Thursday, December 18, 2008

Appreciative thinking

This post implicitly contains some very good advice for graduate students about how to relate to the literature.

I see the post as making several points and hinting at others:

First, you can learn useful things about a paper and a literature not just by asking what is wrong but also by asking what is right. Or, even better, try to think about why the authors did what they did. Authors usually try to get things right. If it seems to you that they did not there may be a good and informative reason.

Second, it is very important to keep in mind that there are few perfect papers and, even more important, that it is not only perfect papers that make contributions. To use an example close to home, the LaLonde (1986) American Economic Review paper that is the first to use an experiment to provide a benchmark against which to evaluate non-experimental methods within the context of specific data sets and a specific program has many imperfections both conceptual and in execution. At the same time, it has spurred a very important literature both by raising important questions, by suggesting a useful strategy and by coming to a provocative conclusion.

Third, and this is more distantly related, your first paper as a graduate student is almost sure to be awful. Mine was and so were plenty of others I saw among my graduate school colleagues and, later in life, among graduate students. Instead of delaying the inevitable writing of the awful first paper by playing fanstasy baseball or overachieving as a teaching assistant, think about it like losing your virginity. That probably was not that much fun either, but it is a necessary condition for moving on to better things in the future!

Hat tip: marginal revolution