Wednesday, March 28, 2007

My Life as a Student

A reader of the blog writes:

Prof Mankiw,

Just to let you know, I'm a big fan of yours and some of your work has inspired me to pursue a career in Economics. I just have one question for you - that may seem silly, but hey, - your educational background is very impressive - but did you ever struggle with any of the courses you studied as a student?

Sometimes, an academic life can be a struggle, can't it? Or do you find it all fun?

Thanks for reading this. I know you are very busy so I'll understand if you don't reply. You are an inspiration.

[name withheld]

As a student, I had the most trouble with three kinds of courses:

1. Those that required motor skills. I was solidly in the bottom quartile of my junior high school and high school classes in shop, typing, and physical education (but somehow I managed to become captain of my high school fencing team).

2. Those that required good memorization skills. Languages in particular were a weak point in my academic career, mostly because I had trouble learning the large quantity of new vocabulary words.

3. Those that required large quantities of reading. I have always been a slow reader. This was a particular handicap when I was a law school student.

But the most difficult time for me was when I had to accept the limits of my mathematical abilities. Math was my strongest subject in high school. I got an 800 on the math SAT, won the high school math prize, and didn't really feel like I was working hard at it. I thought I was hot s***. But then I got to Princeton and met people who were really good at math, the kind who become serious mathematicians, and I began to see the limits of my aptitude in math. I took some hard math courses there and did okay at them, but I was far from the top of the class.

Many econ grad students at Harvard, maybe most, are stronger in math than I am. In recent years, some of my coauthors (such as Ricardo Reis and Matthew Weinzierl) have been Harvard students with strong technical skills. My comparative advantage in the coauthorial quid pro quo is based on experience, intuition, writing skills, and a pretty good nose for interesting questions.

One of the nice things about being a professor is that you can specialize in those things you are best at, and you can find collaborators that compensate for your weaknesses. In other words, being a professor is a lot easier than being a student.