QA’s Q&A – Gỡ rối tâm tình


I was introduced to your blog just this morning (May 12). While browsing I happened to read your post about Political Economy and I think this is what I want to pursue in college (I am a freshman of Class of 2018).

But I need to know better before I make any important decision, so could you explain what exactly Political Economy is, and how it is different from Liberal Economy and the “economy” that is being taught in college (and if possible, differences between these two sub-fields).

Concerning my major, I am oscillating between Economics and Political Science. That is partly because of career-related interests (what job to take if I took Pol Sci – according to my mother), and partly because I’m still uncertain which field suits me better. In some way, I seem interested in political issues but only those that directly affect economical well-being of the country’s population, like (for Vietnam) interest groups and what communism/capitalism has to do with anything, but not much in diplomatic issues like the war in Middle East or public policies like Obamacare.

– Vy


Thanks to this reader’s question, it’s time for a very belated addendum to our Why Political Economics? series (here and here). Four years have gone by since the last instalment — and gone, too, are a lot of ideals and misunderstandings that I held as a second-year-in-college. So, here is a less wrong answer to Why Political Economics? from a second-year-in-PhD-studies.

I. The three types of Political Economy

Given its broad and deep lineage, the only appropriate definition of Political Economy is perhaps the study of how politics and economic decision-making intertwine. There have been three main traditions in the field.

First is mercantilism, which espouses the idea that statesmen should use economic policy to enhance their nations’ power. Mercantilism thrived in 16th-18th Europe, when the international system was thoroughly anarchic and populated with equally powerful countries. No one is ever sure about anyone else (Game of Thrones style), leading to frequent wars and ultimately the idea that economic policy is subservient to the survival of the states. While this mode of thinking has gone out of vogue a long time ago, we still see its remnants today in nationalist discourse under name of “protectionism.”

Second is the liberal economics  that dominates economic thinking today. Its famous origin traces back to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which was a direct response to the prevailing mercantilist thoughts of his time. While common sensical today, Adam Smith was a radical to propose that free trade benefits all countries (thanks to comparative advantage), and that free market benefits everyone (thanks to free price being an effective way to transmit information about what’s needed and available in the economy). These ideas are still the bedrock of modern economics, yet at the same time the practices of today’s economists are nothing like Adam Smith. (We’ll revisit below).

Third is Marxist economics, which is in turn a critique of the capitalist economy that has been ushered in since Adam Smith’s ideas. Marx critiqued numerous aspects of a capitalist economy. One is the paradoxical crisis of production, when there are enough goods for everyone yet the workers are too destitute to buy them. Another is the alienation of labor,  when individual man is but an inconsequential cog in the production line and thus unable to derive creative satisfaction from labor. Contrary to the mercantilist, for Marx, politics is subservient to economic powers: the ruling economic class promotes certain kinds of political and religious ideology in order to prolong its hegemony.

On the ruin of the Soviet Union, liberal economics raised its triumphant flag and became synonymous with Economics. Yet political economy as studied and practiced today is very unlike Adam Smith’s, and we will see how.

II. The ONE type of Political Economy (if you ask U.S. academics)

Over the 20th century economics has evolved several times in order to grapple with the gap between economic theory and reality.

Once staunch believers in free market, economists started to notice numerous market failures from causes such as natural monopoly (i.e. due to economy of scale) and informational asymmetry (i.e. sellers may have private information about the good that buyers don’t, in which case they can’t agree on a price). The existence of market failure seems to argue for government intervention. For example, the government may put in place anti-trust law or product quality regulations.

But yet again, economists noticed that governments fail, too. We view men as self-interested, maximizing actors in the economic realm — there is no reason why they would be altruistic and benevolent in the political arena. This is in fact and old idea, and as James Madison put it: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Thus, a new area of study sprung up to take the economic assumptions (rational, self-maximizing agent) and methods (dominantly game theory) to investigate political behaviors. It is called Public Choice, and is what Political Economy means today.

III. So, should you study Political Economy / Political Science?

After learning a lot more about Political Economy, I am fortunate enough not to find out that I was wrong 4 years ago. I stood by the claim that, yes, it is foolish to study economic development (or any economic policy-making) without considering politics. The most that economics can give us is a description of various trade-offs, whereas which side of those trade-offs do nations end up choosing is fundamentally a political question.

Having said that, I do feel disappointed with my study of Political Economy, mainly because I came to it with very high expectation (you could see the exuding optimism in the previous instalments in the series.) I thought that if only I could get a PhD in Political Economy I would be able to finally know what countries like Vietnam would need to develop, what I could do to “change lives” and “make the world a better place.”

