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Tips for PhDs: From Getting Your Ideas to Selling Them. HEDG Journal Club – 8 March, 2006 Edit V. Velenyi and Silvana Robone. Getting and Organizing Ideas - Originality & Incubation (Varian ‘97). 1. Paper Structure - Rule of Thumbs (Varian 1997; Cochrane ‘05). 2.

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tips for phds from getting your ideas to selling them

Tips for PhDs: From Getting Your Ideas to Selling Them

HEDG Journal Club– 8 March, 2006

Edit V. Velenyi and Silvana Robone


Getting and Organizing Ideas - Originality & Incubation (Varian ‘97)


Paper Structure - Rule of Thumbs (Varian 1997; Cochrane ‘05)


Economical Writing: General Suggestion & Tips (McCloskey ‘85)


How to Build Economic Models in Your Spare Time? (Varian ‘97)


Seminar Presentation (Varian ‘97; Cochrane ‘05)






getting ideas what makes it tick
Getting Ideas – What makes it tick?
  • “If students are going to earn degrees, they’ve going to come up with dissertation topics. And since dissertations can be written about everything under the sun, the number of topics is infinite. Sheets of paper covered with word pile up in archives sadder than cemeteries, because no one ever visits then, not even on All Souls’ Day.”

Kundera 1999

getting ideas originality
Getting Ideas - Originality
  • A GOOD idea …
    • Correct is not enough. Make it interesting.
  • Journals: Technique, insight, and truth
    • But someone else’s ideas. Be original.
  • Look outside academic journals
    • Interesting patterns, fallacious arguments, etc.
    • Then apply your set of economic tools.
  • To pursue or not to … Opportunity cost?
  • Become a Wizard of Ahs!

Varian 1997

organizing ideas incubation managing the process
Organizing Ideas – IncubationManaging the Process
  • Folder Organization and Spiral Writing Process
    • Notes Folder: Initial sketch. Shuffling around.
    • Preliminary Draft: 1-2 days
    • Aging Process -”Fine Cheese” & Freud
    • New Look → First Draft
    • Revision Control (Coauthors)
    • New Look → Revision
    • “Show (Presentation) Time” → Revision
    • When to stop? If no more questions … → Publish
    • On the Margin: Bibliographic Reference - EndNote

Varian 1997

paper structure rule of thumbs
Paper Structure - Rule of Thumbs
  • 3 Parts: Everyone…, handful…, no one.
  • Grab reader on 1st page.
  • Get to the point.
  • Make it read/feel like your talk.
  • 10-page rule – recall capacity.

Varian 1997

paper structure rule of thumbs7
Paper Structure - Rule of Thumbs
  • Distillation Process: What is the one central andnovel contribution of your paper?
    • Write concise paragraph. Be focused and concrete.
    • Assume skimming. Help reader get it quickly.
  • Organize paper in newspaper, not in joke style.
  • Your paper is not a travelogue or a memoir.
  • Final paper be no more than 40 pages.
  • Extra minimalist. Make point in less space.
    • No repetitions. Say it once, right!

Cochrane 2005

paper writing general guidelines
Paper Writing - General Guidelines
  • Rule: What you do → explain → compare to alternatives, procedures at micro macro levels.
  • Poor Organization Signs: “preview” and “recall”
  • Strive for precision: Does each sentence say something and does it mean what it says?
  • Document your work.
  • Simple is better. The less math used, the better. The simpler the estimation technique, the better.

Cochrane 2005

paper structure extra minimalist importance originality weighting
Paper Structure – Extra MinimalistImportance & Originality Weighting
  • Abstract: Obey 100-150 word limit on “central and novel” contribution.
  • Introduction: What you do. Explain. Give facts.
    • 1st sentence is the hardest. No philosophy.
    • No long motivation. Must be interesting on its own.
    • No “clearing throat.” economize on space.
    • 3-page rule
    • No roadmap
  • Literature Review – get sequence right?
    • First explain your contribution. Only then give brief literature review against the 2 or 3 closest current papers.
    • “Strategic citations” - leading editors to assign referees.

Cochrane 2005

paper structure
Paper Structure …
  • Body: Get to central result as fast as possible.
    • Wrong: Long motivation and literature review, complex model.
    • Rule: There should be nothing before the main result that the reader does not need to know in order to understand it.
  • Theory: If main result is empirical, keep theory to minimum to help understand your work. Focus on specialized model only.
  • Empirical Work: Start with main result. Illustrate.
  • Conclusions: Not necessary if explanation and documentation was satisfactory in the body.
    • Short and sweet. No speculation. No opinion.
  • Appendices: “Dumping ground” for comments on literature, generalized models, robustness tests, etc.

