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Information for SUNY-Binghamton undergraduate students considering graduate study in economics

August, 2011

A PDF version is available here:  AdviceGradSchool (.pdf, 220kb)

MA, PhD - what's that about?

An MA (Masters of Arts) in economics is a degree one receives after taking coursework and passing exams. Sometimes it involves a research project ("MA thesis"). It takes one or two years. In America, there are few (if any) employers who seek to hire people with economics MAs, specifically. Some American consulting firms and government agencies hire people with economics MAs, but they treat them more or less like BAs or perhaps MBAs. In some foreign countries things are different: some foreign government agencies have jobs open to people with economics MAs not BAs. A PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) is a degree one receives after taking coursework, passing exams, and writing a dissertation. A dissertation is a large research project or project. In economics, dissertations usually take the form of three separate papers, each 20-35 pages long (not counting bibliography, tables and figures). College economics departments hire people with PhDs, exclusively, to be regular faculty. A number of government agencies such as the Federal Reserve System, the World Bank and the IMF also hire people with economics PhDs. Many people with economics PhDs end up working for consulting firms or financial firms such as hedge funds, but usually these people get no big advantage from having PhDs - they compete with, and are often supervised by people with MBAs! Many undergraduates believe that you first apply to MA programs, get an MA in economics, and then apply to PhD programs. Not true! Most economics graduate programs are designed to take a student straight out of college through completion of a PhD dissertation. They give MAs as consolation prizes to students who are unable to finish, or at some point along the way to the PhD. An undergraduate applies to be a PhD student, not an MA student. For most Binghamton students, there is no obvious reason to apply to MA programs. If you want graduate study in economics, you should probably be applying to PhD programs. You might want to consider applying to an MA program if you:

  1. got bad grades in your first years of college but are now hardworking, and you want to show that to prospective employers hiring for BA-level jobs.
  2. fail to get into a PhD program at a highly-ranked university, but do get into an MA program with a record of placing MA into highly-ranked PhD programs.

Make sure you find out what has happened to recent graduates of the MA program you are considering. What fraction was admitted to good PhD programs? Also talk to some faculty members here before you try it. What happens in an economics PhD program? Economics PhD programs are designed to last five years. Most people complete an economics PhD in five or six years. In your first year, you take courses in microeconomic theory, macroeconomic theory, and econometrics. Around the end of your first year (sometimes a bit later) you take a set of big exams (called "comprehensives," "qualifiers," "prelims" or something else - different programs call them different things) that determine whether you will be allowed to continue in the program. If you fail, you must leave the program (with an MA, usually). If you pass, you can continue in the program. In your second (and perhaps third) year(s), you take "field" courses focusing on particular areas of economics (such as labor, econometrics, industrial organization, macro..), then pass another set of exams (written or oral) or write a paper, depending on the program. Then you get started on your dissertation. In your third year, you find a faculty member to oversee your work - a "dissertation advisor" - and find a topic or topics to work on, and start work. By the beginning of your fifth year, you should have at least one paper written - your "job market paper." In the fall of your fifth year, you apply to academic or government-agency jobs, mainly by showing them your job-market paper. You hope to get a job offer by January or March of your fifth year. Meanwhile, you write the other two papers that will make up your dissertation. By the end of the summer after your fifth year, your dissertation is complete and you leave with PhD in hand.

Should I apply to Economics PhD programs?

Only if you answer yes to all of the following questions. - I would much rather be a college professor or a researcher in an economics-oriented government agency than a lawyer, a doctor, or a businessperson. - I don't like to be given a clearly defined task. I like to solve problems that I set for myself; investigate something that intrigues me whether or not anyone else cares about it. - I like math, and I'm pretty good at it - not as good as someone who will go to grad school in Math, but pretty good. - I love doing research projects and writing papers.

How do I apply to Economics PhD programs?

Most programs accept students for the fall term and have application deadlines between December 15 and February 1. Almost all require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE is a standardized test that consists of three basic parts: verbal, mathematics, and analytical writing. Most programs care a lot about GRE math scores, not much about the other components. Practice for the GRE - studying helps. If you plan to apply to a graduate school during your senior year, you should take the GRE no later than October. Request letters of recommendation from faculty at least a month before they are due. Many students take a couple of years off before they go to graduate school. But make sure to take the GRE and get recommendation letters before you graduate. Meet with the Director of Undergraduate Studies, or another faculty member whom you know, early in the fall semester (or even before that) to select a list of schools to target for your applications. Apply to a wide range of schools: it is hard to guess which ones you'll get into. Find out which, if any, of the schools require the GRE subject exam in Economics. If the school requires an Economics subject exam, it will matter mainly for applicants who did not major in economics.

What do I need to do while I am in college to have the option to apply to Economics PhD programs?

  1. Talk to the Director of Undergraduate Studies, or another faculty member you know, immediately.
  2. Take lots of Math courses and do well in them. At a minimum, you should take multivariate calculus, real analysis, and linear algebra. It's a good idea to do a Math minor.
  3. Write a senior honors thesis.
  4. Get to know at least one faculty member well. Talk to him or her frequently about your plans.

Here's some examples of advice that other colleges give to their undergraduates considering economics grad school.

