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> In 2017*, just seven economics PhD students were awarded SSHRC doctoral fellowships, according to data provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to the Canadian Economics Association. Put another way, only 1.6 percent of the 430 new SSHRC doctoral fellowships awarded that year went to students studying economics.

Is economics one of the greatest outliers here? Do any fields have unusually high award rates relative to their size?

If the root difference lies in application rates, then it might be possible to see what field X does "right" that economics does poorly.

Majromax, I don't have any data on the size of various fields.

This old blog post has information on the distribution of Canada Graduate Scholarships by field, which is pretty similar to the SSHRC doctoral fellowship distribution: http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2016/12/economists-dont-get-sshrc-money-grad-student-edition.html. Psychology does get a lot of awards, but I don't know if it gets a disproportionately high number of awards. We don't know the underlying distribution of eligible students, which is what we'd need to really make an assessment.

One thing that helps put the doctoral fellowship numbers into perspective - 4.8 percent of insight grants (the subject-specific grants for faculty members) went to economists in the same year that I'm talking about here. So there's something very different happening at the faculty and the student level. But again, economists may be a higher percentage of the faculty members than they are of the students.

Excellent post. Certainly from where I sit, the main obstacle is eligibility: almost all our students are international.

And this touches on a key pont as well: "If my university is typical, economics graduate students have little opportunity to practice writing research proposals, do not have a clear thesis topic in place until the second or third year of their program, and struggle to articulate their methodology using accessible terminology. Faced with drafting a program of study, some students may simply give up."

A (possibly apocryphal) story from my grad school days is the PhD candidate who applied for and received a SSHRC fellowship with the following research proposal: "I will write a PhD thesis in economics."

I've been on the internal SSHRC fellowship grants committee for a few years, and unless you know what economics PhD programs are like, you'd think that our students are a terrible bunch of slackers compared to the proposals submitted from other disciplines.

Steve - thanks for those comments. On: "you'd think that our students are a terrible bunch of slackers compared to the proposals submitted from other disciplines."

One of the things I was most proud of at the Antigonish CEA meetings was the undergraduate poster session. There's now a whole bunch of graduating econ student who have a conference presentation, or maybe even an award, to put on their resume. If every study group did a poster session at their conference, the cumulative effect might be non-trivial.

Also I have to wonder about the idea of just stuffing students with knowledge about econometrics and economic theory and then hoping that they will transmogrify into researchers. Perhaps we should have more of a spiral curriculum in econ PhD programs - take some courses, write a paper, take some more courses, write another paper... Students tell me over and over again hat they didn't really understand metrics until they actually had to carry out an original piece of research themselves.

How do department sizes and application rates differ? Eg, if there are 100 Psychology students and 10 Economics students per cohort, the observed outcome would not be surprising (even with equal application rates).

Michael - "How do department sizes and application rates?"

Relevant question is how does number of students eligible to apply to SSHRC differ - econ is unusual in social sciences and humanities in having relatively high percentage of international students. No info on that. Given that students can apply for a SSHRC doctoral fellowship prior to starting a PhD, and can hold a fellowship outside of Canada, it's not obvious how we *could* get info on size of potential applicant pool even if we tried.

For sure size of applicant pool is an issue - I just don't know how much of the observed outcome is explained by the size of the applicant pool. It could be 10%, could be 100%.

I'm a first year Ph.D. student who considered applying for a SSHRC each of the last two cycles and decided not to, and the "relatively costly" story above pretty much describes exactly why I ended up not applying either last year concurrent with Ph.D applications, or this year concurrent with coursework.

Last year, I sat down with a rough possible thesis idea, but was (and am) completely unfamiliar with how to write research proposals, and felt that writing one would be a significant time investment, and that even then it would probably read worse than applicants in other fields' proposals. I knew the success rates for SSHRCs were low, and after struggling a bit decided to prioritise applications and studying for the GRE over writing the SSHRC proposal.

This year, I felt my time would be better spent focusing on first-year coursework and again chose not to apply. I expect I will end up applying next fall.

J - thanks for sharing that. Hope you do apply next fall. Good luck!

Another nice post, Frances.

At one time, SSHRC used to allocate fellowships by discipline. I imagine the allocations among disciplines then were according to the number of applications.

I think the move to screening by university committees has changed things to the detriment of economics students. Economics, unlike many other disciplines, requires students to take course work beyond the MA whereas other disciplines treat the MA as the end of course work. As a result economics students apply a year or two later than students in many other programs. When they do apply after finish their course work, the conversation often asks why the student is presenting a dissertation proposal at such a later stage. The committee members, many from disciplines with research only degrees, agree that the student should have made more progress than just a proposal at their current stage and downgrade the application.

Ironically completion times for economics PhD students are shorter, some times much, much shorter, than in other disciplines.

As you know, all this is quite dated but I doubt if things have changed.

John, "I think the move to screening by university committees has changed things to the detriment of economics students" - I wouldn't be at all surprised if this was the case, but I don't have evidence unfortunately.

"When they do apply after finish their course work, the conversation often asks why the student is presenting a dissertation proposal at such a later stage."

As Kevin Milligan commented on twitter, this is where letters of reference might make a difference. If a letter written can put a student's work in context - explain "this is how stuff is done in economics and this student is totally fabulous" - possibly that might help.

Thoughtful post as usual Frances,

I think John's point about course work is very relevant. I'm guessing that Economics has the most course-work heavy PhDs of any of the social sciences and humanities.

I sat on our university's SSHRC doctoral fellowship pre-seclection committee for a couple of years and have some anecdotal evidence.

Grade inflation in other fields is a definite phenomenon. We looked at quite a few applications in psych where the applicants had GPAs of 4.2/4.3. They were getting A+ grades in classes where the class average was above 4.0. We haven't gone down this road nearly as much in Economics. Nor do I think we should, but this does penalize our students.

You're right that Econ students don't have much practice writing proposals. They don't have much practice writing, period. Our undergraduate programme has an applied research class where students have to write up their results, but mostly our students are taught to solve cute little problems. We do have a compulsory thesis requirement at the MSc level (I think a lot of programmes have dropped this), but the MSc theses most often conform to a rather rigid cookie-cutter style -- question, methodology, literature review, model, data, results, conclusions.

Plus, most students from other fields have publications of some kind to put on their cvs. Often this just means a book review or a publication in a non-peer-reviewed venue, but at least it's something and it seems to count. You're right that we have a mentality of punishing mediocre publications, which discourages PhD students from just getting something in print.

Steve, thanks for dropping by and sharing those experiences. It sounds like this is really typical.

The question to my mind is: now what? What are the options for Canadian econ departments who would like to see their students getting more funding?

One option is to change what we do to make our students more competitive for SSHRC. I don't get a sense that there's any appetite for doing that - except perhaps for introducing more writing requirements early on. But I don't think that would be enough to really tilt things substantially in favour of our students.

Another option is to try to lobby SSHRC, and try to get some weight put on, say, PhD students' job market prospects when making funding decisions. Don't think that's likely to happen any time soon. There is some kind of nod towards relevance in the http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/society-societe/community-communite/Future_Challenge_Areas-domaines_des_defis_de_demain-eng.aspx>future challenge areas but I don't really see these doing anything much to shift the funding allocations between disciplines.

The thing that I think would do most to benefit economists was requiring all programs to provide honest information about their completion rates, time to completion, and employment outcomes of their graduates. The applicants in other areas would still look good relative to economist students, but there might be a lot fewer of them!

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