Art and Craft of Economics and Management at Oxford: An Unofficial Introduction

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Art and Craft of Economics and Management at Oxford: An Unofficial Introduction

  • Bryane Michael, Linacre College
  • Note: The following does not necessarily represent the views of Oxford University,
  • her departments, or scholars.


  • The master economist must possess a true combination of
  • gifts ... He must be a mathematician, historian, statesman,
  • philosopher--in some degree. He must understand symbols and
  • speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of
  • the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of
  • thought. He must study the present in light of the past for
  • purposes of the future. No part of man's nature or his institutions
  • must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and
  • disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible
  • as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician

Economics is a wide field

  • Neo-classical-Keynesian
  • Political economy
  • Cliometrics
  • Econometrics
  • Marxist economics
  • “Post-modern economics”
  • “Post-industrial economics”

E&M resources at Oxford and afield

  • Economics faculty - next to St. Catz
  • Said business school - next to train station
  • Queen Elizabeth House (development) – next to Wok 22 restaurant.
  • A range of other institutes (see internet for specific interests)
  • Economics club, India club, business club, etc.
  • London (IEA…)
  • The computer centre and many colleges have statistics processing software (also see SOSIG and WinEcon).

Key values

  • Critical – less model building than in US but more questioning assumptions, evidence, logic.
  • Judgement – know what arguments to apply, when and when not to.
  • Intuition building – “if you need to pick up a pen, you will never be a good engineer” (Bose)
  • Prioritise – can get lost in info. Overload without clear strategy of what you are trying to accomplish

Key values (cont)

  • Rigor – not just a pretty argument but uses lots of facts, evidence, and considers all angles.
  • Fractured – no one Truth, no one right answer. Everything is arguable.
  • Independence – less guidance than in US, Oxford is what you make it.
  • Everything linked – ideas come from everywhere and infuse everything else.
  • Fail to succeed – we learn most when we fail… keep at it.
  • How to get to Carnegie Hall…


  • Different preferences for every tutor, but…
  • Writing style is key
  • Less argument and more exploration
    • Should cover the issues comprehensively
  • But explore within a framework
    • The one thing which unifies non post-modern economics and management is the use of analytical frameworks

Essay (2)

  • Less “creative” than in US
    • some tutors tell you to write about whatever or use whatever readings you want.
    • Best not to accept this…agree on a specific topic and stick to the assigned readings.
    • I’ve never seen a tutor happy with an essay comprising own readings.
    • Point is to determine what you know and think, not how creative you are.
  • Criteria of argument is important (define terms)
  • Longer is not better – there are “key” issues
  • “touch the abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought”

Essay (3)

  • Make every word count
    • Avoid things like “basically”, “in other words”
  • Avoid hyperbole!
    • innovation is the only hope for Malaysian economic growth
    • we have entered a new era of knowledge...
  • Be concrete!
    • don’t string jargon together (promoting competitive advantage relies on key processes and skills)
    • What does THAT mean?!?
    • don’t simply state relations (investment determines output growth)
    • It DOES NOT always. Show me, don’t tell... I want data, anecdotes
  • If you can’t explain it to your 10 year old cousin, you probably don’t understand it yourself!!!

Skills you Should Already Have

  • Unlike US universities, most tutors will not assign the following:
    • vocabulary lists
    • basic questions at the end of the chapter (for text books)
    • Requests to compile annotated bibliographies of readings
  • As a mature adult, you are generally expected to do this yourself.
  • Saving time by failing to compile vocabulary lists, answer questions and summarise main points of readings is a false economy.

Staring out the window

  • Q: Why do Oxford students appear to stare out the window in libraries?
  • A: They are thinking (!?!)
  • About 50% reading, 50% thinking
  • How to think
    • Memorise key terms, theories and authors in your notes
    • Make links “hum, Smith reminds me of Chandler on this point….”
    • How could I use that in my daily life? (trust me, you can)

The result?

  • Just like this 3D image, at first it seems like a lot of random information, but when
  • You stare at it long enough, you see the underlying image (do you see it?)
  • You will be tested on your ability to see “the image” in tutorials.

