31 Mar 2009

Should I Be an Environmental Economist?

NW says "I am thinking of becoming an environmental economist, but I have a few concerns:
  1. Are they high in demand by economics departments? If not, what can they do to make themselves more marketable?
  2. If environmental economists are not high in demand in academia, why not?
  3. I really enjoy thinking about, discussing, and solving problems like what we do on this blog. However, I fear that an economist, environmental or not, has a very different daily life - one that is much more technical and focused on the slow grinding of data. I haven't met too many environmental economists, and I would much appreciate your thoughts in this regard. Is this true for you?
  4. A frustrating part about economics is that there aren't opportunities for undergrads to do research or even volunteer with a professor, unlike science students, who get so many funding opportunities to do so. Thus, I fear that I won't get to know what it's like to work in academic economics until I get too far into my education. How do you suggest I to overcome this?"
My answers to these questions are:
  1. Departmental demand for enviro economists depends on the number of students who want to study that field and research funding -- both of which appear to be rising. Nevertheless, remember that you would be hired 5-8 years after you begin, so you had better begin a PhD because you LIKE the field.
  2. Note that enviro economists can work for consultancies (SOMEONE has to do all those EIRs), government agencies, companies, etc. They are in more demand than game theorists but less in demand than labor economists.
  3. Academic success is about publishing papers in academic journals -- something that I do not like (and am not good at). Teaching receives almost zero weight at the best schools (research universities). At teaching colleges (e.g., Cal State X), research isn't very important and class loads are doubled. Liberal arts schools tend to emphasize both teaching and research. You are considered "sucessful" if you publish two papers per year. As you know, I "publish" more than two posts per day. (Also note that I have no idea of where I will be working next, and academic economists have lifetime job security when they get tenure -- see cartoon!) In short, academic economists have far leeway to explore different ideas...
  4. The best way to find out what academic research is like is to... do research. Get a research assistant (RA) job at a university or think tank. Then see what it's like. The only differences (IMO) between the principal investigator and RA are salary, hours worked (RAs work less), and "control" over the research agenda. Note that PIs don't really control the agenda until they get control over funding, which is pretty hard.
Aguanauts -- please add your comments!

Bottom Line: Research is fun. Making it pay is hard!