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!


  1. I would add that the best utility economists, including water economists, are transdisciplinary. In particular, utility and water economics is engineering driven. Plant design, costs, and prices are intimately related. Exposure to accounting and finance are also very helpful. Resource and agricultural economics are helpful, but not always sufficient for understanding pricing and regulatory economics. Find someone you respect in an academic environment, and find a way to work with them. Good luck!

  2. Hmmm.....Forget hydrology since it doesn't matter?

  3. I would add to either in practice or academia, you should learn to organize information in a way that gives the storyline you want to get across.

  4. Steer clear of specializing in water economics until if/when scarcity bites to the point that it's highly priced and the career opportunities are as numerous as in energy! ;)

  5. take Ms. Beecher's advice...find a professor or professional that you admire/respect and find a way to study or work with them.

  6. Here is what I wish I did in undergrad that would help me now:

    1. More advanced statistics and econometrics: being able to both look at data critically and know how to find patterns of response are so useful, whether you choose to be an academic or empirical economist. If you can, learn SASS, Stata, or become a master of Excel.

    2. Game theory and behavioral economics: particularly Elinor Olstrom. Learn people behave in ways that may seem weird, but are "logical" responses to incentives. This sometimes only comes out in retrospect. Also learn that most people don't find personal salvation from being privately environmentally "good," and need other motivations.

    3. GIS: as an extension of statistics and econometrics, learn how to stack your data on a map. Place matters. Also, maps are fantastic explanatory tools to communicate with the public and policy makers.

    4. Accounting: boring while you're learning it, but being able to read a budget is crucial, and a general life skill.

    5. Writing. Write. Write in different styles. Have someone who knows edit the hell out of your paper, correct it, and have them destroy it again. You will be amazed how poorly some people write, and how far being a good, clear writer can take you.

    6. Basic science of water. To know what you're doing and be taken seriously by engineer water managers, you do need to know about areas such as the water cycle, erosion, nitrate pollution, desalination, groundwater, and other science.

    Best of luck!


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