Don Davis Feb 2001http://www.columbia.edu/~drd28/Thesis%20Research.htm
Ph.D. Thesis Research: Where do I Start?
Don DavisColumbia University
If you are the next Paul Samuelson and will wholly transform the field of economics, pay noheed. If you are the next Ken Arrow and will invent a new branch of economics, these notes arenot for you. The aim here is more humble: to provide strategies for identifying exciting thesisresearch topics for the rest of us.There is no algorithm that yields an exciting thesis. Too much depends on your energy andimagination. But there are more and less efficient ways of trying to identify exciting topics.And I will try to convey at least my own aesthetics about what interesting research is about.These may vary a bit by sub-field and certainly across economists, so certainly seek out others’perspectives. So, ignore these suggestions if you choose – but have a good reason to do so.
How Do I Find “The Right Topic”?
First, there is no “Right Topic.” What is hot today may be ice cold by the time that you go onthe job market. You don’t want the nineteenth best paper of the year on a hot topic.Much more important is to find something that is important and genuinely interests you. Thereare great papers to be written in almost all fields. You need to settle on an area where you aresufficiently interested that you don’t mind making some investments, since these investmentsare preparing you not only for thesis work but also for your next round of papers as an assistantprofessor.Let me underscore that you should focus on an important problem. The lore of economicsincludes what is sometimes termed “Summers’ Law” (yes, after Larry). This holds that it takes just as much time to write an unimportant paper as an important one. Hence . . . you might aswell work on important topics. (Note: This is not an incitement to work on broad, vaguetopics!).This is not as trivially obvious as it might first appear. Lets start with a first fact: Most of economics is boring. No, I don’t mean this in the way that the public at large means it; on thecontrary, I think that economics done well can be beautiful and fascinating. What I mean is thatmost writing on economics is boring because: (1) It does not address interesting questions; (2)It has nothing new to add that is itself important; or (3) Even if the researcher does in fact havesomething new and important to say, the researcher does such a poor job of articulating this thatthe reader has little chance of figuring this out.1