But development is hard. Many smart people have worked on it for years without a solution. And yet that’s not even the discouraging part. What’s more disheartening about social science is that we are not sure if we are getting any closer to the solution at all. That is because:

  • Without the ability to do experiment (i.e. to re-run history) in order to hold all other factors constant, it is nigh-impossible to decisively conclude what factor is causing what.
  • Yes, there is a surge in Randomized Control Trials in development economics but 1) due to real-world limitations there are certain things we cannot randomize (e.g. political system), and 2) a successful program may fail when scaled-up (basically political actors interfered when the program became a big pot of money).
  • Social sciences study humans, and unlike atoms humans have intentions and wills that change. When something is proven in physics, it stays proven. There is no such law in economics and political science.

Of course, despite all these dead-ends the development industry continues to chug along anyway with a new way to change lives every few years. Like fashion, these development ideas come and go in circle with no clear sense of progress. Not only have we been ineffective, some would argue that developmental aid is downright harmful in some cases.

All in all, I think that Political Economy embodies the fundamentally correct insight that we need politics to understand development. However, let us not be mistaken (as I was) that we are anywhere close to achieving that understanding yet.

IV. So, should you major in Economics / Political Science?

Fascinatingly, even if you want to study Political Economy, it is not clear that you should major in Economics or Political Science.

It is important that you think about jobs. My college career was colored by my disdain for material things and my fascination with intellectual pursuit (as you can see from my old, college-era blog entries.) Looking back, I have to admit that I got the balance slightly wrong. Sure, big ideas are exhilarating, but I am not sure any amount of that can offset the months of stress unemployment will bring. (I applied for graduate school and was spared the entire ordeal, but I have seen way too many struggles.) Since most people would advise you to “try new things” and “expand your horizon,” I hope to bring back some perspective and urge you to think about where you want to be after 4 years of college. (Listen to this NPR broadcast about the economic return of different majors.)

The best way to prepare for that moment in 4 years is to learn skills, not facts. In this day and age, when everything can be looked up there is very little value in knowing a lot of facts about an area. In contrast, to learn technical skills you have to study sequentially (e.g. you need arithmetic before algebra before calculus), and the only time to do that well is in school.

(Note that even though I will be mainly talking about how to best prepare yourself as a worker, that is not the only goal of education. Minor in something that best prepare you as a human being and a citizen. In terms of social sciences / humanities, (for me) that means taking Intro to Econs, Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, a class on comparative political system, moral philosophy, and arts.)

Back to the main topic: depending on what job you want to get, below are your options.

First, if you want to get a private-sector job, a BA in political science is sort of worthless, and a BA in economics is only slightly less so (unless you go to a top research school OR work on frontier research with professors). The reason is that undergraduate political science training is heavily about facts and teach you little employable skills. Economics BA is slightly better since you will get to learn econometrics, but everything else you have to learn (e.g. microeconomic and macroeconomic theories) is of little value on the job market.

Having said that, employers do hire more Economics major, but not for the economic knowledge. Instead, the Econs label is simple a signal of quantitative skills. I thus recommend you to go straight to the quantitative skills (e.g. Econometrics, Statistics) and bypass all the economic theories that you will never use.

Second, if you want to work in the development sector, understand that it is a crowded field with low pay that typically requires post-graduate degrees. It is crowded with low pay for a reason, of course: many people are more than happy to make that sacrifice in order to do meaningful work. The best way to prepare is still to major in something quantitative (i.e. Statistics, Economics), but also take more of other electives, e.g. Political Science / Economics of Development / History, and get some development-related internships.

Third, even if you want to pursue a PhD in Political Economy, you should not major in BA Political Science. Not only are the readings in BA Political Science very outdated, the BA also does not prepare you for the increasingly quantitative and formal methods in PhD Political Science. So major in Statistics, maybe Computer Science, take multiple electives in Micro / Macroeconomics, study the area of Poli Sci that you are interested in,* and take some History classes for a reality check against the theoretical models in Econs and Poli Sci. Write a research paper in one of these electives in order to prove your interest in Political Economy and get good letters of recommendations. (You can read my entry on how to apply to PhD here.)

(* Political Science has 4 sub-fields: comparative politics (comparing systems across countries), American politics, International Relations, and Political Theory (i.e. political philosophy). If you are only interested in development, i.e. comparative politics, then it’s another reason not to major in Poli Sci so that you can bypass all the other stuffs.)

That was a lot to cover. These are the things I wish I had known four years ago, but no one was around to tell me. More troublesome is the fact that I still don’t see anyone telling college freshmen straight-talk about their career like this. Being straight talk, each paragraph of this entry can be controversial and should be more thoroughly argued in a blog post of its own. If there is any advice that does not seem clear of reasonable, I’d be happy to clarify.

