Matthew Olckers Economist by day; graffiti nerd by night.

Choosing M2 courses and PhD programs

A student who was in the microeconomics tutorial I taught last year asked a few questions about course choices in M2 (the second year of masters in France) and progression to a PhD.

I like specializations X and Y. Do you think A, B, and C are good courses for these subjects? I am worried that my courses are too broad to fit my specializations.

My view on courses is to choose lecturers rather than courses. The Paris School of Economics offers courses by expert researchers in many fields. The best courses are taught by lecturers who are experts in their field, are excited by the course content, and have the time and ability to communicate the content in a creative way. This combination rare. Expert researchers may be poor communicators, or they may not invest the necessary time to prepare their course. The best way to find these courses is to speak to students from the previous year.

Don’t worry that your combination of courses is too broad. If you continue to a PhD, your research interests will evolve, and you will need to teach yourself topics that you could never have predicted you would need. Rather focus on enjoying your classes. Provided the topics you are learning are new to you, a broad scope has no disadvantage.

You mentioned you wanted to apply for a PhD abroad. Why didn’t you do so?

When I was busy with my M2 the idea of applying to PhD programs in the United States excited me. In fact, it consumed me. I spent many hours researching how to optimize my application. There are internet forums devoted to economics PhD applications. My obsession was easily fed.

Outside of economics I spend a great deal of my time with my local church. I am Christian, and my faith is very important to me. As early as summer before my M2 year, God gave me a clear message that I needed to drop my obsession with US university applications and focus on staying in Paris.

At first, I didn’t listen. I applied for the Fulbright scholarship (which allows graduate study in the United States at prestigious universities). Despite spending countless hours on every part of the application, I got rejected in the first round. In contrast, I completed my PhD applications for Paris at the last minute and it went so smoothly. Every time I do things my way, I make no progress. When God wants to make something happen, progress is delivered at hyperspeed—and in ways that I could never have thought up in advance.

If you have not explored your own spiritual beliefs, then the above explanation may sound foreign to you. I could have written about the pros and cons of PhD programs in France versus the US, but that explanation would have been contrived.

What are my chances at other institutions after an M2 at PSE?

Quite good. Due to the number of French economists working abroad and the number of foreign economists working here, the PSE is well connected. If your application gets past the first sorting, your references letters are important. A student from my undergraduate university who went on to study at a top American university gave some great advice on reference letters:

Beyond the well-known things (like doing well in the quant section of the GRE), probably most important is that you get recommendation letters from well-known people. This is partly because of nepotism (especially between departments in the US), but also partly because a recommendation letter from someone no-one on the admissions committee knows might as well come from your mother (Johnny is an excellent student, etc etc).”

Looking at PhD in France. What do you think of HEC’s PhD in Decision Sciences?

I don’t know much about HEC’s program. My sense is that it is a small program (in terms of the number of PhD students) so you will need to be comfortable with working autonomously. Ultimately, enjoyment of a PhD program is a function of the relationship with your supervisor. If you wish to study at HEC, then you likely need to find a supervisor before you apply. (This is different from the US where you will repeat your masters so you don’t need to contact professors in advance.) The HEC professors are more likely to talk to you if you have been referred to by a colleague. Find a professor at HEC whose research interests you and check if he or she has co-authors at PSE.

HEC Decision Sciences department has great researchers. The researchers I have encountered are experts in economic theory and game theory. If this sample is representative, then your maths skills better be top notch to take full advantage of this program.

Any other tips or advice?

Due to the above-mentioned obsession, I collected a lot of resources on PhD applications. You can find some links here.