Advice to Ph.D. Candidates

To get a phd at Columbia when I was there (1965-1971), you had to pick 5 people to approve of your dissertation. 3 had to be from the econ dept, 1 from Columbia not from the econ dept, and 1 total outsider. The first 3 were easy; I chose 3 econ profs with whom I was most friendly. The 1 was a prof in the business school, who I knew slightly. He suggested a fifth, unknown to me, and I foolishly agreed without checking him out at all.

My dissertation was on rent control. This fifth person was a rent control commisioner in NYC! He wanted to fail me. To get my phd, I had to have unanimous approval from all 5. The exam took 2 hours. They sat there for 3 hours arguing about whether I should get a phd or not. If my dissertation was not approved, it would have taken me another 2 years to write another one.

Finally, the rent control commissioner gave in. One of my buddies of the first 3 told me that what eventually convinced him was this: the 3 of them kept saying, yes, yes, you are right, Walter’s dissertation has many flaws. But we 3 have sat through these exams, hundreds of times, and we say he passes with flying colors. This is the first such exam you have ever sat in on. So, please, be reasonable.

My advice to all up coming thesis defenders. Be careful who you choose for this committee, if you are allowed to choose. Especially be careful of the outsider, if that is the system at your university. This will be one of the most important choices you make in your entire career.


6:08 am on June 6, 2024