Sunday, February 27, 2011

Seminars by the Number

If I were not aware of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, I’d say it was entirely my fault. Last weekend I cleaned off the barbeque and re-filled the propane tank. It’s a good way to spend a mild and sunny February afternoon in Victoria, because I don’t have to take responsibility for cutting the grass since we down-sized to a townhouse. Inevitably, we’ve just had a week with an unusually heavy snowfall, icy roads and (by our standards) chilly temperatures. These conditions, coupled with the fact that it was the Spring “reading break” at UVic, meant that the corridors of the “grove academe” were rather quiet. In particular, the usual research seminars for faculty and graduate students were not scheduled.

Over the years, I’ve participated in more economics seminars than I care to think about. Some of them were memorable. Some of them were memorable for the wrong reasons. Some of them brought out the worst in me, and are better forgotten. Very few of the seminars that are held in our department are really “econometrics seminars”, but that’s O.K.. There’s more to life than just having fun, after all. One thing that most of our graduate students don’t realize, however, is that the style and tone of seminars in (any branch of) economics are quite different from those of seminars in many other disciplines. Take seminars in statistics, for example. The following observations are based on my regular attendance at such seminars in multiple institutions over the past 35 years or so:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How Long Should My Thesis Be?

Perhaps understandably, it's a question that I get asked by students all of the time: "How long does my thesis (dissertation) have to be?" I say, "understandably" because writing such a document is a grueling task, no matter how excited you are about the new results that you’ve discovered. My stock answer has always been that it's the content, not the length of the thesis, that’s the important issue. I'm sure that, deep down, students know this already and so perhaps my response is not as helpful as it might be!

I'm talking here about theses in theoretical or applied econometrics, but much of what I have to say will apply to other areas of Economics. As well as being a central component of any Ph.D. program, a thesis or dissertation (I'll use the terms interchangeably) is often required to complete a Masters degree, or an undergraduate "Honours" degree. It may even be possible to choose between different types of theses, and trade off a "more substantial" type for less course work. That’s the case, for example, for M.A. students in my own department right now. I'm not going to get into the pros and cons associated with such choices – perhaps another day. However, the fact that questions arise regarding the appropriate length of the tome is even more understandable when students can choose between a "minor thesis" and a "major thesis".

Of course, in some academic institutions and departments there are guidelines dealing with the number of words or pages that a thesis-writer should target or adhere to. This is fine, but unless such guidelines are very detailed they still miss the point. Content is paramount. Clarity of expression and the balance of the presentation of the material are crucial.  Depending on the subject mater of the research, the novelty of the methodology that has been used, and the form in which the results have to be conveyed (e.g., by means of charts or tables), there can be substantial variations in the “appropriate” length of a thesis. And then, are we talking about the main body of the thesis, or are we also counting appendices that contain supplementary results, computer code, and the like?

Recently, when the dreaded question has arisen, I’ve given my standard response. I guess that old habits die hard! However, I've also gone on to give an example of how length and content need not be positively correlated. The example actually relates to a journal article rather than a thesis, but I think that it makes the point rather well.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Hi - I'm just getting underway with this Blog, so it may be  few days before anything of substance appears here.

In the meantime, you can find out more about my professional activities by visiting my Homepage at

Dave Giles