Chào anh giai,

We all know that applying to graduate school is not gonna be like college application. Neither is (I presume) choosing an “ideal” grad school/program for your next 5-or-more years. But how so? What should be the major criteria for grad school selection, now that the usual benchmarks to judge an undergraduate institution (e.g. study abroad, diversity, campus atmosphere…) might not matter nearly as much?

Đa tạ anh giai,

– ZerO

The difference between undergraduate and graduate school is that the latter is unequivocally about getting a job. Following one’s dream–the other, oft-mentioned reason for getting a PhD–is not good enough. Five years of graduate school costs half a million dollars ($50,000 tuition + $50,000 lost earning per year). You could deposit that money into the bank and pursue whatever topic that strikes your intellectual fancy.

If getting a PhD is all about training for a job, then you should know about that job market. I highly recommend all PhD applicants to read the following post by a tenured associate professor about the career prospective in Political Science. The take home message is this: there are very few employment opportunities for PhDs that come from outside of top-25 departments. So, only apply to top-25 departments. The post is truthful and informative, if brutally so. I have nothing more to add besides my personal affirmation. Even in my top-10 department, frequent jokes about unemployment are no doubt rooted in a certain degree of self-consciousness.

If one squints his optimistic eye hard enough, he can see a bright side to all this: with only 25 schools to choose from, a typical student that applies to 7-8 schools doesn’t have to digest too much information. Narrowing from 25 to 8 is a matter of finding a fit, as follows, in order of decreasing importance. (Side note for other readers: in top-25, even 50, PhD programs, it is safe to assume that tuition will be waived and stipend provided. So funding is not a significant factor in choosing where to apply.)

Methodological fit: qualitative versus quantitative.
Sub-field fit: IR / American / Comparative / Political Theory.
Regional fit.
Topical fit: specific research topics such as authoritarianism, elections, parties, etc.

What is perhaps less obvious and more helpful than the above list is how to find out about whether you fit into a department. The best way is to look up the departments of authors that inspire your research. Since materials that you learn in undergraduate political science are often classics, a caveat is that those scholars may have moved on to other things. Make sure to look up their current projects. Better yet, find the up-and-coming scholars in latest journal articles that work on your topics.

There are two difficulties with this approach: 1) scholars may not publicly post their current work, and 2) among numerous articles, you’re not sure which one is really a scholar’s pet topic. Consult the professors that know your field on these matters. And don’t ask the tenured professors. Having been out of the job market for a long time, they may be eager to help but not much helpful. Seek guidance from young assistant professors and TAs, whose experience are still raw and advice relevant.

Having said all this about fit, I must also add that at the tip-top departments, where there are numerous faculties of all methodological and substantive stripes, perhaps fit does not matter very much. Anyone would fit there, so they are only keen on finding the “brightest,” whatever that means.

Finally, spread your application list a bit across dream, reach, and safety schools. Ask the aforementioned assistant professors and TAs what your reach school is. They know both you and the state of competition, thus able to give accurate estimates. Plus, by asking them to assess your chances, you get a glimpse into how enthusiastic their recommendation letters will be.


I recently noticed how bizarre it is that I have stopped writing much, leaving this blog to languish and despair, despite the fact that writing is the single most important skill to my current career as a graduate student. Too shamed by my own long-held belief of writing as a craft, and hence can and should be practiced into perfection, I am skipping my weekly gaming session, administering a reddit diet, and writing this very line before your eyes.

So, here we go, QA’s Q&A \#5 (you can read more about this series here)


How this Q&A works

As someone who has just finished his own graduate school application last year, I can assure you that the Internet has all the answers. What it is not so good at doing, and which this blog will accomplish, is to tell you what questions to ask. As you upperclassmen already knew, time is a scarce resource — so focus on the important things.

The first version of this entry will address questions I’ve been asked by friends. Should you have any other, please leave a comment and I will add the answer to the entry.

Note: What’s written here is most true for Social Sciences in the United States. I am currently (will be for a while) a graduate student in Political Science at Duke University.


1. The big picture

Here are the factors of an application, in order of relative importance:

  1. Letters of Recommendation (LoR)
  2. Statement of Purpose (SoP)
  3. Research Experience
  4. GRE Score

What this kind of list obscures is that the first three factors – Letters, Statement, and Research – are closely related, and thus similarly valued. (GRE score is only a distant runner-up.)

Thus, one should not prepare the letters, then prepare the SoP, while juggling his research paper as if they were all separate things. All three have a mutual genesis, as explained below.


The best way to become a grad student is to act like one

Insert anything in life in place of “grad student” and this principle still holds true. The admission committee is most interested in knowing whether you will do well as a grad student. To make life even simpler, there is only one thing that they do: research.

Hence, to assure them of your potential, simply do one thing very well: research.

