Arvind Panagariya, Professor of Economics and the Jagdish Bhagwati Professor of Indian Political Economy in SIPA, at Columbia University.
It’s an undertaking to pursue graduate studies in Economics in the US as the die is cast in a way that you have to commit to a Ph.D. program. There are a handful of M.A programs — Johns Hopkins offers a M.A in Applied Economics while Princeton has a M.A in Financial Economics— but most schools turn out economists with a Ph.D. degree.
“In a Ph.D. program there are two years of coursework that you have to complete before you pass exams to write a thesis proposal. Typically, if you fail your exams the first time, you get another chance. If you fail the second time, you are awarded a terminal Master’s,” said Arvind Panagariya, Professor of Economics in the School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA), at Columbia University.
Professor Panagariya is a star economist who has authored seminal books. He got his Ph.D. degree in Economics from Princeton in the 1970s.
He talked to Uttara Choudhury in New York about being a student and then a professor.
You have been with the World Bank and the former chief economist at the Asian Development Bank, but is academe your true calling?
“In the US, the Economics departments are producing Ph.Ds. There is a presumption that you are going to be a professional economist.”
Most certainly— it’s a short answer. Even before I came to the US I taught for a year in India. I finished my Master’s in Economics from Rajasthan University and taught there for a year as a Lecturer. I came to the US in September 1974 to get my Ph.D. degree in Economics from Princeton University. I finished my Ph.D. in 1978 and then joined the University of Maryland as an assistant professor.
For the following eleven years I concentrated on my academic work earning my tenure and promotion first to Associate Professor and then Professor. At that point, in 1989, I took leave of absence from the university and joined the World Bank where I had done internships for two summers during my graduate student days. Then in 1993, I had to make a decision since universities don’t like their faculty to be away indefinitely. I chose to return to Maryland.
Was it a tough decision?
It seemed tough at the time, but in hindsight it was the correct decision. It has worked well for me.
What prompted you to come to America which didn’t have too many Indian students in the 1970s to get a Ph.D. from Princeton?
My father had been a civil servant and it was his dream that I join the Indian Administrative Services (IAS). Unlike my children, over whom I exercised zero influence — both of them chose to do what they wanted and as you can see neither came anywhere near Economics — my father had determining influence on what I did. When I finished my Master’s, I was two months shy of the 21-year minimum age cut-off, so I had to wait a year. I became a lecturer in Rajasthan University and thought I would prepare for the IAS exams.
“We grew up in an India where there was no Internet, comprehensive foreign university literature or rankings, so who did you trust? Things have certainly changed. The whole experience makes me believe that you go where your destiny takes you.”
My oldest brother had been keen to come to America and had been accepted at Stanford, but couldn’t get financial assistance. I emulated him and figured, thanks to my university job, I had the money to cover the postage to send off my applications to the US.
I really wasn’t serious, to the point that I didn’t take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), and never paid any application fees. In those days of foreign exchange controls in India it was tough to get dollars. All my applications went without GRE scores and application fees, but surprisingly I got admission into three universities — Cornell, Chicago and Princeton. And, Princeton gave me a full fellowship!
Still, my father wasn’t persuaded and thought this was a wrong choice. I even wrote to Princeton saying that domestic problems made it difficult for me to join for a year. But Princeton said they could defer admission but I will have to compete for the fellowship again the following year.
Recognizing that the Princeton opportunity was in hand while there was no guarantee that I would make the cut for the IAS, contrary to my father’s wishes and advice, I arrived in Princeton in the fall of 1974.
Were you cognizant that an incredible fellowship had fallen into your lap?
“You need quantitative skills, mathematical as well as statistical and econometric techniques. That is the basis on which you write your Economics thesis.”
Very frankly, at that time I had no idea what I had got. There were only two people in my university faculty who had been to the US. One of them told me Princeton had a big name but its Economics faculty wasn’t so great while the other remarked Princeton was as good as MIT.
We grew up in an India where there was no Internet, comprehensive foreign university literature or rankings, so who did you trust? Things have certainly changed. The whole experience makes me believe that you go where your destiny takes you. What happened to me certainly went beyond my wildest imagination.
What was it like studying in Princeton?
Initially, it was tough. I had very little exposure. If you are in Delhi School of Economics you pretty much know what to expect. It took me three weeks just to realize you had to read all the articles on the ‘Reading List’ we had been handed in every course. In the India system, we pored over textbooks and slogged for the annual exams. What saved me was that math had been one of my B.A degree subjects and I was reasonably good at it. The first semester at Princeton was particularly tough since as someone who had spent all his life in Jaipur I had to adjust to far too many things.
Do South Asian students gain a tremendous amount by coming to the US, especially at the Ph.D. program level?
“Nowadays, most good Economics departments only accept students for the Ph.D. program. And, getting a M.A from these universities is a negative signal that you probably didn’t pass the qualifying exams.”
Absolutely, there is no contest between what you do in a Ph.D. program in India and what you do here. Total night and day! One of the fundamental differences is that here you do very serious coursework. During those two years you acquire a huge amount of course knowledge and skills.
You need quantitative skills, mathematical as well as statistical and econometric techniques. That is the basis on which you write your Economics thesis. We still don’t do any of that in India. For a Ph.D. you have to spend five to six years writing your thesis, but the kind of thesis is predicated by the kind of training you receive.
Can students apply to Columbia for a MA in Economics? Generally, one finds that most of the graduate students in the Economics department are enrolled in the Ph.D. program and earn a MA in the first two years which sets them up for the Ph.D. program. Does Columbia accept students only interested in a MA degree?
Nowadays, most good Economics departments only accept students for the Ph.D. program. And, getting a M.A from these universities is a negative signal that you probably didn’t pass the qualifying exams. There are two years for coursework that you have to complete. Typically, if you fail your exams the first time around, you get a second chance. If you fail on the second try as well you are given a terminal Master’s. Basically, that’s the end.
So what you are saying is that Economics students looking at graduate studies don’t have the Master’s option and have to commit to a PH.D?
Yes, this is true. It takes at least four or five years. In the US context, unless you are up to doing a full Ph.D., there is no point in going into graduate studies. There are very few good schools which do offer MA programs in Economics — for example, Johns Hopkins has a Master’s in Applied Economics.
In the US, the Economics departments are producing Ph.Ds. There is a presumption that you are going to be a professional economist. Even if you don’t become a professor, you are likely to go into consulting or join a bank where you need to have your Ph.D. degree.