Tips for Applying to Ph.D. Programs in Economics
economics Ph.D. program typically consists of one year of
"boot camp" (core courses in microeconomics, macroeconomics,
and econometrics) followed by one year of field courses in your chosen
specialization. After the second year, your time is devoted to
working on your dissertation. The average time to get a Ph.D. is
5.5 years. Some students finish in as few as 3 years (very
rare), while others take 7, 8 or more years. The first year of
graduate school is rough for most students – it represents a kind of
initiation ritual. Making the transition from taking classes to
doing research (3rd year) is also tough.
are a number of job opportunities available to economics Ph.D.s.
These include academia (research universities and liberal arts
colleges), the private sector (including economic consulting and investment
banking), the government (e.g., Federal Reserve, Congressional
Budget Office, Treasury, Department of Justice), and international
organizations (e.g., IMF, World Bank).
You should think
carefully about whether an economics Ph.D. is really right for you.
While it is true that many economics Ph.D.s work in nonacademic
jobs, your training and mentoring in graduate school will be geared
towards turning you into an academic economist.
If you don't want to be an academic economist, you have to
figure out whether this training is really necessary for the job you
want. For many
nonacademic jobs, a different degree – master's of public policy,
MBA, etc. – might suffice without putting you through the misery of
5+ years in graduate school. You
should not get a Ph.D. if you are doing it for the money
(an MBA has a higher monetary payoff) or if you are interested in policy
but hate math (a public policy program might be a better fit). If
you are not sure whether a Ph.D. is right for you, it is probably best
to wait – work for a few years or get a different degree, then
revisit the question. There are a number of jobs that allow you
to do economic research and can help you decide if graduate school is
right for you (click here for a list of
students work at one of these jobs for a couple of years and then go
to graduate school.
most important factors for getting into a good graduate school are
GPA, performance in specific math and economics classes, undergraduate
research experience, and recommendation letters.
Other factors include your personal statement and math GRE
score. All of these are
ideas in economics are expressed in the language of math.
Graduate work requires a high level of competence in math.
Therefore, advanced math courses are a very important part of your
preparation. At a minimum, you should take courses
in multivariable calculus and linear algebra.
Mathematical statistics is a good idea as well -- in fact, the
University of Wisconsin economics graduate program (which is highly
Real analysis is also especially important. In addition,
classes in proof writing, probability, and differential equations are extremely useful.
Ideally, you should double major in economics and math.
If that’s not possible, then minor in math or at the very
least pursue a
emphasis within the economics major. You can even choose to
major in math and minor in economics.
part of your economics major, you should try to take courses in advanced
econometrics, game theory, advanced microeconomics, and mathematical
modeling (if these are offered).
American Economic Association (AEA) meetings included a panel on
graduate admissions featuring members of admissions committees from
top schools. As discussed by this panel, admissions committees
pay particular attention to your performance in these courses.
Your performance in intermediate microeconomics matters a great
deal too. These courses
also allow you to gauge your own fit for graduate school: if you enjoy
and do well in them, you are likely to be a good candidate for
as much research as possible: work as a research assistant for a
professor, do a summer research project, and write an honors thesis.
This will give you an idea of what academic research is all
about. It will also let
graduate schools know that you have an idea of what research is all
about. Finally, it will
allow you to develop a relationship with a professor, who can then
write you a recommendation.
recommendations matter a lot. These letters should come from
your professors: according to the AEA panel, letters from employers
are not useful. Admissions committees look for comparative
statements: “She’s the best student I’ve had in 5 years,” or
“He’s as strong as our two other students who have gone on to top
graduate programs recently.” By
your senior year, you should know which professors are likely to make
the strongest statements about you.
Choose professors who know you well and in whose classes you
have done well.
for the math GRE. It used to be
that a perfect score (800) was necessary for admission to a top
program; however, this no longer appears to be the case. The AEA
discussion suggested that admissions committees now generally have a threshold math
score of around 750 to 770. You must meet the threshold to be
competitive, but exceeding the threshold doesn't add much value.
Your verbal score is not very important – unless you are
really terrible in verbal, you are generally better off allocating
your time towards studying for math.
personal statement is not a place for flowery prose. Economists appreciate good technical writing.
Describe why you are interested in graduate school, how your
academic experiences have helped to prepare you, and what research
topics you might pursue when you get there (don't worry – this isn't
binding). According to
one member of the AEA panel, "No epiphanies, please! No
stories like: I was driving down the freeway and then the sky opened
up and I heard a voice saying you should go for the Ph.D.!"
Also, in describing your research interests, try to stay away from the
hot topics of the day (e.g., the financial crisis). A topic
that does not appear to come from news headlines signals a serious,
thoughtful, long-term interest in that issue. Your
statement should communicate to the committee that you understand what
graduate school is all about and that you have carefully thought
through your decision to pursue a Ph.D.
there are special circumstances that you need to explain (e.g., poor
academic performance during a particular semester), this is the place
to do it. Don’t be
overly dramatic or apologetic – just state the facts.
discussed in the AEA panel, an internship or job at the Federal
Reserve (Board of Governors or regional branch) is a good signal that
a student knows what s/he is getting into by going for the Ph.D. Another good signal is taking rigorous science classes (physics or
at rankings of economics programs (U.S.
News rankings, National
Research Council rankings, and a
variety of others). You
and your faculty advisor should decide which schools you should target
based on your interests and record.
You should generally aim to attend the highest ranked program
possible (taking into account the departments' strengths and weaknesses in particular
fields). Down the road,
employers will pay attention to the quality of your graduate
program. Moreover, a lot of what
you learn in graduate school will be from your classmates, as graduate
students generally study together in groups and give each other
feedback on research. Therefore,
it helps to attend a program that tends to attract high-ability
students. If you can't get
into a highly ranked program based on your current record, an
alternative approach is to spend a year or two working at the Federal
Reserve (or doing another job that involves economic research), or
getting a master’s degree in economics at the London
School of Economics (LSE).
(While most master’s-only programs in economics should be
avoided, LSE is an exception: it offers respectable master’s-only
programs.) This will give you a better shot
at a top Ph.D. program.
Unlike JD or MD students, most economics Ph.D. students can finance
their studies without borrowing or tapping into personal/family
Ph.D. students finance their degree by a combination of fellowships,
research assistantships, and teaching assistantships. Your
offer of admission may include a first-year fellowship covering
tuition and a stipend for living expenses. If you are not
offered a fellowship, you can choose to pay for the first
year out of your own pocket. After the first year, students
generally support themselves by working as teaching or research
assistants. (These positions typically provide tuition and a
stipend.) You should also apply for any outside funding for
which you qualify. Outside funding sources include National
Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, Javits
Foundation Fellowships, and Soros
are a number of resources that can help you prepare for graduate
school, and make your make your transition to graduate
school, as well as your time in graduate school, easier.
Here are a
few offered by the American Economic Association.