Advice for Applying to Graduate School

Why get a PhD in Economics?

The PhD is the highest degree available in Economics.  Holding this degree is a requirement for many research oriented positions in academia, various government agencies, central banks, and international organizations as well as for some positions in the private sector.  Many people who earn PhDs in economics work as Professors at Colleges and Universities.  The PhD is ideally suited to students who wish to pursue their own research programs with a high degree of independence. 

Undergraduate students majoring in economics at Binghamton University have gone on to study at many highly ranked PhD programs.  Getting into a highly ranked PhD program, however, requires careful planning and course selection.  It also requires being very successful in the courses you take while at Binghamton.  For example, GPAs of successful applicants are usually 3.85 or higher. 

Unlike with MA level programs, PhD programs offer tuition and financial support packages to their top applicants.  A typical package will include full tuition and financial compensation tied to being a Teaching Assistant (TA) or Research Assistant (RA).  At some programs, PhD students may receive a fellowship in their first year and only work in later years.  The level of financial support varies across schools and some schools have higher awards for exceptional applicants.  In later years, some programs also support travel to conferences. 

Getting admitted to PhD programs in economics

Undergraduate students who have been admitted to highly ranked PhD programs have followed a typical program while at Binghamton.  One aspect of this program involves taking mathematics and statistics courses.  We recommend that students intending to go on for a PhD in economics take the following courses:

MATH 224/225 Calculus I

MATH 226/227 Calculus II

MATH 323 Calculus III

MATH 304 Linear Algebra

MATH 330 Number Systems

MATH 478 Real Analysis I

MATH 447 Probability Theory

MATH 448 Mathematical Statistics

Additional mathematics courses beyond these are desirable.  For example, MATH 371 Differential Equations is useful in graduate programs in economics. 

Students intending to go on for their PhD are also advised to take our full year econometrics sequence:

ECON 466 Introduction to Econometrics

ECON 467 Economic Forecasting

(Students who are considering the 4+1 program in Financial Economics should take the Master’s level econometrics sequence ECON 502 and ECON 504.  See below Alternative Approaches for more details about this option.)

As a consequence of the need to take these courses, the most common major for economics students intending to go on for the PhD is the BS in Economic Analysis.  Beyond the required courses, students intending to go on for a PhD are strongly encouraged to take additional 400 level electives in economics in the areas that interest them.

For undergraduate students intending to go on for a PhD in economics, we strongly recommend taking the first PhD level course in microeconomics:

ECON 611 Microeconomic Theory I

Students may also wish to consider taking the other first year PhD courses:  ECON 612 (Microeconomic Theory II), ECON 613 (Macroeconomic Theory I) and ECON 614 (Macroeconomic Theory II).  Students may want to take ECON 458/501 (Advanced Macroeconomics) if they do not take ECON 613. 

For undergraduate students intending to go on for a PhD in economics, we also strongly recommend writing an Honors Thesis.  The J.C. Liu Honors Program, which leads to the Honors Thesis in Economics, is described on our website. The Honors program involves taking the following courses:

ECON 490 Intermediate Research Seminar

ECON 498 Honors Research Design

ECON 499 Honors Thesis

Finally, students interested in graduate level research in economics are advised to learn a statistical package such as SAS or STATA and/or a programming language such as R. 

Here is a course plan that fulfills the requirements of the BS in Economic Analysis as well as for the Honors Program.

Alternative Approaches

Students sometimes realize that they are interested in going on for a PhD too late to follow all of these recommendations.  That doesn’t necessarily preclude you from being accepted in a good PhD program, but such students may want to consider alternatives.  Some students opt to take additional courses after graduating from Binghamton University to address specific deficits (such as not having taken enough mathematics courses).  Other students choose to enter into an MA program in economics in order to improve their chances of getting admitted to a high quality PhD program. 

One option available to Binghamton students pursuing the BS in Financial Economics is to take ECON 502 and ECON 504 instead of ECON 466 and ECON 467.  This is the entryway to the 4+1 Accelerated MA in Financial Economics. This approach gives students who are applying to PhD programs the option of staying for one additional year and earning an MA in Financial Economics if they do not get accepted into a program that they like.  With an additional year of graduate courses, the student could then try again the following year.            

Structure of PhD Programs

Each PhD program has unique characteristics, but there are some general features that many programs share.  The first year is taken up with “core” courses in microeconomics, macroeconomics and statistics/econometrics.  At the end of the first year, students take a set of exams (variously referred to as “comprehensive exams”, “comps”, “prelims”) on the core material.  In order to remain in the program, students must pass these exams.  Usually, there is a second try for students who do not pass on the first attempt.  In most programs, students leave with an MA in Economics if they are ultimately unable to pass these exams.   

After the first year, students take “field” classes in areas that they plan to carry out research.  In many programs, there is a paper requirement for the second or third year (or both).  To earn the PhD degree, students must successfully write a dissertation containing original research in economics.  It usually takes five to six years to complete the PhD degree and carry out a successful job search.

In the last year, you look for a job.  For the US academic market, this involves reviewing job postings in Job Openings for Economists (JOE) published online by the American Economic Association (AEA) and submitting application packets.  Applicants attend the national Allied Social Science Association (ASSA) meetings held in early January, where potential employers carry out screening interviews.  The next step is that potential employers invite their top candidates to visit them.  For universities and many other employers, these visits usually take place in January and February.  A key part of the application packet is your “job market paper” (JMP), which is part of your dissertation that you plan to present during a visit.

Last Updated: 4/4/17