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I'm in my second year. Most of my classes are just introduction to a bunch of papers and models. I'm not sure what I should be gaining out of these papers. What are the skills I should be picking up?

To be more specific, I'm taking Labor, Public and Development Economics.

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  • $\begingroup$ What did you expect? If you don't like your coursework, maybe it would make sense to start something else? $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Nov 15, 2022 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ What type of job do you want to get once you graduate? E.g., if you want to be a painter, these courses might do little for you if they do not pique your curiosity. Theoretical economics is indeed professionally useless for many people, but without further information, it is hard to tell what you should aim for. $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Nov 15, 2022 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ A quick point id like to add, from your instructor's point of view they are introducing you to the type of topics they work on and the tools they use. Part of 2nd year is figuring out the topics you are interested in and who you want to be your advisor. $\endgroup$
    – user42421
    Nov 16, 2022 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ Consider they are also instructional on how to write papers. Structure, phrasing, etc are all very important to getting published in a "good journal". $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2022 at 22:34

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Since you use the academic-graduate tag, I assume you're talking about the second year in a graduate (presumably PhD) program. Congrats on making it past the qualifying/comprehensive exams!

In your second year and onwards, your focus should be on developing your own research agenda, and the courses you take will partially help you achieve that end. Your research will inevitably be built on existing work by others. The field courses (i.e. labor, public, development, or whatever else that's offered at your department) will help you survey the literature in the respective fields. In doing so, you will get an idea of what has been done in a particular field, and what remains to be done to close any gaps in our understanding of topics in that field.

Of particular importance in these courses is methodology. For example, you may not be interested in the issue of gender pay gaps, but by reading papers on that topic in your labor course, you may learn the tools of diff-in-diffs or RDD, which you can later apply in your paper on the effectiveness of political campaigns. Or perhaps you are not that into the topic of executive compensation, but your labor course may introduce you to the principal-agent model, which you later realize can be readily applied to studying the relationship between foreign aid providers and political elites in developing countries.

Ultimately, you need to have a clear idea of what you would like to do in terms of research, and choose your field courses accordingly. If you don't find labor/public/development sufficiently stimulating, go talk to the faculty in other fields in your department and see what they are working on. You may be able to do a reading course with them on papers and topics that you're truly interested in. Your department chair can probably refer you to the right faculty if you have a discussion with him/her about your current conundrum.

Of course, if research is just not your thing, it's more than okay to call it quits. In fact, it'd be better to quit earlier than later, since you'll start accumulating human capital in the other areas sooner (and waste less time on a non-productive activity).

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  • $\begingroup$ Many of the papers I'm reading build structural models. There are way too many models and not all of them are relevant to my interests. Not sure what I should gain out of reading about these models? $\endgroup$
    – Rainroad
    Nov 16, 2022 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Rainroad: I don't work in labor, so it's hard for me to comment on the specifics of that field, or on the course you're taking without much context. That's a conversation you should have with your instructor/professor. Obviously you'll need to know enough of those structural models to pass the term test, if there is one. But if they are otherwise unrelated to your (potential) research, then just don't pay too much attention to them. Again, your professor should be able to highlight the specifics in those models that they think will potentially be helpful for your own research work. $\endgroup$
    – Herr K.
    Nov 16, 2022 at 18:15
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As a grad student, anytime you read a paper my two pieces of advice are:

  1. Make sure you understand the tools and methods. You may need to use them later in your own research. There are things most econometrics courses don't teach, but come up frequently in research (Conley standard errors is the first thing I think of). Important tools can be learned when reading.

  2. Write down at least one research idea related to the paper, and keep a running list of your ideas. Even if the idea you write down is infeasible, bad, or simple, just write a research idea down. There are often ways to improve ideas later, and sometimes combining multiple ideas leads to a good research paper.

Finally, unless it is required for a course, it is often not a good use of time to read full papers. Often just reading the introduction is enough (abstracts aren't enough).

Good luck!

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  • $\begingroup$ Many labor papers construct structural models. I'm not sure if these models are easily transferable. What should I think about when I read this type of papers? $\endgroup$
    – Rainroad
    Nov 16, 2022 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ I personally never get caught up in crazy mathematical details when I read papers unless (1) I am teaching the paper or (2) I think it is relevant for my research. Interpret that as you will. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2022 at 14:01

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