So I promised Mar that I would write and describe how America has been. I thought I'd do it here and point people at it via email.
First of all, sorry I haven't been more talkative before... but work here is intense. The term finished last Friday with a 3 hour exam. Before that I'd had 5 other exams, plus 3 homeworks every week - most of which took at least a day to complete, often more. Not much time for anything but work; I've barely seen Chicago, for example.
The upside is that you learn a lot. I am slowly putting together a toolkit for formal theory. My scorecard so far - this is all on the mathematical side of things, ignoring the economics and political science for the moment:
unconstrained optimization [X]
constrained optimization [X]
linear programming [X]
fixed point theorems [X]
convexity [ ]
differential equations [ ]
probability [ ]
statistics [ ]
Of course there's lots more (and the last two are big gaps which I may not even begin to fill this year). But all these things should help. The next stage is really to get practice in using these things to do social science. So next term I'm taking a credit in independent study with David Austen-Smith. I'm hoping to look at how migration interacts with politics in non-democratic settings. Right now I'm getting a reading list of papers together: the idea is, I present them to him and we discuss them. I also want to try to develop a model myself.
So this is all very exciting. The people I mostly hang around with here are the first year economics PhDs. They are smart, usually straight out of school and with a variety of backgrounds - in particular, different mathematical levels, some are almost as bad as me, and some are going to graduate level algebraic topology courses in the Maths department. (I've had a fabulous course in real analysis from the same place.) Nobody is really sure what they are going to write about - all are too busy doing coursework. Thesis comes later.
I'm also getting to see economics from the inside. It's very interesting. We tend to think of economics as imperialists - well, my preferred metaphor is barbarians from the steppes. In fact they are facing a bit of an internal challenge themselves, from more empirical work in experimental economics which tends to link up with psychology. There is also, as far as I can see, a feeling in the discipline that "economic theory" (i.e. the very abstract mathematical modelling side of things) has got rather out of control and out of touch. (I'm sure the feeling's not universal.) Interesting to see what will happen from here on. Despite all this, my mental map of the discipline is still very unclear. Something like: neoclassical revival 60s-70s [?], then along come game theory and economics of information, plus experimental economics. But I don't know the exact order of events, or how all these pieces fit together, or how they fit with e.g. public choice and political economy.
So that's the academic side. Soon I'll blog about the rest. But in all honesty, the academic side is 80% of it.
(Oh, one footnote... now term has finished I'm doing some of my own work, purely empirical... and I think I have an interesting positive result! w00t.)