Cochrane 2005

paper structure11
Paper Structure …
  • Footnotes: Don’t use it.
    • Parenthetical? Delete. Important? Integrate in text.
    • Potential candidates: long references, simple algebra, etc.
  • Tables: Have self-contained caption to allow reader skim. Not substitute for documentation.
    • Caption of regression table should have the equation and the name of the variables, especially the left hand one.
    • Correct number of significant digits. Sensible units.
  • Figures: Good one make paper come alive. SCC.
  • Writing Tips → Over to McCloskey…

Cochrane 2005

writing can be learned
Writing can be learned

The economic writer, often, cherishes his habits of style as a something highly personal, and it is offensive for others to criticize them

Linus: what is this?

Lucy: this is something to help you be a better person next year… This is a list I made up of all your faults.

Linus: [Reading, increasingly indignant]: Faults? You call these faults? These aren’t faults! This are character traits!

  • Writing is not a natural gift!
  • Like mathematics, writing can be learned

McCloskey 1985

why writing is important
Why writing is important

Writing is the Economist’s trade

  • Bad writing does not get read!
  • Bad writing makes slow reading
  • At any moment the reader can get up and leave

Writing is Thinking

  • Content and expression are not separable!
  • Writing resembles mathematics: it is an instrument of thoughts

McCloskey 1985

golden rules
Golden Rules

Be clear

  • The reader, like the consumer, is sovereign: if she thinks that something you write in unclear, then it is, by definition
  • Clarity differs from precision

The advices are actually about re-writing

  • You need not to hold the bulk of rules in your mind from the start
  • Stage of first composition: rules about whole essays and paragraphs
  • Stage of revision: rules about sentences and words

McCloskey 1985

let s start writing tips
Let’s start writing: tips
  • Don’t wait until your research is finished to start writing (writing is thinking)
  • Take notes, do not depend on your memory alone
  • Saying it out loud what you are writing will help
  • Imagine explaining to a colleague, professor
  • If words do not come, try changing the surrounding (but do not visit the fridge!)
  • At the end of a section write down your thoughts on what will come next

McCloskey 1985

avoiding the reader to give up tips
Avoiding the reader to give up: tips


Pick a reader to ride and ride all the way with him.


The tone of writing is like the tone of voice:

  • If you are too flat, people will sleep
  • If you yell at people, the will walk away
  • If you are too passionate, people will suspect your argument need a tone of passion to overcome its weakness


McCloskey 1985


Length and big quotations

  • Too long paragraphs make the reader to skip a lot to get to the next break / too short paragraphs give a breathless quality to the writing
  • Use big quotations only to give the devil his due and an angel his voice

Make your writing cohere

  • Use the “transitive” writing: (AB) (BC) (CD)
  • You must repeat words to link sentences, but you can repeat words with the same root in different versions
  • Avoid to beginning a paragraph with linking words (indeed, however, furthermore…)

McCloskey 1985


Example of “transitive” writing:

“behind such rules on what to avoid (A) in paragraphs construction lies a rule (B) on what to seek. It is the rule (B) of coherence: make writing hang together (C). The reader can understand things that hang together (C), from phrase up to book”.

  • (AB) (BC) (CD) look pretty, is easy to understand and it is probably reasonable
  • (ABZYX) (MNOP) (BJKLC) looks ugly, it is impossible to understand and it is probably non-sense

McCloskey 1985


Rhythm is important

  • If every sentence is the same length and construction the paragraph will become monotonous
  • (Gardner) An English sentence has grammatically speaking three parts: subject, verb, object. (Es: subject = “An English sentence”, verb = “has grammatically speaking”, object = “three parts”)
  • Vary your sentences by how much you put into each part (Es: subject = (implicit) “you”, verb = “vary”, object = “sentences by how much you put into each part”)

McCloskey 1985


Verbs make English: Write with nouns and, especially, with verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.