LoR will be a natural result of your research experience. Frequent interaction with professors during research projects is the best and most genuine way to let them know of your intellectual capacity and work ethics. There is really no trick nor shortcut to a good letter.

Similarly, your SoP will most likely grow from your research. Despite its name, a SoP is not a declaration of what you will actually do. Rather, it is to show that you understand the field, that you know what doing research actually means, and that you are able to conceive of and present scholarly ideas. Once again, doing research is the best way to learn (and to show that you’ve learned) all these things.

Because of this interconnectedness, preparing for graduate school application is a very holistic process. Start as early as possible (but {3^{rd}}year is not too late), approach professors whose class or research intrigue you, ask to participate in a project or to formulate your own. Very naturally, while doing research you will become familiar with certain topics, identify flaws in existing literature, come up with ideas of your own, which will serve as your future SoP material. In the mean time, you will also learn how to handle large amount of writing and, doing all this very well, earning the good graces (and good letters) of your professors.

Keep doing this until your senior year (with a brief intermission for focused GRE preparation), and by the time you actually need to ask for LoR and to write SoP, it will simply be hitting the switch of a well-oiled, multi-part machine that you have been putting together for years.


2. Letter of Recommendation

Quick answers to some FAQs on LoR.

  • {How many letters?}Most schools ask for three academic letters. Some will accept the third one from outside the university. Consequently, have in mind three professors and try to write research paper with them (in or out of class). Discuss ideas with them frequently and drop hints at your plan for graduate school (all this will come up naturally, if not inevitably, during your research.)

    Invest in the relationship. Having a backup {4^{th}} is reasonable, but do not spread more than that. You will barely have time and energy to research with three professors anyway.


  • {Who should I ask?}As in more general cases, the ones that know you best. Here in particular, that means the ones you have done research with. Ones whose class you aced is an okay substitute, but if the class is merely of the lecture/midterm/final format, the professor will not be able to comment on your research ability.

    Good class taker {\neq} Good researcher

    … and adcom cares only about the latter


  • {How early should I ask?}As referred to above, let them know of your plan some time in your junior year while working together. Then by senior’s fall, it would no longer be a surprise to everyone and need no explanation.


3. Statement of Purpose

Consult the Internet. Feel free to ask questions if you have any.


4. GRE

How important is it?

To your ability to succeed in graduate school – absolutely none. To your chance to get admitted into graduate school – somewhat.

During my post-admittance visits, I have been told by adcoms that GRE is mostly used to weed out the egregious cases and to provide some gauge for international students. Therefore, anything above 650 (old score) is good enough, and 800 makes little difference over 700.


How to study

It is not any different to any other test in the world – the best way to prepare for one is to have a lot of practice with it.

There is a very useful mental approach while laboring through GRE, however. Remember this obvious thing: your goal is to get the highest score, period. Less obvious is that this means you should not waste time criticizing (or feeling critical) about the logic of the answers or the triviality of the test. None of that helps realizing your only goal: get the highest score, period. Your job is not to defend logic, but to internalize their logic.

Reserve that truth-craving for your research instead.

(work in progress…)

Hi em,
The other day, I am thinking about this old, familiar topic: Money and Happiness. Naturally, the very common question arises: Can money buy happiness?
I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks em.

– Huy

Dear anh Huy,

I am indeed honored by your decision to direct this question to me, a 19-year-old that thinks too much for his own good, and whose only experience with hard-earned money comes from his one-semester stint as a waiter in the university restaurant. (He has picked up various jobs ever since, from tutor, IT, to research assistant – jobs that line his pocket more but develop his character less.)

I am none but a person in the making, a puzzle in the solving, and a life in the living. Really, what do I have to say about happiness?

Do not trust me. Take every word of mine with relentless skepticism, because what is at stake is your happiness, your primary pursuit in life– don’t you let anyone meddle with it.

But enough with the caveats. I must be careful not to be so good with my admonitions that you will leave this instant. Without further ado, here is QA’s Q&A #4: Can Money buy Happiness?


For most people, the answer would seem to be yes.

The argument often comes in two veins. The first is proof by contradiction: If you did not have money for basic subsistence and amenities, you could not be happy. The second invokes the liberating effect of money: more cash means more control over your life. Compelling, isn’t it?

Yet equally compelling is the sudden pangs of anxiety that we suffer everyday. When we are upset, we long for happy days. When we are happy, we fear that it will not last. Telling ourselves repeatedly to not be so sad wouldn’t help. Chiding ourselves  for being  so dark wouldn’t lighten things up. These emotional crises would eventually disappear, as inexplicably as they emerged, but they would lurk behind every corner of our lives, ready to assault us in moments of vulnerability. We are completely at their mercy.