Reed College: Economics Graduate Programs

Most economics graduate programs are Ph.D. programs, and give master's degrees to those who do not finish or as interim degrees. Relatively few programs, especially among the elite programs, accept terminal master's students. There are some MBA and public policy programs that offer master's degrees with concentrations in economics. The most frequent comment members of the faculty hear from students who begin graduate programs in economics is It's all math! Indeed, most of the first-year curriculum in graduate economics programs is devoted to developing students' analytical skills and has little directly to do with economic policy or applications. In particular, students who struggle with the math may find that all of their attention is being devoted to methods rather than to issues. The best way to deal with the analytical rigor of graduate school is to enter with a strong background in mathematics. Although Reed's undergraduate theory courses (Econ 313 and 314) are more analytically advanced than those of most undergraduate programs, graduate theory courses involve a great deal more advanced mathematics. Ideal preparation for graduate study includes a full calculus/real analysis sequence, linear algebra, differential equations, probability and statistics, and as many other math courses as you have time for. Students who decide early in their careers that they are interested in economics graduate school should consider the interdisciplinary major in mathematics and economics. Most economics graduate programs accept students only for the fall term and have application deadlines between December 15 and February 1. Almost all require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as part of the application. The GRE is a standardized test that consists of three basic parts: verbal, mathematics, and analytical writing. Many economics programs place great emphasis on the GRE math scores in making admissions decisions. The GRE is offered in computerized form by appointment at many test sites. If you plan to apply to a graduate school during your senior year, you should take the GRE no later than October. More information is available in the Career Services office. If you are planning to apply to graduate programs, you should meet with your adviser very early in the fall semester (or even before that) to select a list of schools to target for your applications. It is always a good idea to include both more and less selective schools on your list since it is difficult to judge the outcome of the admissions process in advance. Write for information and applications early so you can determine which, if any, of the schools require the GRE subject exam. Get signed up on time for the October administration of the GRE. Request letters of recommendation from faculty at least a month before they are due. Once your applications are sent, bide your time and focus on your thesis work; you will begin hearing from the schools in March. Graduate programs vary considerably in the number of students for whom they provide financial assistance. Teaching or research assistantships are often available for students after (and sometimes during) the first year. Assistantships typically involve a waiver of tuition as well as a modest stipend. Many programs expect students to pay their own way for the first year, with the understanding that successful students are likely to be supported in subsequent years. If this happens to you, make every possible effort to avoid having to take an outside job during the first year; you will need all your time for your studies. If you must take a job, look for situations in which you can study while you work (night watchperson in an office building, for example). Many students take a couple of years off before deciding to go to graduate school. If you are not sure if a career as an economist is right for you, or if you think you want to go to graduate school in economics but want a break from academics, a job as a research assistant may be a good alternative. In recent years, several students have accepted jobs as research assistants (econometrics is usually a prerequisite) with a government agency such as the Federal Reserve Board or with an economic consulting firm. Spending a year or two in such a position allows the student to work with professional economists and participate in various kinds of economic research projects. This experience will teach you a lot about economics and let you see firsthand whether a career as an economist is appealing. Students graduating with a Ph.D. can enter the job market for teaching and research economists. The most coveted positions in are those at the major university economics departments with well-established graduate programs, which go to the very top students from the very top programs. There is also high demand for research positions with major policy agencies such as the Federal Reserve Board, the Labor Department, and international agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Positions at universities with less well-known graduate programs and selective liberal-arts colleges are also subject to stiff competition.

Princeton University: Graduate Study in Economics

Graduate study in economics requires special preparation and advanced planning, starting as early as the freshman year. Students contemplating graduate study in economics should see the Departmental Representative as early as possible. Preparation for graduate school should include the following: the more mathematical versions of the core courses (310, 311, and 312), two years of calculus (up through MAT 202, 204, or 218), two or more upper level mathematics courses such as MAT 301, 305, 309, 310, 314, or 325, and an advanced econometrics or theory course such as ECO 313 or 317. Students may find the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics or the Program in Engineering and Management Systems an interesting option. It is not necessary to be an Economics concentrator to enter a graduate economics program, but the Economics courses listed above are highly recommended. The graduate courses in Economics (500 level) are open to qualified undergraduates. These courses are very demanding and must be started in the fall term. Taking one of these courses can be useful for students who intend to enter an economics graduate program, because it begins the student's advanced training, gives the student a flavor of graduate school, and provides evidence during the admissions process of the ability to do advanced work in economics.

Harvard University professor Susan Athey

Advice for Applying to Grad School in Economics Disclaimer: These are just opinions, and some people may disagree with the claims here. You should seek opinions from your advisors.  

Choosing classes

Recommendation letters

Application Essays

Application timing

As long as its in by the deadline it doesn't matter. It is an advantage to have your folder be complete very soon after the deadline, which means making sure your recommenders get their letters in.

GRE Scores

Financial statements

Its hard to generalize on what you should do on these. At Harvard, for example, its always best to make it seem like you have money because their administration has a rule that they can't accept people without offering them enough money to come. As a result they often reject people who at the end of the process they would have preferred to people they give money to. At other schools, if you seem to have a lot of money it may reduce the size of the fellowship offer you get. It may also, however, increase the probability of getting accepted because a school with a few partial fellowships to offer will give them only to people who seem to have the resources to accept them.

Where to Apply

Visits and Contacts at Graduate Schools

Berkeley economics admissions criteria

Criteria Admission is based primarily on four factors:

  1. Mathematical ability and training as evidenced by courses taken in mathematics and related subjects, grades in those courses, and the quantitative GRE score.
  2. General academic ability as evidenced by the applicant's academic record, including both grades and the difficulty of courses taken.
  3. Training in economics as evidenced by the applicant's academic record in economics and related fields, letters of recommendation, and work experience related to economics.
  4. Evidence of motivation and aptitude for research judged primarily on the basis of the letters of recommendation, the statement of purpose, work experience in economics, and previous research projects.

In past years most candidates recommended for admission have met the following criteria:

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Last Updated: 8/14/13