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

  • 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 its 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.
  • Real analysis is an especially important class because it tends to be demanding everywhere, and forces you to do logical and formal proofs. Get a good grade in this class.
  • Taking some graduate classes can be a good thing, but be prepared. You will be at a disadvantage since the grad students will all have study groups. Try to join a study group and devote serious time to any graduate classes you take. More and more applicants are taking graduate classes.
  • Students from top universities who have the bare minimum coursework (an undergraduate major, no graduate economics or math classes, and only basic undergraduate math classes) will need something really outstanding -- like a thesis that is publishable in a top economics field journal--to get fellowships at the top two or three graduate programs. Typically the strongest applicants have some distinguishing feature, like scoring near the top of a graduate class at a top PhD program, very strong math (e.g. graduate level real analysis and topology), or an outstanding thesis or coauthored research.
  • Undergraduate classes at most U.S. universities are much easier than graduate classes. To be a strong applicant you should be getting mostly or all As in undergraduate economics classes--with grade inflation even A-'s are not going to help you. Some poor grades your freshman year won't disqualify you though, doing really well in very advanced classes will more than compensate.

Recommendation letters

  • Recommendations which are not from economists have very little value. Recommendations from economists who have contacts at the schools you are applying to are most useful. However, one letter from someone you have worked for after undergrad may be useful to document your work ethic, maturity, etc.
  • Get recommendations from people who know you well.
  • Corollary: Get to know some professors well. Professors will be very excited that you want to get a Ph.D. in economics. Don't be afraid to approach them. Listen to their advice.
  • 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. A letter that mentions a poor work ethic, or basically almost any substantive negative, probably spells death at the best programs.
  • It's fine to have a letter from someone you worked for even if they didn't teach you in a class.
  • If you do not have relationships with economics professors (e.g. you are a math major) or if you attend a college or university without faculty that have connections at the top Ph.D. programs, you still have a good chance of admission if the rest of your application is stellar. Just be aware that objective criteria such as GRE scores, grades in hard math classes, and essays will receive more weight, and make sure that you do everything you can to help the admissions committee evaluate your record.
  • Your professors' letters will be most effective if they compare you specifically to other students in top graduate schools. This is especially important if your professors do not have personal relationships with the faculty at the top programs. The admissions committee needs to be able to calibrate the content of the letter. To get into Harvard or MIT, the letter probably needs to be pretty explicit that the student is comparable to other students who have been to those programs and succeeded. For foreign students, where transcripts are particularly hard to evaluate, these comparative statements carry a lot of weight. The comparative statements should be backed up with reasoning--such as comparing analytic abilities, coursework, the quality of the thesis, etc. You can tell your recommender about this site since you don't want to tell them what to do!

Application Essays

  • On your graduate school application its very important to write an essay saying what kinds of 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 may be helpful to discuss your thesis or research assistant work. Its 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 naive which is a bad thing. Mostly schools just read these to see what field you're interested in and to get a sense whether you have any idea what you're getting yourself into. You should therefore try to talk intelligently about your topic of interest to show that you understand something about what research in that field would be like.
  • Get someone to read your essays, preferably an advanced graduate student or a faculty member.

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

  • Though the test is not necessarily a good predictor of success, it matters a lot (especially the quantitative portion). Studying for the GRE dramatically increases your scores so you should definitely practice.
  • The economics GRE doesn't usually count for much, but it does give a chance for people who haven't taken much economics to make a positive impression.

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

  • If you are well-qualified, you should apply to all of the top-ranked economics departments (e.g. MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Chicago, Yale, Berkeley), and several backup schools, depending on the strength of your record. You should definitely seek advice from faculty members on this.
  • If you have a somewhat weaker record, there are lots of good graduate programs out there, but you need to shop more carefully for schools that have well-known advisors or have recently been investing a lot in graduate students. Some middle-ranked schools (like recently Pennsylvania State) aggressively recruit prospective students and have placed graduating PhD students in top 5 schools by investing heavily in the students. You need to do a lot of homework, and talk to lots of faculty about good places to apply. Information about good places to go is likely to be dispersed.
  • Don't overlook the small but prestigious PhD programs at business schools: Stanford GSB has a placement record that rivals the top economics departments, and Harvard and Northwestern also have programs worth looking into. These programs typically offer more individual attention and have more generous funding.
  • The applicant pool seems to be getting more sophisticated and well prepared all the time, so if you have something like a more "typical" undergraduate background (undergraduate major, a couple of math classes, a thesis, mostly As), you need to cast a fairly wide net. If you have more than a couple of B's you need to cast wider still.

Visits and Contacts at Graduate Schools

  • With rare exceptions, you SHOULD NOT initiate contact with faculty members at schools you are applying to before the admissions decisions. You will seem like a pest and like someone who doesn't understand the system. After you are admitted there will be plenty of opportunities to meet faculty. If you feel like you have an exceptional case for contacting a faculty member at another school, seek the advice of your advisor first.
  • After admission you should visit your top choices if at all possible. You will learn an enormous amount then, swamping what you have managed to figure out before then.
  • Talk to the students to learn how often they meet with their advisors, who is really accessible, and how the morale is among students. Some faculty do a lot of aggressive recruiting but don't spend a lot of time with their students later. The current students can tell you how advising really works.
  • Anyone who tells you that one department is best for every student is not being very thoughtful. You need to determine whether a department feels right to you, and whether you feel like there are a set of potential advisors for you. Your advisor will have enormous power over your life. You need to be comfortable. Different departments have different strengths, cultures, and styles. Some fields within departments have very strong subcultures and impressive placement records. Learn about those.
  • Find out about the placement records of the programs. Don't just find out about the top 5 students--find out about how number 10 or 15 in a class did, and whether they were happy. Even if you are quite certain you will be a star, it's possible you won't be the very best, and even if you are, it will be a lot more fun if your classmates aren't unemployed, despondent and neglected.
  • Don't get too caught up in overall stereotypes. Faculty and students all get very enthusiastic about grad student recruiting and tend to over-emphasize differences among programs. There are many more similarities than differences across top programs, and every department has fields with very different advising styles. In the end you need to find two or three advisors and a couple of good student buddies. A department with more outstanding faculty and students makes it more likely you will find your matches, but the subculture of your friends and advisors is far more salient to your life than the overall department.

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:

  • GPA of 3.8 or higher with consideration for the degree of difficulty of the course work.
  • Upper level mathematical course work including real analysis or honors advanced calculus with grades of A- minus or better.
  • Quantitative GRE score of 780 or higher.
  • Grades of A-minus or better in intermediate level theory courses (microeconomics, macroeconomics, econometrics) with a strong preference for honors or mathematical track versions of all three courses.
  • Advanced undergraduate or graduate-level course work in economics.
  • Proven independent research ability (e.g., honors thesis).
  • If applicable, TOEFL score of 600 on the paper test or 270 on the computer-based test.
  • Very strong letters of recommendations from at least two faculty members who know the candidate in both classroom and out-of-class settings (e.g. independent research).
  • Statement of purpose that expresses coherent ideas about why the candidate is interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in economics and describes likely areas of research interest.

Last Updated: 8/22/14