So What Exactly Do Economists Do?

Defining Who is an Economist and What Economists Do

Businessman looking at bar graph
Businessman looking at bar graph. Getty Images/Hill Street Studios/Blend Images

On this site, we constantly refer to what economists think, believe, discover, and propose in our quest to learn about the economy and economic theory. But who are these economists? And what do economists really do?

What is an Economist?

The complexity in answering what at first appears to be a simple question of what an economist does, lies in the need for a definition of an economist. And what a broad description that can be!

Unlike certain job titles like Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or professional designations and degrees like Medical Doctor (MD), economists do not share a particular job description or even a prescribed higher education curriculum. In fact, there is no exam nor certification process that a person must complete before calling themselves an economist. Because of this, the term can be used loosely or sometimes not at all. There are people who use economics and economic theory heavily in their work but do not have the word "economist" in their title.

It's no surprise then that the most simplistic definition of an economist is simply "an expert in economics" or a "professional in the social science discipline of economics." In academia, for instance, the title economist generally requires a PhD in the discipline. The United States government, on the other hand, hires "economists" for various roles provided they hold a degree that included at least 21 credit hours in economics and 3 hours in statistics, calculus, or accounting.

For the purposes of this article, we will define an economist as someone who:

  1. Holds a post-secondary degree in economics or an economics-related field
  2. Uses the concepts of economics and economic theory in their professional work

This definition will serve as nothing but a starting point as we must recognize that it is imperfect.

For instance, there are people who are commonly considered to be economists, but may hold degrees in other fields. Some, even, who have been published in the field without holding a specific economic degree.

What Do Economists Do?

Using our definition of an economist, an economist can do a great many things. An economist might conduct research, monitor economic trends, collect and analyze data, or study, develop, or apply economic theory. As such, economists may hold positions in business, government, or academia. An economist's focus may be on a particular topic like inflation or interest rates or they may be broad in their approach. Using their understanding of economic relationships, economists might be employed to advise business firms, nonprofits, labor unions, or government agencies. Many economists are involved in the practical application of economic policy, which could include a focus on several areas from finance to labor or energy to health care. An economist may also make their home in academia. Some economists are primarily theoreticians and may spend a majority of their days deep in mathematical models to develop new economic theories and discover new economic relationships.

Others may devote their time equally to research and teaching, and hold a position as a professor to mentor the next generation of economists and economic thinkers.

So perhaps when it comes to economists, a more fitting question might be, "what don't economists do?"