How do we make sense of this mess? Don’t I make twice the money I used to? Am I not promoted to the position I strove for? Maybe it’s not enough– yet. Maybe if only I could make a little more money, if only I could have a little nicer car, if only I could have a little bigger house. Then I would be happy.

And so people launch their lives in full force in pursuit of these “if only”. I have done that myself– so many times. In 8th grade, I thought that if only I could win the Chemistry Competition my life would be perfect. In 9th grade, I thought that if only I could get into Ams my life would be perfect (“thiên đường giải trí” was how us aspirant Amsers dubbed life after the entrance test). In high school, I thought that if only I could score 2000 SAT and get into a top 100 school, my life would be perfect.

I managed to fulfill every single one, and even more than that. Is my life perfect? Oh no. No one’s is. No one feels that his life is perfect. We always got some other “if only” to chase behind.

The problem with money is that it is nothing but another “if only”, another external thing in which (we keep hoping) lies true happiness, true happiness that is filled with content and barred from anxiety. After repeated failure with money and material goods, we may search for happiness in something subtler, like a meaningful job, or a perfect girlfriend. It is harder to dismiss these things. An increase in salary can be easily seen; thus its failure to make you happy is too blunt to equivocate. But a soul mate– how do you measure that? If a girl ends up disappointing you, it’s so much easier to label her as false positive and to shove her away in your dusty shelf of thought-to-be-true-loves. Thus most people keep leading their lives at this stage: disappointed with money, searching for some meaning of life, but never find anything that lasts.

Of course they cannot find anything that lasts, for there is nothing to be found. All of these things – from the crude (bonus, car, vacation) to the subtle (friends, lover, security) – they are all external to us. They are things in life, life that is essentially impermanent, life that has so little certainty. And yet we keep resisting this inexorable truth, and yet we keep running against the flow of inevitability, searching for more control even though it can’t be complete, clinging to ideals even though all else will fade away. We suffer because of this doggedness against life, only to be in favor of the self.

So no, I don’t think money can buy happiness. Neither can any other goals and desires, no matter how noble they may seem. Anxiety, our arch enemy, will keep stalking every step as long as we believe that there is happiness to be found in external and perishable things. Most people, after 50 years or so of living, realize that there is something wrong with such approach: the phenomenon is called the mid-life crisis (“Oh my God I only have half of my life left. What have I been doing with the first!?”). We can recreate the imminence of death faced by these people by seriously asking, “What if I died tomorrow?” Is there anything, anyone outside you that can make you feel OK about being done, gone, forgotten?

Well, you may wince and protest that this is such a dark outlook on life. Why think like this? But asking this question is like telling a depressed person: “Why be sad? Why can’t you be happy like I am?” It’s not solving the problem. Yet it is also crucial to realize that not everyone has the problem. Not everyone leaves his home to wander in the streets after learning that he got into Ams, perplexedly asking “Is this all there is?” Not everyone feels so down and void after watching a comedy and having a genuinely good laugh, heavily sighing “What now?”

Not everyone needs a solution. Many can be OK with going after one goal after another without much questioning.* If you are truly happy about whatever you are doing, be it getting rich or winning girls, just keep on doing it.

But then why do you ask this question in the first place?


* I once wish if only I could be like them- carefree and not so skeptical, my life would be perfect. We know how that one works out.

If we want to change ourselves we’ll have to first accept it as it is, for change out of love is improvement. Out of hate it is destruction.

A spin-off from the original question: Should girls not attempt a Ph.D. so that she can have a better chance getting married?

Now, after this exhaustive (and exhausting) discussion of the original question, I must caution myself with the wise words of Johnathan Alter: “Logic can convince, but only emotions can motivate”, which is infinitely truer if females are involved.

I do not have any statistics to convince you Ph.D.-aspiring girls out there that not all guys consider it a negative trait, that your worry does nothing but bring wrinkles that neither of us wants to see. But I can, indeed should, draw a picture that is worth 1000 statistics.

Because I think an intelligent girl is the sexiest kind. It escapes me how people can cringe at the wonderful prospect of a Ph.D. marriage, in which both would go to school, come home early, and prepare (together, of course) a dinner with candles and roses and table cloth and wine glasses and Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 playing in the background.

You’d talk about Truth and Beauty. You’d stand above real-life trivialities. You’d take her hand in yours, playing with the lovely fingers that you know so well, and look deep into her eyes whispering: “If Socrates had known you like I do, he wouldn’t have had so much trouble defining happiness.” Your fiance, actually knowing who Socrates is, would take that as the sweetest thing to say. She’d draw you nearer. You’d only object that it’s not nearly near enough. And you’d trace the contour of her face with both your fingers and your eyes, around the smiling lips, and towards her ears. You’d linger a half-second on her neck, and you would swiftly, swiftly, but gently…gently… lift her face near against yours. So near you can feel her gasping breath so tender that only Monet’s brushstroke can compare, and yet so wild that only inflation after the Asian 1997 crisis can rival.

