Thursday, September 07, 2006

Education Beyond the Classroom

A student emails me a question about my experiences outside the classroom:

Dear Professor Mankiw,

I'm a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, about to start Econ 001. I know it's important to get an academic background in economics, but I think some of the best learning I've done in most fields has come outside of the classroom.

I was wondering if you could tell me about some of the key moments in your intellectual development as an economist, and where these moments took place. My goal here is to figure out how I can supplement my Econ education with real-world schooling.

Thanks for reading this.
[name withheld]

Here are a few of the jobs I had while a student and what they meant to me:
  • Furie Sailing. The summer between high school and college, I had a minimum-wage job working at a family-run business that rented small sailboats to tourists and gave private sailing lessons to novices. It was edifying to see a small business up close. I also got my first taste of teaching.
  • Research Assistant to Harvey Rosen. For one summer while at Princeton, I worked as a research assistant to Harvey Rosen, then an assistant professor, who had taught me Principles of Microeconomics. Harvey is a great guy and a terrific mentor. That experience put me on the road to becoming a professional economist.
  • Congressional Budget Office. I spent two summers as an intern in the macro group of the CBO. It was my first taste of how economic analysis could be applied to public policy.
  • Law firm. After one year of law school, I spent a summer as a summer associate at a law firm, working mostly on issues of tax law. It gave me the opportunity to observe the life of a practicing lawyer and helped me decide that I did not want to spend my career as one.
  • Council of Economic Advisers. In 1982-83, during the first Reagan administration, I took a year off of grad school to work on the junior staff of the CEA. Martin Feldstein was the CEA chair. The other two members were Bill Poole and Bill Niskanen. The senior staff included Paul Krugman and Larry Summers, with whom I worked most closely. This experience presaged my later return as CEA chairman in 2003.

Looking back, there are various experiences I missed that would have been useful. For example, I have never worked in a financial institution or a large for-profit corporation, as my father did for most of his working life. (I am not counting my "employment" as a textbook author for two for-profit publishers or the small amount of consulting work I did for Microsoft during its antitrust case.) I have never lived overseas for more than a few weeks at a time. I have not spent much time in less developed countries.

As a general rule, I encourage students to use summer jobs as a time of experimentation. You can work in different types of organization to see what type fits your own tastes and talents. And even if you know where you want to end up, experiencing other parts of the world will give you a broader perspective and deeper understanding of how the world works.