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!


  1. Most of the life of an academic environmental economist is the slow grinding data or theory work. Like most worthwhile things, the inspiring ideas are about 1% of the work.

    So you better like doing lots of very detailed data work if you are going to be an economist.

    There probably is room for only a few Zetlands (i.e. careers where you can delve into lots of big ideas.)

  2. A simple principle applies here: pick a career based on the noun, but sculpt it with an adjective you like.

    To wit: be an environmental economist if you want to be an economist and you're interested in the environment. If you're really interested in the environment, but sort of taken by economic dimensions of it, become and economic environmentalist. Note PERC conforms with this construction, hence Chris(who works for PERC)'s comment is well-taken.

    I started grad school with people in both of above-described camps. Note that ALL of the latter flunked out/quit. Some of the former remain unemployable.

    Question: does this work for other professions? Petroleum geologist? Aguanomic blogger?

  3. As an undergrad, I continue to study EEP because it interests me and I think there will be increased demand for environmental/natural resource economists in the future. I have faith that I will find a career that, although not perfect, will match my interests. As for research, I spend a lot of time reading academic EEP papers and making sure I understand the economic minutiae (random errors, interpreting regressions, etc.) and am working on a thesis and have an eye out for interesting data. Also, I spend 2-3 hours a day reading EEP blogs and articles.

  4. WRT #4...just develop a relationship with a professor at your university, let them know you are interested in research, and some kind of RA gig should follow. This is what I did, and actually I think its pretty common for undergraduate aspiring economists to do this. I know that if I hadn't done this I don't think I would be going to graduate school in the fall..

  5. WRT to NW’s comment 3. I would agree with the other posters that to be successful, at least initially (meaning until you get tenure somewhere if that is what you desire), you are more likely to work in a very narrow portion of the field and spend most of your time at your desk doing lots of analysis. I remember having the expectation in the early part of my career that I would spend much of my summer in the field researching resource management institutions, sitting at trailheads collecting data, and coming home to discuss these great issues with my colleagues. I would say that 95% of my research time was spent sitting at a desk when I was in an economics department. Things got better when I moved to a science department (maybe 10% in the field).

    Also, don’t fail to consider where your profession will allow you to work if you have strong locational preferences. Most of the entities that hire environmental economists are government agencies, universities, and non-profits, most of which are located in larger cities. I remember sitting with some colleagues at Camp Resources once, tipping a beer or two and discussing our “dream jobs.” Almost without exception, all of us wanted to be at CU Boulder, CSU, UCSB, UW, etc. or other “small schools in the Rockies or Pacific Northwest.” So your competition will be stiff…which of course means more time at the desk.

    I don’t mean this at all to discourage you though. There is a large demand for people who are trained in economics to apply their tools to environmental and recreational issues, but the willingness and ability to pay for those entities tends to be pretty modest. I’ve taken the path of funding my livelihood with online teaching, which subsidizes my ability to do interesting projects that have modest budgets.

    WRT to NW’s comment 4
    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a great program called Research Experiences for Undgrads (REU). http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5517&from=fund

    Talk to your advisor or a professor at your school you might like to work with and see if they would be willing to write a proposal to fund a summer project for you. I did this at UA for a few students: I was happy to have some assistance and the students were happy to do an applied project for which they were paid. Also, consider talking to folks in your hydrology, ecology or natural resource departments. They might be interested in adding a social science component to one of their studies.


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