At every school I’ve worked at, the English and business/economics departments have accounted for at least one third of all extended essay (EE) titles. It makes sense; these two disciplines lend themselves easily to the study of a very broad cross-section of society – not that I personally could say anything insightful about Moby Dick or Eric Blair.

OK Leo, you may write in the subject of your choice. 

This is always something of a problem for the business/economics departments, for two reasons: 1) we always have large classes (look up ‘indivisibility of labour’ and Gary Hansen) and every additional EE student adds to our marginal opportunity costs, and; 2) essays in economics need to have a solid basis in primary data and this almost always leads to considerable start-up costs in terms of time.

So, while I personally had 16 EE students one year (albeit at two schools), most schools will set a limit of four EEs per supervisor. I find that reasonable – you are supposed to get the full benefit or your supervisor’s experience and I can assure you that you are better off in your second-best EE option but with a supervisor who is not drowning in EE work. More importantly, it really does not matter which subject you choose for your EE since it has little influence on getting in to university or learning the craft of writing. You should write in the subject where your opportunity costs are the lowest.

The basic question thus becomes not whether you could write in economics but whether you should. It’s a cost-benefit analysis – you need to do the math and figure out your ‘net benefit’ in terms of input (time and effort) and output (potential or probable grade). In presenting the EE for our IB1 students every year, I commonly put forward the following three points (or ‘criteria’ really) as a screener for students interested in writing in economics:

1. Interest 

The reoccurring issue of students being swayed by parents to do business/economics is a subject for another time, yet it should be said that all too often students choose economics because a parent has a company/job and ‘really good idea’ for an EE topic. This seldom, if ever, works very well.

The two main reasons are that a) the parent is often a businessperson rather than an economist and this immediately skews the research questions (RQ) towards business and management rather than economics, and; b) the sources, while often meeting the primary data criterion, frequently become biased since no son/daughter is going to be willing to take conclusions in a direction that a parent finds uncomfortable.

Instead you should simply find a topic and RQ that you find interesting and then sit down and start drafting proposals. I have found that it is far better to allow students to run with their line of interest and instead try to tweak the RQ as much as possible towards the field of economics. I urge you NOT to approach your prospective EE supervisor with loose plans about what you might write about. Instead, write down a basic plan containing field of study, possible RQ and what primary sources you think might address the question. In fact, do what my student Florian did; write a reasonably detailed plan for three EE topics and RQs! See his proposals here.

Basically, if you can find a topic that interests you and is squarely within the realm of economics, you might have a winner. Submit a written proposal to your supervisor, get feedback and then discuss it.

2. Ability

Then there is the question of whether or not you will be able to deal with the topic adequately using the language, concepts and data of an economist. If you pick an all too complex or ‘outside the syllabus’ subject, you run the very real risk of having to spend far too much time on peripheral reading and simply understanding the theory/model necessary to address the topic. Clearly this is going to soak up time that you simply might not have.

One problem is of course that many schools and teachers follow the syllabus, which means that by this time of year you are somewhere in the middle of macro – which limits your span of choice somewhat. If your topic either centres on or spills over into trade and/or development, you will have to put in some serious effort into your reading.

I often recommend sticking to reasonably basic issues arising in micro and macro – and also that students confine themselves geographically. It’s much easier to collect data on cigarette sales when you can ask the local shops than when you have to get sales data from another city or even country.

If you can come up with a clear economics question that will be based on data you can collect from nearby sources, you are on your way.

3. Data and research question

Finally there is the most troublesome issue of finding a RQ that is 1) doable within the 30 to 40 total hours that the EE should take; 2) squarely within economics as a subject, and; 3) can be posed in such a manner that primary data is available to address the issue. The last part is often the reason so many EE proposals simply do not make the final cut, as today’s internet world far too easily leads students down a path towards data that is compiled by others (and found via Google) rather than the prerequisite primary (raw) data needed in economics.

If, for example, there will be an increases in cigarette tax over the next year, you can pose a RQ as to how this will affect consumption and thus estimate the PED for tobacco. You use sales as a measure of consumption and gather data on sales before and after the tax from local sales outlets or wholesalers. This is a perfectly acceptable method to estimate the change in quantity demanded over the change in price, which you can then use to calculate elasticities.

Finally, don’t make the EE into something it is not, e.g. ‘overwhelming’! A solid RQ that can be addressed using core economic terms/concepts and primary data should enable you to write an acceptable essay within 40 effective hours. As long as you are neat, clear and follow the EE grade rubrics, you should actually be able to finish off your essay over 3 – 4 weekends. Remember that the EE, like most things in life, come with opportunity cost strings attached: putting in 30 additional hours in order to get one more IB point might well cost you two IB points in your other subjects!

Plan ahead, start now, read this, speak to your economics teacher, write a few proposals and then hunker down for a few weekends. Don’t do this: EE kit 2016