  • Avoid passive and conditional tenses
  • Use present and not past tense (use imperative for explaining formulas)

(Es: not “there is a data reanalysis need”, but “we must reanalyse our data”)

Try to circle every “is”, find the actor and the action, transforming “is” in a verb when you can

McCloskey 1985

check and tighten
Check and Tighten
  • Avoid elegant variation. Parallelism is a virtue
  • Differently from Latin or German, English does not have cases and genders to keep related words hitched. But you can exploit “singular/plural” and “she/he”
  • Rearrange the order of the words in the sentence according to this rule:

Beginning of sentence: average importance (2nd)

Middle of sentence: low importance (3rd)

End of sentence: high importance (1st)

McCloskey 1985

check and tighten22
Check and Tighten
  • Avoid rhetorical question
  • Delete as many commas as you can, delete any comma before “the” (Es:In revision the trick is to delete…)
  • Everything before “that” should be deleted from a sentence (Es: “it should be noted that…”)
  • Query every “this” (and “that”) (Es: 1) “this shows…” 2)” this idea..”)

1) “this what?”: “this” needs to be followed by some noun.

2) the reader has to look back, interrupting the flows of ideas, (increasing the risk the reader give up!) .

McCloskey 1985

check and tighten23
Check and Tighten

Be concrete

  • Do not overuse abstractions and make examples.
  • A reader find it harder to translate abstraction down into concrete examples than the other way round.

Be plain

  • PreferAnglo-Saxon words to Latin and Greek ones
  • Pay attention to the use of hyphens
  • Avoid economic jargon (when it make sense)

McCloskey 1985

how to build models in your spare time simple core
How to build models in your spare time? - Simple Core
  • So, got the good idea. Incubate it.
    • Don’t rush to journals. Start developing model ASAP.
  • Models: “All the same…”
    • 1st Stage: Identify pieces of the model.
    • 2nd Stage: Work examples to see dynamics.
    • 3rd Stage: What’s common/interesting?
    • Finally, write the model.
  • Model - Simplified representation of life.
    • KISS rule applies. “Everything should be as simple as possible … but no simpler.” (Einstein)
    • Reveals essence of dynamics. Reduced to pieces that are required to make it work.

Varian 1997

how to build models in your spare time general case
How to build models in your spare time? - General Case
  • Now your model is too simple to be of interest.
    • But easier to generalize special case since now you know what makes it work.
    • Make your education pay off. Apply the relevant canonical model(s).
  • Simplify to get result. Complexify to see general.
  • Modeling
    • Back-and-forth iterative process.
    • Like sculpting, it does not consist of adding things, but of subtracting them.

Varian 1997

how to build models in your spare time hurdles
How to build models in your spare time?– Hurdles
  • Now go for a thorough literature review…
    • How does your model compare?
  • Potential problem along the process:
    • Lose perspective. Too close to it.
  • Seek independent judgment
    • Advisor, peers, spouses, pets…
  • Go back to figure what is the fundamental idea of you model. What are you really talking about?

Varian 1997

seminar presentation
Seminar Presentation
  • The more you talk the better the paper will be.
  • Forces you to get to the point.
  • Get clear, concise, and organized.
  • Essential feedback. Exploit it! Listen to questions.
  • “Fundamental scarcity … of attention” (Simon)
    • Give a reason to be paid attention to.
  • 3 Parts: Intro (2) / Content / Conclusion (1)
    • Get down to business. Limit paining the big picture. Say what you’ve done and why it’s important .
    • 1st 20-minute rule

Varian 1997

seminar presentation28
Seminar Presentation
  • Capture and Control the Audience
    • First content slide. Give reason to listen.
    • Don’t let them sleep neither to get too lively.
    • Establish credibility. How?
    • Exploit but do not abuse it.
    • Questions - Do not get sidetracked.
    • Do not let seminar trail off into silence.
    • Know when to finish. Conclude (1 slide).
  • Summarize – “Walk away message”
    • What you accomplished. Why they should care.

Varian 1997


Cochrane 2005

  • Become the Wizard of Ahs!
  • Writing is the economist’s trade and it is thinking.
  • Writing can be learned.
  • Become an (extra) minimalist.

Varian 1997

  • McCloskey, D. (1985), “Economical Writing”, Economic Enquiry, April
  • Varian, H.R. (1997), “How to Build and Economic Model in Your Spare Time”, mimeo
  • Cochrane, J.H. (2005), “Writing Tips for PhD Students”, mimeo
  • Hamermesh, D.S. (1992), “The Young Economist’s Guide to Professional Etiquette”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 6:1, 169-180.
  • Zinsser, W. (1994) On Writing Well