feelings for it.  The faculty are great. They're obviously interested in their own research, but they like to do joint work with students. Doors are always open and it's hard to find a professor that will turn you away if you have a question. I've spent countless time asking for extra help on problem sets.  The instructors are more than patient.  When I TA for a professor, I often get hints on what to do and not to do in the classroom.  The atmosphere is inviting, not intimidating.  I feel comfortable asking for suggestions or examples on how to clearly express particular economic arguments.   I even have interactions with professors whom I have not and probably will not take a class.  A certain one likes to suggest papers for me to read when we talk about economic topics.  A fond example is how, each year, we talk about the Nobel Prize public and scientific papers when they come out.  In my first year, it was a stretch of my capabilities, but he was patient and pointed out some of my errors in interpreting the results.

To draw everything together, I think there are plenty of opportunities for good students that are willing to work like crazy.  I guess that's the nice thing about being at a school that's not in the Top 30.  Hopefully, as the rankings improve, we will continue to attract faculty that keep their doors open.  Being devoted to research is obviously critical to achieving tenure and solidifying their careers, but interacting with students is also an important part of the educational process.

What are the student-student interactions like?

Fine, as well.  Foreign students are not funded by FSU.  That fact cuts out a number of potential applicants and people who might otherwise consider coming here.  As a result, our program is more weighted toward U.S. citizens than you will find at more competitive institutions.  The foreigners here are on Fulbrights or scholarships from their governments.  Most of them speak English pretty well (if not fluently) so that breaks down tremendous barriers that you can encounter elsewhere.

As far as studying goes, each cohort is different.  For mine, we huddled together in groups of 3-4 people.  The next year's cohort broke into pairs more often and got together in larger groups only to compare results.  There isn't any cutthroat behavior of stealing or hiding previous exams, homeworks, or textbooks.  Sure, you'll get a person or two that like to compare grades and create some competition, but it's not unhealthy.  

 In the end, you're competing against yourself in the first year courses.  If you do well, that's a decent sign that you are on the right track to passing the comps/prelims.  If you do not do well, then you need to do a gut-check and change your habits.  Everybody encourages one another so it's not like you will easily become an attrition statistic (if you are devoted to doing the work).  People drop out most often when they're not comfortable with the math, they had no idea what a graduate program really entailed, or they don't like economics and only came here because the idea of being in a graduate program enthralled them (really???).

What kind of a math background do you need?

You can never have enough.  This is a loaded question.  You're not going to be doing crazy proofs using complicated abstract algebra or measure theory while at FSU, but the math will not be a breeze at any location.  To ensure your success, you should consider taking Calculus I-III, Linear Algebra, Probability & Statistics, Real Algebra / Discrete Math, and Mathematical Statistics.  Courses in Mathematics for Economists, Differential Equations, and Topology would obviously aid you in your work.  The easiest way to summarize this question is: The more math you take, the better prepared you will be for graduate school (anywhere).  

If you are unsure of your abilities, grab a copy of Simon & Blume and work through it.  We use that text in our four-week "math camp" before the first-year courses commence.

How much do you study per week?  Do you have a life outside of grad school?

55-65 hrs/week and I'd say "yes, but limited."  Since I am a work-a-holic and things don't come completely easy to me, I may be a bit of an exception to this question.  With that said and having talked with people at other grad schools, I don't think the hours are unreasonable.  

Those hrs/week numbers include my time spent at school when I'm performing my TA duties and a number of other activities (that I enjoy so it's not really like work).  To me, it's important to be always learning about economics---whether it's observing in an undergrad class or taking notes in a graduate one.  I constantly read the newspaper (NYTimesWSJThe Chronicle), magazines (The EconomistU.S. News, and Time), and online blogs (MankiwMarginal Revolution, and sometimes Calculated Risk).  I enjoy perusing through new issues of academic journals and reading what's coming out over SSRN.  While my workload may be excessive, I figure that grad school is a good time to pump out a ton of work to prepare myself well for my career.  Hopefully, my adaptation is like the S-curve for diffusion.

As far as my life outside of grad school, I'm married so my lifestyle is a bit different than somebody coming right out of undergrad.  With the workload, I still have time to spend with my wife, but sacrifices are common in our relationship and she's been more than understanding.  

Having perhaps scared you already, I should note that my year's cohort usually went out every Friday or Saturday to grab a bite to eat at a restaurant or to relax and watch a movie at somebody's place.  Other classes have joined together to play IM sports or even hit the local night-life scene (though that's a bit harder to pull off and remain successful).  Finally, another type of cool mixed interaction is a "cigar club" that we've started.  Every Friday afternoon, a group of peers and faculty members catch up on campus or at a local Irish pub (depending on seminars).  Our group started with around 5 people and has grown to 8-10 regulars.  We chat about philosophy, politics, religion, and sometimes economics.  So, life is tough, but you can still enjoy yourself.

What are FSU's specialities?

