As one begins graduate economics study, he should be aware of several important overall objectives and the means for their attainment. This essay is intended to lend suggestions toward that effort.
First and foremost, economics is a way of thinking more than it is a body of knowledge. As such our theories and models have broad application that includes topics not typically thought of as lying within the scope of economics such as: biology Eric L. Charnov, "Optimal Foraging, the Marginal Value Theorem," Theoretical Population Biology, Vol., 9 (April 1976); Jack Hirschleifer, “Economics From a Biological Viewpoint,” Journal of Law and Economics, 1977; the first and second laws of thermodynamics, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and The Economic Process (1971); and crime Gary S. Becker, "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," Journal of Political Economy (March/April 1968).
Boundaries between economics and its sister social sciences, such as sociology, social psychology, anthropology, political science and even biological sciences are indistinct. We can think of the core of economics as covering a limited area of human and nonhuman behavior characterized as rational, goal-oriented, behavior that interacts with other agents through social institutions generally summarized as the market. The power of economic theory lies in its simplicity. Rationality requires the existence of prior goals (tastes, wants or preferences) whose origin we accept as a given. We assume that an individual behaves rationally if his behavior is consistent with the optimization of these goals.
To grasp the big picture of economic theory, one must manage to gain proficiency in several important areas. Among these is at least a cursory knowledge of the history of economic thought. After all if one is unaware of history, everything appears new and resources may be wasted on "reinventing the wheel." Other than, or in addition to, actually enrolling in a history of economic thought class, one of the most thorough single sources is Joseph A. Schumpeter's classic, History of Economic Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954); a good substitute is Henry Spiegel, The Growth of Economic Thought (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1983). You may wish to consult with Professors David Levy or Peter Boettke for other suggestions. By no means is it suggested that you master this material within your first year of graduate training but instead consider it as continuing exploration as you progress toward the completion of your degree.
The use and understanding of mathematics and statistics are integral parts of your graduate training for at least two reasons. First, the general approach to analyzing issues in economics is through the use/construction of models. It is within this framework we analyze the process of making rational choices. More specifically, models are used to predict or explain the behavior of some variable (or group of variables) on the basis of another variable (or group of variables). Some model building employs mathematics including calculus, geometry, and statistics.
Second, a significant part of economic literature employs mathematical models. If one is to understand and evaluate this literature, he must have at least a working knowledge of mathematics. It must be clear, and in no uncertain terms, that mathematics is not economics and economics is not mathematics. Instead, mathematics is a valuable tool that can give you a fuller understanding of economics. There are a number of texts useful in the acquisition of these mathematical tools. From the simple to the more difficult, they are: Stephen Mathis & Lee Siegel, Quantitative Toolkit for Economics and Finance (Miami: Kolb Publishing Company, 1993), selected chapters in William J. Baumol, Economic Theory and Operations Analysis (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1977), R. D. G. Allen, Mathematical Analysis for Economists (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1938), Ronald C. Read, A Mathematical Back ground for Economists and Social Scientists (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972), and quite a few others that my colleagues may recommend.
There are a number of books and articles whose mastery are critical to an enriched background in economics and for that matter passing the Ph.D. microeconomics preliminary examination. Some are found among those listed in the "Study Reference” at Professor Williams' web page [walterewilliams.com] under “Courses.” Texts most useful in preparation for the Ph.D. preliminary examination are: George J. Stigler, Theory of Price, 3rd ed., and later; Armen Alchian & William R. Allen, Exchange and Production (out of print); Jack Hirschleifer, Price Theory and Applications, 8th edition but earlier editions are satisfactory; James Buchanan, Cost and Choice; Hal Varian, Microeconomic Analysis; and John P. Gould & Edward P. Lazear, Microeconomic Theory (out of print).
The fact that economic theory is abstract means that it cannot be mastered unless one uses it over and over in differing contexts. That means training in economic theory does not end with economic theory classes. Classes that you might take in labor economics, public choice, industrial organization, economic history, econometrics, macroeconomics, etc., are all examples of applied microeconomic theory. These classes not only broaden one's institutional knowledge of these specialized areas but, in the process they reinforce one's understanding of basic microeconomic theory. There is much to be said for repetition as the key to gaining proficiency in any area of life whether it's walking, piano playing or economics.
One also learns economics by not being a loner. Students are strongly encouraged to form study groups. At least for Professor Williams' classes students may form groups even to do written, for-credit assignments. The only strong admonition is that the student fully understands (and can explain his answers if called upon to do so in class) whatever is turned in for credit. In addition to study groups, students are encouraged to take advantage of our guest lecturer series at the several centers related to the Economics Department. They are: James Buchanan Center, Center for Public Choice, Mercatus Center, the Institute for Humane Studies; and, should you have an interest in law and economics, the George Mason University Law School (Arlington campus), has both economists as well as legal scholars on their faculty and as guest lecturers. There is a very congenial and friendly atmosphere in our department among professors, students and clerical assistants. You are urged to resist being timid and take full advantage of our offerings whilst developing your career objectives.
Finally, there are a number of department and university requirements you must satisfy that the author (in the interest of his comparative advantage) chooses not to invest resources to learn and periodically revise. Therefore, you are urged to carefully read our catalog, periodically consult the bulletin board outside the Graduate Office in Enterprise Hall Room 336 and seek advice from Professor Chris Coyne, Director of Graduate Studies and PhD Director, available in Enterprise Hall Room 323. Also, Mrs. Mary Jackson, our Graduate Coordinator, (Room 336) can be very helpful. We also have a wealth of information for graduate students at: http://economics.gmu.edu/graduate. Additional departmental information can be discovered at: http://economics.gmu.edu/