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More knights in shining armour, please: Why we need YOU! to do a PhD in Economics

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This morning, Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of Free State University, posted the following message on Facebook: ‘Dear students, your education will be incomplete unless you all read Pikkety’s new book Capital in the 21st century. What he discovers about inequality over time, and how to remedy it, might just save our country from social and economic doom. Required reading!’

Thomas Piketty, and his thesis, has certainly taken the world by storm. Paul Krugman called it ‘an extremely important book on all fronts’, Mervyn King called it a ‘serious, thought-provoking book’, and Tyler Cowen argues that the book aims to ‘answer a basic but profoundly important question’. This is true. Capital in the Twenty-First Century makes an important contribution to our understanding of inequality. But it is also voluminous and, to be honest, translated from the French edition, not wonderfully eloquent. It is a publishing sensation (it reached number one on Amazon!), but I doubt that many will actually finish it, especially given that the main thesis is better explained in the excellent reviews cited above. It will certainly not appeal to the average undergraduate student, given that many struggle to read a 5-page chapter in a textbook. As someone on Twitter noted, ‘Now the Thomas Piketty book has hit the mainstream I’d like to make it clear I knew about it and didn’t read it before you didn’t read it’.

Yet the book addresses one of the most fundamental challenges of our time – inequality. While inequality has reached the global policy agenda only recently (owing to the rapid increases in inequality within countries, even though inequality between countries is on the decline), it is an economic and social problem that South Africa has had to deal with for a long time. Professor Jansen is correct in asserting that we – students of the social sciences – need to spend more time thinking about the economic causes and consequences of inequality, even if it is not entirely to ‘save our country from social and economic doom’. (Mental picture: Knights in shining armour (Servaas, Murray, Haroon?) fighting the dragons of Nkandla.) But here is an alternative suggestion, prof Jansen: Why not recommend your students to study Economics? If we believe that poverty, unemployment and inequality are serious economic issues, why do we not encourage more students to understand (and transform!) the nature of the beast? Why recommend a book written by a French economist when it should be our best and brightest who, given our own long road to (economic) freedom, tell the world about the pitfalls and paradoxes of economic inequality?

unclesamSouth Africa desperately needs more economists – not more people who have read a book about inequality. Economists are trained to not only construct plausible hypotheses but to also test these hypotheses using empirical data and statistical techniques, and to contextualise these results. It is a field that accommodates many interests: development economists think about policies to alleviate poverty, trade economists identify constraints that allow South African businesses to find export markets, macroeconomics attempt to understand the business cycle and prescribes policies to reduce fluctuations around it, and economic historians, like myself, believe, much like Piketty, that the past has useful knowledge that will allow us to make better policies in the present.

We have excellent departments of economics in this country who deliver a steady supply of well-trained economists (who, incidentally, find work with relative ease). But we are not exempt of blame. We often talk to ourselves, mostly in economist-speak, and avoid forums where public opinion takes shape. (For example, how many South African economists can you name? But I’m sure many have heard the names of Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz or Tim Harford.) I am also convinced that we do not do enough to encourage our best students to consider a PhD in Europe or, preferably, the US. On my brief visit to the US last year, I was surprised by the high number of PhD students in Economics from countries much poorer than South Africa. Close to 70% of all economics PhDs awarded at American universities are to foreign-born students. Very few of them, I fear, were South African.

We cannot improve as a discipline if we only train ourselves. (Piketty, even though he is French, studied at the London School of Economics and worked for two years at MIT.) My advice to any (bright) student who wants to tackle South Africa’s greatest challenges is to do a Masters-degree in Economics at a South African institution (preferably with a strong dose of mathematics and econometrics), and then enrol for a PhD at a US university. (Note: this need not be a PhD at an Ivy League university. Even the 50th best US university is likely to deliver a better, or at least different, product than South African universities.)  But these programmes are not for everyone; there is a strong bias towards mathematics. (Piketty warns of its overuse, but in South Africa we are still on the wrong side of this distribution.) And this is not to say that South African PhDs are not worth pursuing: they can be equally valuable (and much more affordable) if they offer students exposure to international networks, workshops and conferences. So, does this PhD-thing sound tempting? There’s some good advice online. Start here, then go here, here and here.

Lindiwe Mazibuko’s decision to do a Masters-degree at Harvard is an excellent example of someone who realises the many positives of a foreign education. She will be an example to many of our brightest students. Let’s hope, to save our country from social and economic doom, some of them return with PhDs in Economics.


