26 April 2023

How to be a Successful Economist

Vicky Pryce, Andy Ross, Alvin Birdi and Ian Harwood
2022, Oxford University Press, 368 pages,
ISBN 9780198869047

Reviewer: Kate Barker, USS

This is an ambitious book which achieves more even than might be expected from the catchy title.  It is very content-rich and would be invaluable to anyone considering an economics degree or shortly to complete their degree and entering the increasingly complex world of work.   The use of comments from a wide range of economist interviewees (including me) adds valuable colour.  

The content moves successively through: why you should become an economist; the different roles open to economists; the skills needed for success; how to tackle job applications and, lastly, how to stay successful (a challenge for all of us).   On this route there are also some interesting byways – a discussion of the difference between academic economists and practitioners for example and in the final chapter a thought-provoking discussion of Cost-Benefit Analysis.  Each chapter ends with questions to reflect on, exercises the reader might want to try, and excellent lists of further reading.  

SPE members probably had a variety of reasons for embarking on economics as a career – for me the oil crisis of the mid-1970s led to wondering why this global event brought so many adverse local consequences.   But few of us will have been lucky enough to have seen anything like the chapter here on the jobs open to economists, replete with descriptions of job content and website links.  Very different to the vague advice of the 1970s university careers office which left me randomly applying to pretty much whatever came to my attention.  Relative to today’s graduates, able to access so much information, we were pretty naïve.  

As well as stressing the intrinsic interest and often altruistic motivation of economists, it is also demonstrated that it is also a career with relatively good financial rewards.   Perhaps a question that the profession could reflect on is why that is so, as the book suggests this may not be associated to our relative intellectual prowess.

Having persuaded the reader into an economics degree and suitable career, the book gives good advice on the kind of skills a practising economist will need, around communication and other important soft skills.  The examples of briefs for ministers, and Kevin Daly’s terrific 12-point guidance for financial market economists, are well worth any practitioner’s time – most of us develop bad practices.  

Looking at the harder skills, the chapter on data handling is an important one – although I would have liked even more stress on time spent really understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the data being used.  The importance of judgement alongside modelling is rightly stressed, as are the dangers inherent in being fooled by statistical ‘tricks and quirks’.

One possible weakness is that while there is a good account of the recent debate around the content of economics degrees, there is not much about how to be a successful academic economist.  Rather more focus is given to the contrasting approach and skills needed outside of academia.  However, potential developments in economics, and the need for more diversity of economists, are discussed well.  These are important themes, as those setting out today will find many changes before their careers are over.

Frankly, at any stage of my career the chapter on job applications and interviews would have been incredibly useful.   Standards expected have clearly risen hugely over the past 40 years.  Interviewers in most cases also have improved and become more systematic in their selections (although this does not mean all errors are avoided).

As a soon-to-be-retired economist I may not be the best reviewer for this book – although I can attest that when recruiting it would be great to know there were candidates who had absorbed its wisdom. So if any more recent member of the SPE wants to read it, or any member has contacts considering a career in economics, do please let me know – I would be delighted to pass the book along, and even more delighted to have a brief review in due course of whether you found it useful.  

The book ends with a quote from Andy Haldane about how there has never been a better time to pick economics as a career.  Here I disagree.  Economics has always been a great and fascinating career, and it always will be.