26 Jun 2012

How to become a water economist

JK writes:
I am a 19 year old undergraduate and I think I want to become a water-economist. I see that is your title (from google-searching 'water economist'). I am in the process of self-designing my major to be 'water economics' and look forward to working in the field. Do you have any general advice for me moving forward?
I came to be a water economist by accident, not on purpose, but here's my advice:
  • Your education should always focus on the "book learning" that's hard to get from people and life experience. That means more math and theory than reading and data, more learning from professors than practitioners.
  • A lifetime is a long time, so make sure you're prepared for a broad array of challenges -- even if you're a water economist for 30 years (I have been for 10 or so). The best people in any field are always learning and adapting.
  • Water is complicated, in the way it appears in law, engineering, ecology, politics and economics. You can't get so many degrees, but you can understand the basics of each discipline.
  • There's a HUGE difference between "academic" and "real" water management and policies. Most "water economists" are not academic. Many people in the water business practice some sort of economics without calling it such; some call themselves economists when they are not. Here's the result of a question I asked a few months ago on LinkedIn:

  • Remember that people use water in many ways. The engineers can deliver it to the moon if you want, but who are you and what do others want? That's the difference between "hard" water issues and "soft" water policies. Both sides need each other, but economists focus on the soft side.
  • There's sure to be a need for more water economists, since economics -- the study of how we allocate scare resources -- is becoming more relevant in water management.
Does anyone have more ideas/advice to add?

Also feel free to correct me or suggest ways that can help me improve!