Thursday, June 30, 2005

I hope my students are reading this 

Phil Miller, on the math he needed to get into graduate school:
I am not a math jock. In fact, through my undergraduate years, I never took a math class beyond college algebra although I was exposed to some essentials of calculus in a mathematical econ course. I was also exposed to more calculus in the footnotes of the intermediate micro text that I used.

...During the winter of 1992-93 and the spring and summer of 1993, the time immediately prior to the beginning of my graduate studies, I spent my time reading a calculus book and a linear algebra book. My time at UNO told me that to be successful in a graduate program, I needed to know that stuff. I read and took notes from every section of the calc book that covered material typically covered in calc 1 and 2 and the material on partial differentiation. I read and took notes from nearly the entire linear algebra text. ... In short, I taught myself calc 1, 2, parts of 3, and linear algebra in the space of about 9 months. In my life, this was one of the best investments I made.

That's almost exactly the advice I give my students. There's no way around the calculus, even when the guy who taught me micro in graduate school, Dan Vandermeulen (the first economist at Claremont McKenna), did his entire set of course using linear programming and set theory. If you have linear algebra, linear programming isn't hard, and set theory struck me as akin to my formal logic course as an undergrad, a course that should be taught far more often than it is. But even that didn't help, because when it came time for qualifying exams that odd way of writing economic problems was all I knew. I had technique, but no insight. Insight actually didn't come for me until I taught principles myself, something which most students at Claremont didn't do because GAs were not used to teach there.

I see many of my students nowadays not only taking the calculus and linear algebra but thinking they need a minor in mathematics or a double major to get into graduate school. That might be true -- grad schools will look to see what math you've had and will use it as a screen. But as John Palmer points out, that's not what makes you an economist.