One of the great aspects of my job is that I get to talk to students from a variety of institutions when I visit different campuses or attend conferences through IHS, FEE and APEE. I just returned from such a conference. Normally APEE would be a meeting ground for professors and graduate students, but in recent years it has become increasingly common for faculty to bring with them some of their best undergraduate students. Now APEE sponsored an undergraduate paper competition which highlights the undergraduate research even more.
When talking to graduate students from other programs, the focus has always been on their dissertations and how to climb the professional ladder post dissertation. But with undergraduate students the range of questions is much more basic. It can run from what books should I be reading to what school I should be attending for graduate school.
If you meet undergraduate students at these programs, then there is already a bit of a self-selection bias going on. They most likely have a very dynamic professor, who has taught them to get excited about economic ideas and the debates that animate professional economics (whether they are methodological, analytical, or policy). They are enthusiastic about economics and since to be selected by their professor to attend such a meeting as APEE implies that they are good students, they also tend to be confident. And why shouldn't they be?
This is a competitive endeavor and it is not easy to rise to the challenge that the economics profession puts up in front of you to be a success. Not every McDonald's All American gets to the NBA, and not every HS or college All-Star can actually hit a major league split-fingered fast ball. And not every straight A student in college can succeed in graduate school, nor do most PhDs ever publish anything that would warrant appointment in another PhD granting institution. Mathematically acuity is a pre-requisite for competing in economics, not a guarantee. Every student there competing with you will have a mathematical acuity otherwise they wouldn't be there in a PhD program in economics (even at a relatively low tech program). Technique isn't the driver of success, work ethic and willingness to tackle hard and interesting problems is. Technique is a good servant to thought, not a substitute and certainly a horrible master.
I consider being an academic economists and professor the greatest job in the world. It no doubt has its headaches as all jobs do, but I truly love what I do, and enjoy it so much that I do not even consider it a job at a fundamental level. I have to pinch myself to realize that I am not living a dream. So if you are passionate about ideas, love attempting to communicate ideas to others either in written or spoken form, and aspire to be a life-long learner, then being an academic is a dream come true.
There is no secret handshake to learn, or strategy to follow for academic success. You have to have passion, and you have to work hard. If you work hard, work smart, and have passion, then you will succeed. It is not about being smart or even clever because almost everyone who you are competing against was the smart and clever kid at their undergraduate school and a favorite of their teachers. It is about being a good economist and being intellectually curious.
The most important lesson I think I have learned in being successful in the transition from undergraduate to graduate studies is the willingness to say 4 simple words: "I do not know." Being comfortable saying those words is a pre-requisite to learning. The students most willing to say those words succeed, while those who fight ever uttering those words usually crash and burn. Most people overestimate their own abilities and underestimate the abilities of those they compete against. This is true especially of mathematical abilities among potential economics students, but it is also true of knowledge of history, philosophy, and grasp of economic principles. Very few undergraduates have little more than a superficial understanding of the material they have been taught, and graduate school is asking them to delve into the material at the deepest level. It is an opportunity to really drill down deep into the elementary principles of the discipline. It is an open invitation to inquire into the foundations of a discipline and to then use that understanding to make sense of the human condition in its rich diversity.
Second most important lesson is to learn to follow one's comparative advantage in research rather than attempt to fit into the prevailing methodological orthodoxy. The successful student understands that they should focus their energies in that area of economic research that they are a low opportunity cost producer of, and exchange with other researchers the work that they would only be a high opportunity cost producer of. This is where pursuing their passion becomes important, as does having good instincts about where their curiosity should direct them. Stealth strategies for Austrian or even free market types in economics will never work for the simple reason that those you are competing with are very talented and if they are pursuing their true intellectual passion and you are pursuing less than what you are intellectually passionate about you will fail in that competition. In fact, I think the stealth strategy talk is the most destructive idea I have seen for promising academic careers in my 25 years of teaching. You are what you write/teach in this business. You need to learn how to pursue your passion and find your comparative advantage in economic research. I think all first year graduate students should read Michael Polanyi's essay "The Republic of Science" and to think seriously about the ideas of plausibility, intrinsic value, and creativity in the judgement of a scientific contribution and relating that to a serious stock-taking about their comparative advantage in economics. The only thing as destructive as the stealth strategy that strives to substitute careerism for substantive intellectual work, is the isolationist strategy which regales in lone wolfism. Neither careerism nor isolationism are paths to success, but instead paths to bitterness, despair, and irrelevance.
The third most important lesson, and this is directed at Austrian oriented students, is to embrace Mises and work from that position. Hayek makes great sense when you start from a Misesian position, but often leads to confused thinking when taken in the spirit of running away from Mises. It is not a catchphrase to say that one should read Hayek as a Misesian and Mises as a Hayekian. The advice is very straightforward --- read in Hayek those elements that focus on the logic of human action and the structure of economic argument, and read in Mises those elements that focus on spontaneous order and the invisible hand style of arguments (compositive method). It is in that mixed Mises-Hayek reading that one finds the great heritage of the Austrian school and what the school has to offer modern economics.
The fourth most important lesson, continuously fall in love with the discipline of economics and its argumentative structure and read its master practitioners daily --- e.g., Smith, Say, Mill, Menger, Marshall, Bohm-Bawerk, Wicksteed, Knight, Friedman, Stigler, Coase, Buchanan, Tullock, North, Becker, Lucas, V. Smith, Williamson, E. Ostrom, Kirzner etc. This list is not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination, but who I left off should be instructive on a variety of margins. I believe you should read widely in economics, but you need to understand the difference between those who are economists and those who merely talked about economic topics.
Good luck in your studies. Economics is the most wonderful intellectual adventure anyone can embark upon.