For the purpose of a research project, I have been reading a lot of literature on locational equilibrium sorting in public economics. While the topic is fascinating, it is easy to get lost in piles of papers without understanding how they unify under the same overarching theme. Since reading structural papers is likely to be a challenge for many economics PhD students, I thought it might be useful to share my thoughts on how to do it effectively.
The purpose of reading others’ papers is not to produce a thorough summary of their work but to critically assess the status quo of the literature and what you can contribute. I have found the following steps useful for achieving this goal.
Step 1: Bird’s Eye View
Start with the review papers. If the topic is well researched, it should have a summary paper (look for Journal of Economic Perspectives/Journal of Economic Literature/handbook chapters). Focus on the fundamental assumptions made in each class of models. Make a list of papers for further reading based on the bibliography of the review paper.
Step 2: Divide and Conquer
For each paper on the “to read” list, read its bare bones and understand the key message. Clearly outline the model assumptions (and whether they are made as abstraction or due to data limitation), data availability, and empirical approach.
Step 3: Say it in Your Words
After you feel you have a good understanding of the class of structural models, try to synthesize the papers by describing them in writing. Focus on how they are linked to each other, and critically assess the pros and cons of each approach.
Step 4: Make the Link to Your Research
By the end of step 3, you should have a fairly clear understanding of which approach (if any) is best suited to your own research, and how your research contributes to the existing literature.