Then, the moment of touch – and the world just stops making sense.

You’d finally nuzzle up to her ears, smile, and promise her an experience as stimulating as your earlier intellectual conversation, only of a different kind. (Camera refocuses onto the ceiling please. Light down please. Okay good.)

If that’s not Ph.D. love, I don’t know what is.

Either you can have that, or you can have the white-collar employee marriage, which involves hectic morning and spilled coffee and traffic jam and under-appreciative boss and over-compensate peers and traffic jam (again) and exhausted evening and left-overs (or take-outs) and, finally, bed (read: sleeping). All and all to prepare for, you know what, another hectic morning.

Of course the NOGPs can then turn the entire passage above into a scare campaign, featuring the poster below.

Oh well, at least my nuptial qualifications aren’t for you to judge, dudes.

It’s a simple question: should girls not attempt a Ph.D. so that she can have a better chance getting married?

– Milkie

Dear Milkie,

You clearly know how to pose a question to QA’s Q&A, asking about two things that I care the most: Ph.D. and girls, not ranked in that respective order. (Mom, just in case you’re reading, I love you too).

It’s amazing that the debate on over-educated females, if such a concept is even warranted, has never really reached a conclusion despite the unmistakable intelligence of the participants (it’s Ph.D. aspirants who are arguing, right?) I will thus hereafter attempt to lay the quarrel to rest, once and for all.

A final note must be made to justify my approach to solving the issue. I can easily write an ornate entry full of rhetoric so flowery, and emotions so contagious that upon finishing you’ll feel that life is not complete until you’ve taken the GRE. But that won’t put us an inch closer to resolving the debate, because if the question is to be raised again elsewhere, we can’t win an argument by proclaiming “But I feel so strongly about it!” Therefore, this entry won’t be crafted to indulge your literary taste buds, but to dissect, and lay bare, the faulty logical anatomy of every single no-PhD-for-girl argument that has been mounted. Of course, being no expert, I may miss one or two arguments, and is thus open to enlightenment. But the point remains: the debate can only be solved via point-by-point assessment. You can always skip to the point that perplex you the most, too.

Here we go, the third installment of the QA’s Q&A series.


So, should girls not attempt a Ph.D. so that she can have a better chance getting married?

Without even delving into the argument, this question has already presupposed an erroneous assumption: girls are better off getting married. There are two ways you can justify this claim, both of which, as will be shown, are problematic.

1) Social constraints: society imposes a certain stigma over unmarried women, which translates into real and observable pressure, such from worried parents, over-solicitous aunts, or just gossip in the neighborhood. As I said, these pressures against women are admittedly real.

However, note that the question at heart is precisely whether we should change the social construct to free women of that stigma. To say  that we shouldn’t change the system, because that how the system currently functions, is to support your position with none but a reiteration of the position itself. This is also a classic example of the is-ought fallacy: how things are is not how things ought to be. (Illuminating example: a slave will be killed if he disobeys the system does not translate into slaves should therefore stay within the system.)

2) Some other objective reasons (e.g. biological): some argue that women are better off getting married because they are designed to be so, either psychologically, biologically or in some other objective manners. This argument admittedly circumvent the above fallacy.

And yet, isn’t the question whether women are better off best answered by women themselves? Aren’t they the one that have the most information about their preferences? Who are we to assume that we know the female mind better? Such is the an all-time fallacy in patriarchal arguments since the dawn of society, one that is particularly insidious because it clothes itself under the veneer of wanting the best for women.

Therefore, as demonstrated, the discouragement of girls getting Ph.D. starts out with a suspicious assumption right off the bat. But to stop the discussion here is too easy for the challenge to be interesting, and will also gloss over many interesting points raised by the camp of no-over-educated-girl-please (hereafter referred to as the NOGPs) So I will generously concede to you this assumption, so we can move on to substantive arguments.

More after the jump. Got a question? Email away at anh.le91 @




All of the NOGPs’ arguments can be said to converge in one point: attempting a Ph.D. will limit the girl’s chance of finding a spouse. After perusing the extensive scholarly literature on the topic (read Facebook), I can identify three major strands that support the point above. Please advice if I miss any.

1) Getting a Ph.D. makes you raise your standards too high.

2) Getting a Ph.D. makes you too intimidating to guys (in Vietnam, for the sake of convenience).

3) Getting a Ph.D. makes you miss that 20-something critical period for marriage.

Let’s roll up our sleeves, and dissect, X-ray, C-scan these arguments to see what lurks behind them.


