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Graduate Study in Economics

A major in economics at the undergraduate level is virtually essential for admission to a graduate program in economics. In addition, graduate schools require substantial undergraduate training in mathematics.

I. Why go to graduate school in economics?

Graduate school in economics is a not an easy road, but it can be a rewarding and enjoyable process. Depending on your ultimate employment goal, a master's, PhD, or even MBA/MPA will best facilitate your achievement of that goal. Graduate school is about doing research. You will read a lot of journal articles and books, write proofs, collect data and conduct experiments, and work a lot. Many students also work as research or teaching assistants to earn a stipend.

A PhD in economics can prepare you for a wide variety of careers. You can go into academics (teaching and research at a university or college), work in the private sector (at economic research institutes, consulting firms, or investment banks), or work for the government (the Federal Reserve banks, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, Social Security Administration, or the Federal Trade Commission). Many leading international development and financial institutions employ PhD-trained economists including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), regional development banks (Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Inter-American Development Bank, African Development Bank Group, etc.), and other international organizations (OECD, ECB, ILO, WTO, UN).

If you are interested in finance, many business schools also offer doctoral programs. For example, the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, NYU Stern School of Business, Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Harvard Business School all have excellent programs in finance, accounting, management, marketing, health care systems, insurance and risk management, public policy and management, operations and information management, real estate, and statistics. These will also prepare you for a career in academics and the public or private sector.

If graduate level training is necessary to prepare you for your chosen career, you should examine the catalogues of appropriate graduate schools as early as possible. This will help you structure your liberal arts education to include any necessary prerequisites. Also, be sure to consult faculty members in the Department of Economics and make use of the Office of Career Development.

Please contact any of the faculty early to ask questions and discuss your plans. Preparation is key, so seek advice on what courses to take during your remaining semesters.

II. What is the typical course of study in a PhD program?

A PhD generally lasts five to six years, although four is not unheard of. Typically, the first two years are consumed with coursework and passing comprehensive examinations, followed by two or more years of writing a thesis proposal, conducting your resesarch, and writing your dissertation.

Typical first year courses are microeconomic theory, macroeconomic theory and quantitative methods/econometrics, followed by written comprehensive exams at least in micro and macro. Second year courses are in applied fields of the student’s choice and advanced theory. This is followed by a period in which you attend and participate in the department’s seminars and workshops and develop a proposal for your dissertation. Some programs require an oral defense of your proposal, others simply written approval. Then comes the dissertation writing stage in which you work with your advisors to develop a body of original work worthy of a PhD and which culminates in the dissertation defense. You will have anywhere from three to five faculty members on your dissertation committee. With some you will work closely; others will be less involved in your work, serving primarily as readers.

III. Can I reach my career goals with a master's in economics?

If you are interested in teaching at a university or college, you need to earn a PhD. If you're interested in doing economic research at a government institution or research institute, the master's may be sufficient. Note that you can, typically, leave a PhD program after one or two years with a master's degree in economics. A master's degree will not only enable you to work in some research-related positions, but will also give you a considerable advantage over your peers if you decide to seek employment in the private sector.

It is also possible to obtain a PhD in public policy during which time you may be able to take the first and second year PhD economics classes. A lot of top schools in economics have excellent public policy programs as well. It is not uncommon for students to start jointly in economics and a public policy program and later decide to choose one over the other. If you decide to pursue only a PhD in public policy, you can generally still claim a master's in economics as well.

Some students have chosen to work in economic research before applying to graduate school. This can be a good method to see whether you like that type of job and to further develop your quantitative and analytical skills. Plus, it is not uncommon for first-year economics grad students to have worked in the research departments at places like a Federal Reserve bank or other institutions for a couple years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a stop at one of the Federal Reserve banks can help one get into better graduate programs. Be careful, though, not to take too much time off between undergrad and grad school.

IV. Applying to graduate school

Choosing classes (as undergraduate)

A student intending to pursue graduate work in economics will find that Vassar's curriculum in economics offers unusual breadth and depth at the advanced level. The Advanced Topics courses in Microeconomics and Macroeconomics (303 and 304) offer exposure to graduate-level topics and methods. Advanced Econometrics (310) provides exposure to the advanced quantitative methods used in economics. Students find that these three advanced courses are of significant help in overcoming the difficult adjustment from work at the typical undergraduate level to work at the beginning graduate level. Students intending to apply to top-rated graduate economics programs are encouraged to choose Economics 303, 304, and 310 along with other advanced-level electives. Since only two of these three 300-level courses are offered in any given academic year, interested students should plan to complete one of these courses in their junior year.

Proficiency in mathematics is required for advanced work in economics. Students preparing for graduate study should take at a bare minimum Single Variable Calculus (Math 125), Multivariable Calculus (Math 220), and Linear Algebra (Math 221). Students are strongly advised to take Real Analysis (Math 321) and should consider additional advanced courses in mathematics from among Number Theory (Math 261), Discrete Math (263), Complex Analysis (Math 324), Advanced Topics in Real Analysis (Math 327), Theory of Differential Equations (Math 328), Differential Geometry (Math 335), Topology (Math 339), Mathematical Statistics (Math 341), Modern Algebra (Math 361), Advanced Linear Algebra (Math 364).