Model Based Thinking

  • Models help define the main factors driving phenomenon we are interested in

Why model-based thinking is important

  • S2
  • S1
  • D
  • D1
  • Different assumptions result in different answers
  • If you make the wrong assumption, you get the wrong policy advice, decision.
  • Please always question what you curves look like!
  • w
  • L

Role of the Model

  • model does not explain everything
  • simply clarifies the issues
  • Can conceal more than it reveals

Question Everything

  • Remember the Al-Jazeera motto
  • “If there is one opinion, there is another”
  • You will be expected in tutorial to provide a balanced view
  • No one viewpoint
  • Though you should provide a “best” answer given the data

I can’t get motivated

  • Page
  • 1
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  • 2
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  • 65
  • Page
  • 4
  • Index
  • TOC

Fluctuat Nec Mergitur

  • Most students find the first
  • 2-3 weeks very challenging and
  • Unnerving
  • Don’t worry, you will get over it….
  • The Oxford System requires some
  • adjusting to!
  • Remember Poe’s A Descent Into the Maelstrom (1841). The sailors escaped the whirlpool by keeping their sang froid and using their reason to find the way out.

Why is my course so difficult?

  • Oxford has necessarily high standards
  • The level of your tutorials is adjusted to your talent
  • Average performance at high levels of difficulty better than exceptional performance at low difficulty levels
  • If you would prefer an uncommitted, easy tutor, please let me know.

Relationship Management

  • Your tutor is your closest advisor and ally…but
  • Stay focused on the question at hand during discussion (and keep tutor focused also).
  • Stay calm – your tutor will “probe” your weaknesses (sometimes aggressively).
  • Terms of reference – agree beforehand what you will learn for the term/year
  • Agree on next week’s assignment – I find it helpful to write down and agree on a draft version of the essay before I write it to make sure I am giving the tutor what (s)he wants.

Relationship Management (2)

  • Think before speaking – not like US “class participation” where say whatever. Must be well thought-out. Ask tutor for 30 seconds to think about your response if you need it.
  • Keep your appointments – your tutors’ time in the marketplace is worth hundreds of pounds an hour.
  • If the relationship is a disaster, you may switch.

La confession

  • Tutorials are not the Spanish inquisition
  • Bring materials you don’t understand to tutorial.
  • Not a crime not to understand a difficult paper (maths)
  • Is a crime to ignore it because very likely will be discussed in tut!!!
  • Bring the book or paper with things not understood underlined
  • Bring the whole paper with one big underline if you must!

Relationship Management: Culture Shock

  • In America, your professor treating you informally may be an invitation for you to treat him/her informally
    • It’s an informal culture
    • Professor will keep distance if he wants you to also (address by last name)
  • In EUROPE, this is not the case
    • higher ups (academics as well as business) may treat you informally
    • you may NOT generally do the same
    • everyone has their place
    • American ego or self-confidence is very distasteful
    • If you commit lese-majesté, a European won’t tell you... but will simply stop taking students from your programme/profile.
    • Family visits, seeing the baseball game is NOT an excuse to reschedule a tutorial.

And finally…

  • Double loop learning
    • Observe how your tutor or lectures argue
    • Observe how your readings reason
    • Observe how you learn and ask if you can make it faster, more practical…
  • Economics and Management is as much a way of thought as of content

Lectures to go to

  • Check the lecture lists (you won’t be coddled)
  • Here some other lectures for you to go to:
    • General:
    • Development:
    • Economics:
    • Business:
    • Oxonia:
    • Governance Programme:


  • For light questions, advice on courses or career, feel free to contact me at 07815 652 209 or
  • I come from a managerial rather than (stodgy) academic background so I expect frequent calls!
  • If you are interested in internships or research associations, please contact me. Some pop-up in Oxford from time to time.

Extra Resources

  • Thomson, William. 1999. "The Young Person's Guide to Writing Economic Theory." Journal of Economic Literature. 37: 157-183.
  • Ten Principles Every Student should learn

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