THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 41, Fall 2011

William A. McEachern, Editor

AN IDEAL PH.D. ADVISOR

The most precious resource a doctoral student has is whatever momentum can be generated toward completing the degree. My graduate studies were challenging because, after getting a little lift by completing my course work and passing the qualifying exams at the University of Virginia, I was drafted and served nearly three years in the Army. By the time I returned, most of my classmates had moved on, new faculty had joined and others had gone, and my human capital had depreciated.

I asked Roger Sherman to direct my dissertation. I had taken no courses from him, but he was a rising star and a logical choice given my topic. In an act of faith, he agreed. To help reboot my brain, I attended his weekly seminar on industrial organization. That was a start, but the path was not smooth. If behavioral economics has taught us anything, it's that we humans are frail creatures. We have good intentions but often have trouble following through. Our bounded rationality and limited willpower feed on each other. When faced with challenging and complicated problems, which sounds like a job description for someone working on a doctoral dissertation, the first line of defense for many is to put off such problems. So we're inclined to procrastinate with never-ending background reading and other temporizing to delay the demanding task of developing models, testing hypotheses, and committing it all to print and to scrutiny. How many of us had colleagues in graduate school who seemed fully capable of earning a doctorate but for one reason or another never quite got the job done? It was always something—diversions, tangents, escape routes.

Roger blocked my escape routes and kept me on the straight and narrow. He was helpful in so many ways—sharpening the focus of my proposal, lining up a committee, securing financial aid, getting me through my proposal seminar. When I was still wrestling my topic into submission, I was offered an opportunity to spend a year in Asia as part of what for me would be an unrelated research project. This was just the sort of diversion some procrastinating graduate students would seize on, and I found it quite attractive. Fortunately, I took Roger's advice to stay with the task at hand. He was always available to talk things over. He returned chapter drafts within days, all marked up in red. With his remarkable guidance, I earned the degree.

He was also invaluable in helping me find a job. At UVA those in the market were encouraged to identify their ten most desired positions. He helped me schedule job interviews with several on my list, including my top choice, the University of Connecticut. I ultimately accepted a position there. I believe his reference letter was critical.

But wait, there's more. Getting a job is one thing. Keeping it is another. A young academic can't afford not to publish from the dissertation. Roger's guidance made me a better researcher, and his red marker made me a clearer writer. From my dissertation, I can trace five publications in refereed journals. And, thanks to an editorial connection from Roger, my dissertation was also published as a book by D.C. Heath. Nobody could ask for a better start to an academic career.

By his example, Roger imparted a work ethic that has stayed with me. I remember once being invited to his home for dinner as a graduate student. The walls of his basement were lined with long tables, which were covered neatly with research in progress, manuscripts to be refereed, student papers to be read, books underway, and other ideas in the works. As this was before personal computers, the life of the mind came down to the physical flow of paper through the research queue. His idea factory was quite visible and, to me, quite astonishing. During that visit, I also gained a deeper appreciation for his opportunity cost in getting my draft chapters back so quickly. My dissertation was clearly in his express lane.

Roger retired in 1999 after 34 years at Virginia; he then joined the University of Houston and influenced other young researchers until a second retirement in 2007 at the age of 77. Ever active, he continued to teach and in 2008 published his second textbook, Market Regulation (Pearson/Addison Wesley), which grew from class notes at Virginia and Houston. After four-score years on this earth, Roger died last year.

I earned the fifth of the 30 Ph.D.s he directed to completion at Virginia. The others can speak for themselves, but I would be surprised if we did not share a common experience. A dozen of his "offspring" recently contributed "Studies in Industrial Organization, Regulation, and Antitrust Inspired by Roger Sherman," a symposium forthcoming in the Southern Economic Journal.

I had some remarkable teachers at Virginia, including Bill Breit, Jim Buchanan, Ken Elzinga, Ben McCallum, and Leland Yeager. Roger was a great teacher, but for me he was an ideal dissertation advisor and an excellent role model. He was also a wonderful person. I am so grateful that decades ago he agreed to light my path.

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