Other things to note:

  • Graduate schools care much more about what hard classes you've taken and how you've done in them than about overall GPA.
  • If you have taken difficult classes, it’s probably a good idea to point this out in your application essay because schools might not know what the math classes are, which economics classes are the advanced ones, etc.

Recommendation letters

Help professors to personalize their letter:

  • When asking your professors to serve as a letter writer (in person or by email), remind them who you are and how they know you; let them know which graduate programs you are planning to apply to (very important), and let them have the opportunity to give their opinion on the appropriateness of these schools for you.
  • Provide them with your resume, transcript, and if possible a copy of relevant application material, including essays.
  • An informal couple of paragraphs with any additional material that may be relevant for the letter. This paragraph can include info about your summer internship or job and how it prepared you for grad school/employment, your goals, and what you have been doing since college (if you are no longer in college). This is your chance to let him/her know anything extra that you would like the letter to include or that would help him or her personalize the letter.

Other things to remember:

  • An advantage of being at a small college is that the faculty tend to get to know students better than at large universities.  Take advantage of this and get recommendations from people who know you well and can speak in detail about good work you have done.
  • Give professors every possible opportunity to say they don't feel comfortable recommending you to the school you're applying to. If they express any hesitation don't have them send it. One bad letter hurts much more than any good letters can help.
  • Recommendations that are not from economists (or mathematicians) are given little weight when applying to a PhD program in economics.  
  • It's fine to have a letter from someone you worked for even if they didn't teach you in a class. 

Application Essays

On your graduate school application its important to write an essay saying what areas of economics you're interested in, what questions you think are interesting, what papers you've read that you've liked etc. Be as specific as possible. It’s not necessary to have a specific thesis proposal, and odds are if you try to pretend you have one when you really don't, you’ll come off as sounding very naive which is a bad thing. Mostly schools read these just to see what field(s) you're interested in and to get a sense whether you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into.

For a PhD program, these usually require a description of your past research experience and your future research interests. Some students will have an undergraduate thesis or a summer research project to report on — that is terrific (but not required to get into a good school). The essay flows nicely when you can relate this project to your desired future work. The main thing people are looking for here is that you know what grad school is all about and that you understand what research is. It also helps if you include a sentence or two indicating why a given school is good for you — this can be as simple as naming the faculty in the field or listing a specific faculty member there with whom you would like to work.

For economics, they could care less if you actually do what you say you are going to do in the essay (most people don’t), but in some of the sciences, the information might be relevant for matching you to specific labs or sources of funding. Talking about the essay with your letter writers is a good way for them to get up to date with your interests and to get feedback. You should definitely get at least one faculty member to review your essay. That means getting a first draft done early. You'll be surprised at how hard it is to write two pages.

Fellowships

Tuition and fees will vary greatly by type of institution (public or private) and residency status (in-state or out-of-state). Check with schools of interest for specific numbers. Financial assistance for incoming students comes in the form of tuition scholarships, fellowships, and assistantships (scholarships are not taxed while fellowships and assistantships are). Financial awards range from no aid to full support, with outstanding students receiving fellowships to attend graduate school. These fellowships typically include a scholarship for tuition and health insurance plus a fellowship stipend for living expenses. Note that it is possible to enter a program without any support and then, by excelling in your classes, earn tuition remission and research or teaching assistantships for your second year and beyond. If you are accepted in a program without financial support, ask about their recent experience with students earning support after the first year.

A large cost of graduate school is the opportunity cost of not working during your studies; however, many students find summer employment with consulting firms, economic research institutes, international development agencies, or other companies. These experiences may even aid in the completion of your dissertation. In addition, many programs will offer admitted students research or teaching assistantships, in which the student takes on research or teaching assistant duties in addition to their required coursework and dissertation. Again, these opportunities can carry great benefits such as gaining teaching experience, learning research skills, and developing relationships with faculty members.

GRE and TOEFL

These examinations should be taken no later than October and preferably earlier. Applications will not be considered unless the GRE and TOEFL (if non-native) scores are included. It is important to schedule your exams with sufficient time for your scores to reach the schools you apply to.

Though the GRE test is not necessarily a good predictor of success, it matters a lot (especially the quantitative and analytic portions). Studying with practice books for both the TOEFL and the GRE dramatically increases your scores so you should definitely practice.

Finally

Each graduate program has a unique character.  Some programs focus more on empirical research, some on theoretical work; some require grad students to do lots of teaching, while others actively discourage teaching.  The top programs will offer excellent traning in many fields, while lower ranked programs may be strong in only a few fields.  The bottom line is that it is important to know what you want out of a graduate program and to learn as much as possible about the different programs before choosing one.