What You Should Know Before Applying to an Economics PhD Program

Here's One Student's Experience Applying to an Economics PhD Program

Graduate student, rear view
Graduate student, rear view. Getty Images/H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock

I recently wrote an article about the types of people who shouldn't pursue a Ph.D. in economics. Don't get me wrong, I love economics. I've spent a majority of my adult life in the pursuit of knowledge in the field studying around the world and even teaching it at the university level. You may love studying economics, too, but a Ph.D. program is an entirely different beast that requires a very specific type of person and student. After my article was published, I received an email from a reader, who just happened to be a potential Ph.D. student. 

This reader's experience and insights into the economics Ph.D. program application process were so on point that I felt the need to share the insights. For those considering applying to a Ph.D. program in Economics, give this email a read.

One Student's Experience Applying to an Economics Ph.D. Program

"Thanks for the graduate school focus in your recent articles. Three of the challenges you mentioned [in your recent article] really hit home:

  1. American students have a comparative disadvantage for selection compared to foreign students.
  2. The importance of math cannot be overstated.
  3. Reputation is a huge factor, especially that of your undergraduate program.

I applied unsuccessfully to Ph.D. programs for two years before conceding that I might not be ready for them. Only one, Vanderbilt, gave me even a wait-list consideration.

I was a little embarrassed at being shunned. My mathematics GRE was 780. I had graduated at the top of my class with a 4.0 GPA in my economics major and completed a statistics minor. I had two internships: one in research, one in public policy. And accomplished this all while working 30 hours a week to support me. It was a brutally hard couple of years.

The Ph.D. departments I applied to and my undergraduate adviser all pointed out:

  • I attended a small, regional public university, and our professors spent significant time with students to the detriment of their own publishing.
  • Though I took a heavy load of statistics coursework, I only had two terms of calculus.
  • I had never been published; not even in an undergraduate journal.
  • I aimed for highly-ranked schools in the Midwest like Illinois, Indiana, Vanderbilt, Michigan, Wisconsin, Washington University in St. Louis, but neglected schools on the coasts, which might have seen me as a more 'diverse' candidate.

I also made what many considered a tactical error: I went to talk with the graduate programs before I applied. I was later told that this is a taboo and seen as schmoozing. I even talked at length with the director of one program. We ended up talking shop for two hours and he invited me to attend presentations and brown bags whenever I was in town. But soon I would learn that he would be ending his tenure to take a position at another college, and would no longer be involved in the approval process for that program.

After going through these obstacles, some suggested I prove myself with a Master's Degree in Economics first. I had originally been told that many schools pick top candidates immediately after undergraduate, but this new advice made sense because departments commit considerable resources to their Ph.D. candidates and want to make sure their investment will survive first-year exams.

With that path in mind, I found it interesting that so few departments offer a terminal Masters in Economic. I'd say about half as many as those that offer only the terminal Ph.D. Fewer still offer an academic Master's - most of these are professional programs. Still, I'm glad it gives me a chance to dig deeper into research and see if I'm ready for Ph.D. research."

My Response 

This was such a great letter for many reasons. First, it was genuine. It wasn't a "why didn't I get into a Ph.D. program" rant, but a personal story told with thoughtful insights. In fact, my experience has been nearly identical, and I would encourage any undergraduate student considering pursuing a Ph.D. in economics to take this reader's insights to heart. I, myself, was in a Master's program (at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada) before I entered my Ph.D. program. Today, I must admit that I wouldn't have survived three months as a Ph.D. student had I not attempted an MA in Economics first.