(1) Experimental economics
(2) Applied microeconomics like issues of public finance, public choice, and urban economics

I'm not sure they are necessarily in that order, but that's what I see as our strengths.  When I was first coming in, outside fundraising was attempting to help us build up a cluster in Law & Economics.  That has since fallen through and been replaced with an "Institutions" hiring spree that centers much around our XS/FS experimentalists.  Since I'll be a research assistant in an center interested in state and local issues, I'll make the claim that urban economics is another one of our fortes.  If we trust a recent article in the SEJ (April 2008), FSU is in the Top 10 in the urban as well as the law and economics subfields.  Across the 17 subfields, we are in the Top 50 in 7 categories and Top 60 in 12 categories.  Of course, the article has its flaws, among them that it disregards experimental economics.  There are other rankings of graduate institutes.

We also have decent opportunities in education, health, and financial/monetary economics (two professors actually work for separate branches of the Fed).

The better question that you should be entertaining is what you'd like to do when you get out of graduate school.  Do you want to work in academia, the private sector, or the government?  FSU has a decent history of placements in the latter two.  For academia, we usually self-select into teaching institutions.  Perhaps that's a reason why our ranking may be lower than I suspect it deserves.

What kinds of resources do the grad students get?

I'll tackle this with respect to the department and then the university.

The department has an undergrad lab that is constantly staffed by grad students on department stipends.  You'll spend some time in there and can usually do what you need on the computers.  There's also a grad lab with Stata 9 or 10 and other programs, but the Masters students tend to stake their claim.  For the Ph.D. students, we have been fortunate enough to get offices.  There are 3-4 people in them so it's not luxurious, but there's always 2, if not 3, computers.  If you come visit, you'll find most of the grad offices in the inner area of the department on a hallway next to the communal kitchen.  There are two other offices (mine being one) that's on the back hallway.  I like to joke around that I'm in a remodeled closet because there are no windows and the door always remains locked.  In truth, it must have been at least 2 closets because we have a ton of space.  I don't mind, either.  Being on the back hallway, I have quick access to professors when I have a question (though it's not a long walk for the rest of my peers).  Finally, I end with mentioning a resource for teaching.  We take a zero-credit course in the Spring and the professor goes through all sorts of teaching nuances.  He's a great help on figuring out how to improve your lectures, incorporate interactive events, and maximize your use of classroom technology.  So between labs, software, computers, offices, and technology/teaching advice, I'd say we have a decent amount of resources.

In terms of the university itself, you'll have free access to the gym and parking is somewhere between $50-75.  I think it was per year...I've got a moped so I bought 2 passes.  You can get cheap tickets to most sporting events, musicals, plays, and orchestras.  We've got several libraries, but I usually go to Strozier Library (#134 on this FSU map) that is right next to our building (Bellamy is #8 on the map).  The downstairs of Strozier was remodeled and opened in the start of 2009 and the first floor lobby is following suit.  There are several downstairs rooms open only to grad students and professors.  One study room has an entire wall that is a dry erase board.  Pretty cool for working on long proofs in a group.  There's also a digital media center that can convert videos to digital format (for your undergrad classes) and an automatic scan feeder (very handy if you need to scan in sets of notes or anything to PDF).

What is the absolute best part of the program (in my opinion)?

The opportunities I have been given.  Besides having great student-professor interactions (I love them because of my LAC background), there are plenty of chances to shine while at FSU.  Each semester, I have sent an e-mail of my TA preferences to our grad director and I've gotten my choices.  If you are willing to do a lot of work and excel at it, the faculty are more than willing to extend a hand and get you involved with activities.  In my first two years, I learned immense amounts of information about how academia works, the job market, seminars, conferences, publishing, tenure votes, private funding, and all sorts of other topics that I never even considered when I was applying. 

What is the worst part of the program or what would you like to see changed?

It's hard to say, but maybe the ranking.  I chose to come here so there is an inherent self-selection bias.  As much as I'd like to claim that my level of productivity could land me a great job, I know that academia is about connections and reputations.  Coming to FSU from JHU was a big step down and may have closed my door for some future employers.  But, given the immense amount of chances I'm being given here, that might not hold true.  If I can change outsiders' perception of FSU while here, I will be quite happy.  I'd like to see our ranking improve---obviously for personal reasons, but also because I think we've got a high-quality program that is severely underrated because our grads don't usually try to go Research I.  So, I guess, vertical job mobility is probably my biggest complaint.  The obvious solution is to be careful with who you choose for your dissertation advisor and committee members.  They can have a significant impact on your placement.

Overall, are you happy with your choice of FSU and to continue in a graduate program?

Yes, I am quite content.  Again, though, this question has a self-selection problem.  I probably would not be here (ignoring the terrible private labor market conditions as I'm typing) if I did not enjoy the program.  I'm completely satisfied with having chosen to come here.  However, not all people have enjoyed the experience.  My suggestion is to visit.  When you're here, meet with grad students and professors and try to attend a class or two.  Make sure the fit is right for you.

Finally, what can you tell me about Tallahassee?

Since I know the area, I made a page about Tallahassee before coming here that had helpful info for my cohort.  I haven't updated it much since that time, but the info remains fairly relevant.  One of my peers sent me a Google Maps Project made for new GIS students and other FSU grad students.  As of my writing this page, several others have joined me in living on the east side of town closer to Governor's Square Mall.  The area is void of college parties, but the tradeoff is a rent increase (we pay $735 for 2BR, 2BA . . . I think $800-850 is more the norm).  Be careful not to live too far south of Apalachee Parkway.