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Economists don’t get SSHRC money, grad student edition

Summary:
The other day a colleague was explaining how SSHRC-funded Canada Graduate Scholarships are awarded at my university. "It's mostly driven by GPA," he said. "Grades in economics are so low that your students don't get a look in."  I spent some time messing around with the SSHRC awards engine. His suspicion that relatively few Canada Graduate Scholarships go to economists is well-founded. Taking all masters and doctoral Canada Graduate Scholarships together, and looking at the total awards over the past three years, fewer than two percent of scholarships went to economics students. SSHRC funded twice as many philosophy students as it did economics ones. Three and a half times as many political scientists. There are almost ten times as many psychology students receiving Canada Graduate

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The other day a colleague was explaining how SSHRC-funded Canada Graduate Scholarships are awarded at my university. "It's mostly driven by GPA," he said. "Grades in economics are so low that your students don't get a look in." 

I spent some time messing around with the SSHRC awards engine. His suspicion that relatively few Canada Graduate Scholarships go to economists is well-founded. Taking all masters and doctoral Canada Graduate Scholarships together, and looking at the total awards over the past three years, fewer than two percent of scholarships went to economics students. SSHRC funded twice as many philosophy students as it did economics ones. Three and a half times as many political scientists. There are almost ten times as many psychology students receiving Canada Graduate Scholarships as there are economics students.

Moreover, it's getting worse. There is a gradual downwards trend in the number of Canada Graduate Scholarships going to students studying economics. 

See for yourself. Here is a breakdown of the number of awards by discipline. The "adjusted" numbers take out award holders whose discipline is "not specified", making it easier to see trends over time.

Screen Shot 2016-12-22 at 9.13.25 AM

Here is a breakdown of the amount awarded. The "amount awarded" differs from the "number of awards" because doctoral awards are worth more than masters-level awards.

Screen Shot 2016-12-22 at 9.18.23 AM

A spreadsheet containing the numbers used to generate these tables, as well as the actual numbers and dollar values involved, can be downloaded here.

Why aren't more awards given to economics students?

Part of the story could be that economics has seen less grade inflation than other disciplines, so our grades are lower - and the difference is widening over time. This paper by Paul Anglin and Ron Meng gives evidence that grade inflation is occurring, and that some disciplines are inflating grades more rapidly than others.

Part of the story may be size of the potential Canada Graduate Scholarship applicant pool in economics. Casual observation suggests that economics attracts relatively more international students than some other disciplines, and international students are not eligible for Canada Graduate Scholarships. Unfortunately publicly available education data typically lumps together "social and behavioural sciences and law" making it impossible to compare the number of awards by discipline to the size of the potential applicant pool.

Part of the story may be that economics students write lousy research proposals, and economics professors write lousy letters of reference for their students. And part of the story may be that the economics profession as a whole is pretty ineffective at lobbying SSHRC. This is just speculation however.

But the bottom line is: no one who is involved in the awarding of Canada Graduate Scholarships takes students' job prospects into account when making those awards. Hence students can, potentially, end up being subsidized to undertake programs of study that generate little or no private or social return.

And why aren't students' employment prospects taken into account? I can only speculate, but I would guess a number of factors are at play: Committees have little or no reliable information about individual students' future prospects. Scholarships are awarded by university professors, who have little interest in inquiring about their doctoral students' futures - they might not like the answers. Academia is characterized by enormous inertia: any change creates losers, and those losers will fight tooth and nail against any change. 

So the status quo prevails.

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Frances Woolley
I am a Professor of Economics at Carleton University, where I have taught since 1990. My research centres on families and public policy. My most-cited work is on modelling family-decision making, measuring inequality within the household, feminist economics, and tax-benefit policy towards families. I hold a BA from Simon Fraser University, an MA from Queen’s, and completed my doctorate at the London School of Economics, under the supervision of Tony Atkinson.