Parents of PhDs in economics: their educational background

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It’s no big shock that those who get a doctorate tend to have parents who also had a higher level of education.

If your parents know how to navigate the tangled forests of academia, as well as the financial resources to help you, you’re more likely to earn that advanced degree. But what is surprising, at least to me, is that this link between parental education and earning a PhD is stronger for economics than for most other fields.

Robert Schultz and Anna Stansbury lay out the facts in “Socioeconomic Diversity of Economics PhDs” (March 2022, Peterson Institute for International Economics, WP-22-4). This figure shows part of the background. The first panel shows, in each field, what proportion of doctorate holders have parents who did not obtain a university degree. The economy is the weakest. The second panel shows what proportion of those with a doctorate in a given field have parents who obtained a university degree, but not an additional degree. The economy is near the top. The third panel shows what proportion of those with a doctorate in a given field have parents who obtained a graduate degree in a field (not necessarily the same one).

A possible concern here is that many doctoral programs at US universities have a large share of international students. Perhaps the patterns would be different if we focused only on US-born doctors? Not really. Here are the same numbers, this time with only US-born doctors. As you can see, US-born economics graduates are the least likely to have parents without a bachelor’s degree and the most likely to have parents with an advanced degree. It is true that PhDs in economics do not look any different in the middle chart from those with only a bachelor’s degree, but it is also true that the differences in this middle chart between different PhD fields are relatively small .

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This distinctive pattern of PhDs in economics seems to have emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, and has remained so ever since. This graph shows the relationship between a parent having a graduate degree and the likelihood of an individual obtaining a doctorate. The general pattern here is interesting: in many fields, those who earn a PhD are more likely to have parents with an advanced degree. For many other areas, this pattern has flattened out over the past two decades: in economics, not so much. There is a wider social problem here, namely that higher education has become a way for the wealthy to also provide a socio-economic boost to their children – an intergenerational social mechanism that is probably much more important for the most families than the size of any purely financial inheritance. But I’m focusing here on the economics doctorate model, where this overarching model is strongest.

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Why does economics stand out from other disciplines in these comparisons? The answer is not evident. One possibility is that the gap between a bachelor’s and a doctorate is large in most fields, but perhaps larger in economics. In most economics programs, it’s possible to get high marks in all your required classes and your senior project, but if you haven’t taken an extra heavy dose of math and statistics beyond those requirements, or if your undergraduate department has not prepared you for graduate school expectations in other ways, you are less likely to be admitted to and succeed in a doctoral program in economics. Perhaps parents with graduate degrees are more aware of these issues, and therefore their children entering a PhD program in economics are better prepared.

Another theory is that there is something about the way economics is commonly presented or taught at the undergraduate level that makes it less appealing to students whose parents do not have a graduate degree.

A related idea by Schultz and Stansbury is to examine the share of PhDs in economics graduating from what they call the “Ivy Plus” category, i.e. the eight Ivy League schools plus Stanford, MIT , the University of Chicago and Duke. The focus here is on US-born PhDs in all fields. The top panel shows that among US-born PhDs in all fields, those in economics are the least likely to have earned their undergraduate degree from a public institution; the bottom panel shows that among US-born PhDs in all fields, those in economics are much more likely to have earned their undergraduate BA from one of the “Ivy Plus” institutions. (Also, if one included some of the more selective public universities like the University of California-Berkeley and Michigan in the “Ivy Plus” category, those gaps would seem wider.)

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I won’t try here to draw general conclusions about “what all this means for the economy”. But the picture that emerges is that doctoral programs in economics seem much less open to the range of parental backgrounds than other fields. Moreover, this lack of openness is reinforced and reproduced by the admissions committees in doctoral programs in economics.

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