1. Getting a Ph.D. makes you raise your standards too high.

An obvious, easy way to counter this argument is to claim that no, Ph.D. students aren’t snobby elitists that look down on people. But again, that’s too easy (and probably not too false either), so I won’t go down that road.

Now, if we follow the argument, it presupposes that raised standard is something bad. It limits your chance of getting married. So, may I humbly ask, isn’t the logical implication is that it’s best for us to lower our standards as much as possible, so that we can be content with whichever spouse we can get our hands on? Will that not maximize our chances of getting married, which is what NOGPs seem to prize so much?

At this point a NOGP can rightly protest: but that is reductio ad absurdum, man. The point is not to maximize to the extreme, but about a balance between the height of your standards and the scope of your potential match. If you raise the standards too high, the scope will become too small.

Yes, dear critic, it’s all about a balance, which is another way of saying that there is no fixed formula. When does the pool become too small? How do we know? Indeed, he satisfactory level of the scope is not even the same for every female, and yet we claim that everyone should go one way or another.

Honestly, whenever an argument comes down to balancing, it will always be a choice of the individual, who is best situated to know which distribution is good for him or her. Please take note, because this balancing issue will reappear.

2) Getting a Ph.D. makes you too intimidating to guys (in Vietnam, for the sake of convenience)

If we surgically examine the reason why a Ph.D. girl is intimidating to guys, and it turns out once again to be the social stigma, then please refer back to the first point in the assumption discussion. Guys will just be not intimidated any longer if we decide to change the system and remove the stigma. However, this is easy part.

What makes the argument much harder to counter is the reasonable claim that it is in their political interests for guys to not like over-educated girls. Once it is a matter of material interest, and no longer of social construct, then guys will forever not like over-educated women, turning having a Ph.D. into a real negative marital trait.

I will responsibly surrender to this argument. If indeed all guys are forever averse to Ph.D. girl, then, yeah – don’t get it, because having a Ph.D. then is just simply another negative trait like being extremely insensitive or annoying or whatever. There is nothing morally wrong with being annoying, but you shouldn’t be anyway, just because people will hate you.

But if not all, but only a majority of guys dislike Ph.D. girls, then the question boomeranged back to balancing, because the goal of a girl in life is not to be attractive to a majority of guys. She’ll have to judge for herself how widely appealing she’d like to be. Some can be perfectly happy with just the one (or the two – or the ten – depending on whom we’re talking about.)

3) Getting a Ph.D. makes you miss that 20-something critical period for marriage.

Why is that period critical?

Some argue that’s when parents nag all the times, friends get married all over, and you’ll pressured if not getting married. This social aspect has been dealt with above.

Others say that this is when most people are available for courting. I don’t understand why a 20-something Ph.D student is not court-able – I would even contend that she’s the sexiest kind (will do here). Considering the fact that as an employee, you’ll have to exhaust yourself plowing 8 hours a day in your cubicle, I wonder if that’s really the ideal environment for courting (vis-a-vis the lush greenery, ancient castles, and utmost tranquility of a university setting.)

Finally, a few argue that this period is biologically ripe for marriage. What does that mean, biologically ripe? If that’s about looks and stuff, I would say ~18 is the fullest – why not then? If that’s about procreative capability (gotta congratulate myself for coming up with the euphemism), well, I concede.


Final words: As feminist as I sound in the post, anyone that knows me well can (unfortunately) testify against that. I only attempt to settle a pestilent debate here, trying to defend the truth, and not the females (my sincerest apology, ladies.) Thus, I am very open to any criticism about my argument, as well as any points made by the NOGPs that I did not mention.

After all, I care more about learning the truth than being the object of female affection. But that does not hurt either.


Update Nov. 15: A highly interesting and relevant article in The New Yorker, graciously introduced to us by Minh Trinh in the comments below 😀
“Hehe em vừa đọc được một bài rất cute về a PhD marriage. Nhân vật chính là Paul và Patricia Churchland (technically thì Paul là PhD còn Pat là B.Phil at Oxford). Đọc rất thú vị, kiểu hai bác gặp nhau trong academic context, woo nhau bằng knowledge và lấy nhau để complement each other’s studies. Họ nuôi dạy con trẻ bằng science và đối thoại với nhau bằng technical jargons. Tóm lại là as a couple they are both intellectually and emotionally fulfilled.”

The article can be viewed online at:

Macfarquhar, Larissa. “Two Heads: a Marriage Devoted to the Mind-Body Problem.” New Yorker February 12, 2007,58-69.

Got a question? Email away at anh.le91 @

I am taking this class on globalization, reading “Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization” by Nayan Chanda. Here’s a question raised in an assignment:

In Chapter 6, Chanda shows how governments, nations, empires often make “claims to universalism”.  What does he mean?  Give specific examples of such “claims to universalism” that you know and critique them.

