The Complete Guide to Getting Into an Economics Ph.D. Program

Math challenged? Never taken an econ class? Don't worry about it. There's hope for you yet.
615_Graduate_Graduation_College_Reuters.jpg
Reuters

Back in May, Noah wrote about the amazingly good deal that is the PhD in economics. Why? Because:

  1. You get a job.
  2. You get autonomy.
  3. You get intellectual fulfillment.
  4. The risk is low.
  5. Unlike an MBA, law, or medical degree, you don't have to worry about paying the sticker price for an econ PhD: After the first year, most schools will give you teaching assistant positions that will pay for the next several years of graduate study, and some schools will take care of your tuition and expenses even in the first year.

Of course, such a good deal won't last long now that the story is out, so you need to act fast! Since he wrote his post, Noah has received a large number of emails asking the obvious follow-up question: "How do I get into an econ PhD program?" And Miles has been asked the same thing many times by undergraduates and other students at the University of Michigan. So here, we present together our guide for how to break into the academic Elysium called Econ Ph.D. Land:

(Note: This guide is mainly directed toward native English speakers, or those from countries whose graduate students are typically fluent in English, such as India and most European countries. Almost all highly ranked graduate programs teach economics in English, and we find that students learn the subtle non-mathematical skills in economics better if English is second nature. If your nationality will make admissions committees wonder about your English skills, you can either get your bachelor's degree at a -- possibly foreign -- college or university where almost all classes are taught in English, or you will have to compensate by being better on other dimensions. On the bright side, if you are a native English speaker, or from a country whose graduate students are typically fluent in English, you are already ahead in your quest to get into an economics Ph.D. program.)

Here is the not-very-surprising list of things that will help you get into a good econ Ph.D. program:

  • good grades, especially in whatever math and economics classes you take,
  • a good score on the math GRE,
  • some math classes and a statistics class on your transcript,
  • research experience, and definitely at least one letter of recommendation from a researcher,
  • a demonstrable interest in the field of economics.

Chances are, if you're asking for advice, you probably feel unprepared in one of two ways. Either you don't have a sterling math background, or you have quantitative skills but are new to the field of econ. Fortunately, we have advice for both types of applicant.

If You're Weak in Math...
Fortunately, if you're weak in math, we have good news: Math is something you can learn. That may sound like a crazy claim to most Americans, who are raised to believe that math ability is in the genes. It may even sound like arrogance coming from two people who have never had to struggle with math. But we've both taught people math for many years, and we really believe that it's true. Genes help a bit, but math is like a foreign language or a sport: effort will result in skill.

Here are the math classes you absolutely should take to get into a good econ program:

  • Linear algebra
  • Multivariable calculus
  • Statistics

Here are the classes you should take, but can probably get away with studying on your own:

  • Ordinary differential equations
  • Real analysis

Linear algebra (matrices, vectors, and all that) is something that you'll use all the time in econ, especially when doing work on a computer. Multivariable calculus also will be used a lot. And stats of course is absolutely key to almost everything economists do. Differential equations are something you will use once in a while. And real analysis -- by far the hardest subject of the five -- is something that you will probably never use in real econ research, but which the economics field has decided to use as a sort of general intelligence signaling device.

If you took some math classes but didn't do very well, don't worry. Retake the classes. If you are worried about how that will look on your transcript, take the class the first time "off the books" at a different college (many community colleges have calculus classes) or online. Or if you have already gotten a bad grade, take it a second time off the books and then a third time for your transcript. If you work hard, every time you take the class you'll do better. You will learn the math and be able to prove it by the grade you get. Not only will this help you get into an econ Ph.D. program, once you get in, you'll breeze through parts of grad school that would otherwise be agony.

Here's another useful tip: Get a book and study math on your own before taking the corresponding class for a grade. Reading math on your own is something you're going to have to get used to doing in grad school anyway (especially during your dissertation!), so it's good to get used to it now. Beyond course-related books, you can either pick up a subject-specific book (Miles learned much of his math from studying books in the Schaum's outline series), or get a "math for economists" book; regarding the latter, Miles recommends Mathematics for Economists by Simon and Blume, while Noah swears by Mathematical Methods and Models for Economists by de la Fuente. When you study on your own, the most important thing is to work through a bunch of problems. That will give you practice for test-taking, and will be more interesting than just reading through derivations.

Presented by

Miles Kimball & Noah Smith

Miles Kimball is an economics professor at the University of Michigan. He writes about economics, politics and religion. Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University. 

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