Joshua Hall’s Perspective on Economics and Mentoring in Academia

A lightbulb moment in an undergraduate macroeconomics class sparked Joshua Hall’s interest in economics. Concepts that Hall had previously struggled to grasp suddenly clicked for him and, soon after that, he was a self-identified economics major.

Before Hall discovered the appeal of economics, he imagined becoming a hockey coach or history teacher. As Hall’s interest in economics blossomed, he started to consider teaching at the college level.

Josh Hall Headshot
Josh Hall

However, an academic advisor discouraged him from pursuing a career in academia, suggesting that he would not succeed in such a competitive job market.

Hall soon discovered that this was terrible advice. “I’m really enjoying interacting with students,” Hall realized. “If I want to have a career, I need to get a PhD.” After working as a policy analyst and economist for the Joint Economic Committee and pursuing other ventures, Hall continued his study of economics at West Virginia University and obtained his PhD.

The Institute for Humane Studies supported Hall along the way through fellowships and seminars. “I feel very fortunate to have been a Humane Studies Fellow and a Summer Research Fellow during my three years of doctoral work,” Hall expressed. In fact, an IHS fellowship might have helped secure Hall’s admittance into WVU’s PhD program.

Josh Hall as a Humane Studies Fellow in 2005.

IHS gave me money for grad school before WVU did. I didn’t get into WVU, even though it was the only place I applied to, until maybe like early May… So I think that was very helpful in pushing them to give me funding.

– Josh Hall

Hall said he was also fortunate to have mentors who encouraged him to explore his skills and set reasonable expectations. His mentors included Richard K. Vedder, his macroeconomics instructor at Ohio University, and Robert A. Lawson, a fellow economist at the Fraser Institute and faculty partner of IHS. “I think people need to have many mentors because, really, it’s about exercising good judgment,” Hall said. “There are often no ‘right’ answers.” Hall recommends that students weigh advice from multiple mentors and the students’ own preferences and understanding of their situation.

Hall says that two essential aspects of being a mentor are being available and asking questions. He regularly meets with dissertation advisees to discuss classes, teaching, research, and any roadblocks they may be facing.

“So much of higher ed and research is about things that don’t appear on a syllabus,” Hall explained. “And unless you’re just kind of going over things all the time, it’s hard to figure out what the hidden curriculum is of higher ed.” Often he advises students to set reasonable expectations and goals, make themselves seen as very productive, and understand where the market is slotting them based on their institution and the job market.

Josh Hall meeting with graduate students in 2018.
Josh Hall delivering a lecture in 2018.

“It’s like lifting weights; you can’t start bench pressing 360 pounds. And I think anybody looks at people who are established in their field and says, ‘how can I be that person? I struggle doing what I can now.’ But if you take it as ‘I’m going to just keep getting better and I’m going to keep getting more efficient,’ suddenly you become that person.

– Josh Hall

When it comes to teaching, one of Hall’s goals is to get his students to see how economics explains the world around them. Hall believes that every young person wants not only to find their place in the world but also to feel that there’s order in the world. He argues that economics can help explain a lot of puzzles which seemingly make no sense.

My favorite part about teaching is getting students as excited as I am about some aspect of the economic way of thinking. One of the things that excites me most about economics is it applies to everything. And so I feel like I’m not doing my job if I can’t find a way to get my hooks into that student—not to become a major or anything, but—just for them to see the intellectual enterprise and the value of the economic way of thinking.

– Josh Hall

Before returning to teach at his alma mater, West Virginia University, Hall was the Elbert H. Neese, Jr. Professor of Economics at Beloit College. He is now an economics professor, associate dean of research, and chair of the Department of Economics in the John Chambers College of Business and Economics at West Virginia University.

In addition to his work at West Virginia University, Hall’s dedication to scholarship extends to his research as an economist. He has coauthored and edited a number of publications including multiple Economic Freedom of the World annual reports and, most recently, Essays on Government Growth: Political Institutions, Evolving Markets, and Technology. He is editor of the Journal of Regional Analysis & Policy and is the author or co-author of over 100 articles in journals such as Public Choice, Contemporary Economic Policy, and Applied Economics. His most recent research project uses satellite data measuring luminosity at night to determine how changes in government affect economic activity in Somalia.

The Institute for Humane Studies awarded Hall the Charles G. Koch Outstanding IHS Alum Award in 2016 for his contributions to classical liberal scholarship. He has continued to work with IHS as a contributing scholar at research workshops and seminars and as a faculty mentor at student events. “I feel very fortunate to have not only gone to IHS seminars, but also come back as a faculty member,” Hall said.

Hall first learned about IHS from a Summer Seminar card on the bulletin board outside of Ohio University’s economics offices. Hall applied to IHS Summer Seminars every year as an undergraduate student but, due to exam schedule conflicts, could not attend until the end of his senior year in 1997. Speakers that year included Professors David E. Bernstein, Peter Boettke, Tyler Cowen, and David Schmidtz.

Josh Hall standing by the Charles G. Koch Outstanding IHS Alum Award “hall of fame” at IHS.

I drove to Arlington and I went to my first IHS seminar and it was pretty transformative… It was the first time I realized that there were so many names in classical liberalism I did not know. I remember we did a little icebreaker where people choose their favorite classical liberal and then segment off in the room and talk about those people. And I chose Thomas Sowell and I was all by myself… I really learned a lot that week, and I just remember being totally jazzed driving back to campus to attend graduation at the end of that week… I just think how my life would have been different had I had a final that week and had to have stayed in Athens and not gone to my first IHS seminar.

– Josh Hall

The Summer Seminar was not his first introduction to the classical liberal tradition, however. Hall discovered classical liberalism after an eye-opening experience in a high school political philosophy class where he realized that he did not fit squarely into the “right” or “left” side of politics. In that class, the teacher and all other students—except for Hall—shared the same view on most issues. However, there were a few instances where Hall agreed with his teacher and classmates, much to their surprise.

“And the fact that I couldn’t fit that line of what the conservative was for them on drug legalization or a variety of different other topics, really kind of set me out in search of other things,” Hall says. “And so, when I kind of came to econ, it just kind of fit with a lot of the things I already understood from these kind of intro classical liberalism readings.” After that, Hall began reading works by classical liberal scholars and found commonality within the pages.

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more spotlights on scholars, faculty partners, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

IHS 60th Anniversary

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