Williamson’s Advice to Ph.D. Students

By John de Figueiredo*

As I reflect on Oliver Williamson’s contributions to academics, I realize that he was not only an outstanding scholar, but he was also a generous mentor—generous with his time, generous with his patience, generous with his empathy, and generous with his insights. As one of his Ph.D. student in the 1990’s, I benefited from his generosity, and in this short essay, I share with today’s Ph.D. students the advice that Williamson bestowed upon me.

I rummaged through my papers and old files from my graduate school days and found numerous papers with Williamson’s comments. Many of these comments reflect some excellent advice to all Ph.D. students.

Year 1: In my first year of graduate school, I took Williamson’s “Economic Institutions of Capitalism” course. On my final paper on a theory of hybrids, Williamson notes: “This is a very ambitious paper. Lots of loose ends as it reads presently. But you should develop the microanalytics more completely and persevere.” The message to a young and inexperienced Ph.D. student: Tackle questions that can be answered in a dissertation; don’t try to change the world in one paper.

Year 2: In my second year of graduate school, Williamson and I discussed his being my advisor. He gave me a copy of his dissertation and inscribed inside, amongst other things. “Start with Chap. 4 and work [out] both ways.” An inspection of Williamson’s dissertation from 1963 shows that Chapter 4 contained an incremental improvement on a standard profit-maximizing model of the firm, incorporating managerial discretion. As one moves out from Chapter 4 to other parts of the dissertation, the essays build upon the core ideas and model presented in Chapter 4. The message to an eager Ph.D. student: Start with a widely-accepted model of a behavior and then make modest, yet believable, modifications, one at a time, to build a new theory of a phenomenon.

Year 3: In the third year of graduate school, I submitted a dissertation proposal for Williamson’s review. He provided extensive comments, closing with, “[Perhaps pursue this] more through stages: Informal, Preformal, Semi-Formal, and Fully Formal, and try to keep them distinct.” The message to a confused Ph.D. student: Find an interesting phenomenon, describe how it works (“what is going on here?”), build out the mechanisms clearly, then make those mechanisms formal and rigorous.

Year 4: In the fourth year of graduate school, as I toiled through the papers of my dissertation, I would meet with Williamson on a regular basis, looking for ways to accelerate the pace of the research, hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel. Williamson would often comment on the drafts of papers, encouraging me to be “modest, slow, molecular and definitive.” The message to an anxious Ph.D. student: In the desire to graduate with a Ph.D., do not move too quickly or superficially; be careful, cumulative, and definitive.

Year 5: A the end of my fifth year of graduate school, I met with Williamson in his office to obtain his signature, the final signature, on my dissertation. I brought two glasses and a small bottle of champagne. After he signed, I popped the cork and asked him, “May I call you Oliver?” He said, “Yes, I think that it is about that time.” As we drank champagne, he gave me the final piece of advice as a graduating Ph.D. student about to enter the academy. I remember Oliver’s advice as, “The tenure clock is short. The time it takes to fully develop a novel idea is long. The time it takes to convince others is even longer. Don’t be in a hurry. You are running a marathon. Listen to critiques. Persevere.”

Oliver was brilliant in his ideas, demanding in his expectations, munificent with his time, gentle in his critiques, and modest in his fame. Though his life was limited, his lessons for Ph.D. students are timeless.


*John de Figueiredo is the Russell M. Robinson II Professor of Law, Strategy, and Economics at Duke University, was President of SIOE from 2014-2015, and was a Ph.D. student of Oliver Williamson in the 1990’s.