Written by Johan Fourie

May 13, 2014 at 07:39

12 Responses

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  1. […] continue with graduate Economics, not only in South Africa but elsewhere. And as I’ve said before, to get into US universities requires a lot of analytical […]

  2. […] yes, and yes! First, this is why South Africa’s best and brightest students should study fields (and equip themselves with tools) that will allow them to address these serious questions. Second, […]

  3. As someone who DID read Pikettys book, it does not take much to conclude that he uses very little mathematics. That may simply be because he is dumbing down for the masses. He basically pulls out a lot of graphs, spends 90% on what academics call revisionism, assumes a can opener (global tax cooperation) and launches into a fairy tail idea of improving the world by taxing the productive. As economists we have spent the last 50 years discussing whether Keynesian policies are effective in short run monetary dominated scenarios and there is little consensus. To conclude from describing a few graphs that redistribution has any real effect on long run growth economics is preposterous.

    Before Piketty can get any credence he first has to deal Cobb-Dougals, Kaldor, Solow, Granger. Ca[pital in the 21st Century is at best a direction, it is certainly not a destination.

    Philip Copeman

    October 2, 2015 at 19:52

  4. […] likely that the best Masters students, after perhaps spending a year abroad, return to begin a PhD. The skills they gain here make them exceptionally well qualified for research and academic jobs, […]

  5. […] likely that the best Masters students, after perhaps spending a year abroad, return to begin a PhD. The skills they gain here make them exceptionally well qualified for research and academic jobs, […]

  6. Hey Johan, Great post. But if one has had the ‘misfortune’ of studying for their PhD at a South African University (I must confess to being disappointed with the ease with which one can earn a PhD at some SA varsities with little critical thought, interrogation of real world problems and propositional thought on solutions – I know what i’m talking about, I just completed one!) could a postdoc help in assisting one to exercise independent thought? Does it provide opportunity to focus on thinking or is simply a race to publish? Is the die cast already and should I now just concentrate on earning as much as I can from the ‘Dr’ that I now bear before my name?


    June 9, 2014 at 12:20

    • Hi Bronson –

      A postdoc is an excellent idea, perhaps even better than a PhD. The emphasis should be on building international networks through which you can collaborate on projects that will result in high-quality publications. A PhD at a South African university is certainly no ‘misfortunte’. But don’t see it as the end of the road.

      Johan Fourie

      June 10, 2014 at 06:02

      • Thanks, I’m really at a crossroads here. Am already in a reasonably paid job in which it will be more prestigious to be a PhD and probably translate to better financial reward and responsibility once I have been conferred with the degree by year end. BUT it is not the kind of position in which I can further my interest in research, which is where my heart lies.

        The decision to do a postdoc is however complicated further by the financial uncertainty that route would bring (I’m a married, with two young kids!)

        Not trying to turn this into the Agony Column, so thanks for your response and I hope for some clarity soon!


        June 10, 2014 at 15:28

  7. Interesting post about Piketty’s book – it is worth looking at The Economist’s ‘Book Club’ for a chapter-by-chapter analysis and discussion (
    As to getting more students to pursue an advanced degree in Economics: perhaps Economics departments should try and make their first-year modules more interesting? My memory of those modules (at Stb) was that most students found them unbearably dull – there was little linking the dry theoretical knowledge being taught with what actually happens in the real world. To get more students to carry on with Economics, there needs to be something to draw them in at an early stage. That being said, I did manage to complete three years of Ecos there (some of which I enjoyed) and it has helped me to ‘digest’ Piketty’s book.


    May 13, 2014 at 16:56

  8. Great post! And if you are full time employed and cannot afford the luxury of full time study, take a look at courses offered on and where you can study for free. A quick search shows that Coursera has 70 Economics related courses and Edx has about 19. These (brilliant and free) courses are offered by universities such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, University of London, to name but a few.

    B.t.w. Coursera currently has a total of 641 courses and Edx 178 – if you want to learn from the best institutions in the world, you can now do it.

    Anne-Marie Killer

    May 13, 2014 at 12:33

  9. It’s always fascinated me that Adam Smith entitled his work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” No one in his day had to ask what caused poverty–scarcity was a given. Economists have done a great job of showing what sorts of institutions lead to a society’s growth and emergence from poverty. Exactly how to set up those institutions…not so much.


    May 13, 2014 at 12:21

  10. Reblogged this on Skool vir Ekonomie and commented:
    Following our campus open day and the news of Lindiwe Mazibuko’s plans to study at Harvard, it is a good time to reblog Johan’s post. He makes an excellent case for further study, specifically in Economics!

    Waldo Krugell

    May 13, 2014 at 09:33

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