What are your take on the issue?
– Anh Thái


Lately, I’ve already been undertaking an obscene amount of reading (the intellectually provoking kinds, the likes of  “Organski’s Power Transition theory”, or “Gnial’s PvT Fast Stalker into Void Rays. ) And yet I did pick up and read the book, risking a severe case of acute word choking. So if I am to be found a dead corpse in my room, mouth foaming with knowledge and insights – dear lovers and friends, you guys know who to wage your revenge on. (Don’t worry, anh Thai, there aren’t that many.)

Anyhow, without further ado, here comes the second installment of the QA’s Q&A series.


Dear anh Thai,

There is the truth, and then there is politics. Let’s start with the easy thing first (i.e. politics)

Is it even surprising that empires have a penchant for universalist claims? In their rising stage, global empires need something to justify their expansionist policies – something ideal, something noble – something that rises beyond the morally unappealing pragmatism of booty and power. They need such something to unite and persuade their warriors and citizens as much as the conquered. For Plato, it is the idea that non-Greek barbaros (those who can’t speak Greek and only say what sounds like “bar bar”) are, well, barbarians and less than human. For Alexander the Great, it is his self-belief to be mankind’s arbitrator and reconciler sent by God. For Genghis Khan, it is simply the “God-given right” to conquer (Chanda 178, 185).

And for the U.S., I don’t know, perhaps it is the idea that “we are the greatest, best country that God has ever, ever, given man on the face of this Earth.”

Once an empire has secured its hegemonic status, it is no less politically motivated to employ universalist claims as a means to perpetuate the status quo. What is a better tool than a claim that simply demands, with little justification, universal submission to the values and order established by the empire itself? One can only expect secondary powers, or developing states, to appeal to the exactly opposite kind of rhetoric, one that emphasizes sovereignty and autonomy in the so-called “internal affairs.” This has been, unsurprisingly, the pattern in the human rights discourse between the U.S. and China, (or U.S. and Vietnam for that matter.)

So power politics is largely capable of explaining the empire’s and its resistors’ behaviors. But politics cannot answer the philosophical question: whether those universalist claims are true? Just because nations are politically motivated, doesn’t mean that their claims are necessarily false (just as your ex is emotionally motivated to say you’re a jerk, doesn’t mean that, well, she is not right.)

Luckily, some universalist claims are rather easily testable. Take, for example, the U.S. claim that it has a moral obligation to spread democracy, because democracies are more peaceful. All we need to do is to collect a bunch of data, and run a regression between being a democracy and the likelihood of going to war. The Correlates of War project, pioneered by Small and Singer, does precisely just that. The study concludes: democracies fight just as many, and just as bloody war. But, (an emphatic but) democracies do engage in less wars with one another. And yet again, maybe democracies fight less because they don’t share border for most of history, not because they are democracies (Small and Singer 67). Of course, we can then control for “contiguity” (or any other problematic variables) in your regression – that’s what scholars need to continue working on. The key point remains: whereas research has continued, and disagreement has yet to disappeared, on principle, the claim of “democratic peace” can be tested.

But what about claims such as that of universal human rights? Is it possible for countries to have its own version of “human rights” that suit their cultural and historical legacy? Or is human rights, as its name suggests, something every human is entitled to without difference? If so, who gets to decided which rights are universal?

These are philosophical questions that I’m not going to pretend that I can answer. I did broach the topic, arguing for the need for (not the existence of) universal values in a polemic entry against relativism. (See the exchange between me and anh neosvn towards the end of the comment section.) But that’s more like a call to arms – an urge to investigate, rather than a victorious declaration – a resolve of disputes. To answer these fundamental questions, we must enter into the debate of ontology (what are the nature of things?) and epistemology (how do we know what we know?) – in which philosophers have set up various camps throughout history. We have, to name a few, positivism (there is objective truth; and only what can be tested is true), constructivism (there is no objective truth; everything is socially constructed), and pragmatism (objective truth does not matter; theories are true if they help us accomplish practically) (Chernoff Ch. 3-4).

On the issue, I am not unlike a boy after his first day at school – fascinated, but utterly unlettered. So I will wisely stop now before I abuse my limited knowledge of the matter, like the boy babbling about how much he learns (or worse, knows) today. I have grown up way too much for that to be still considered cute.

Darn it.



Chanda, Nyan. Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization. Yale University Press. 2007.

Chernoff, Fred. Theory and Metatheory in International Relations: Concepts and Contending Accounts. Palgrave Macmillan. 2007.

Small and Singer. “The War-Proneness of Democratic Regimes, 1816-1965”. The Jerusalem Journal of International Relations. Vol. 1, No. 4, Summer 1976.


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