Economics PhD

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This wiki is in very early stages and is a work in progress.

This page contains all notes on Economics PhDs over and above what we put in our career profile. Read the profile first, here.

Profile type


What is this career path?

"How long does a PhD program take? Generally five years. Sometimes six. Once in a while four" [1]

"Usually, this takes several years – technically, a PhD can be completed in 4 years, but this never happens. Five to seven total years is more typical."[2]

  • What’s the basic outline of the PhD program?
      • "The first year is course work in microeconomics, macroeconomics, and econometrics. (In some places, one other course is also taken.) The first year is about learning to build models, which means doing a lot of math. The second year is mostly courses in various economic subfields, sometimes spilling over into the third year. The remaining time is spent writing a dissertation."

What is it like day-to-day?

You are usually not tied to an advisor, so get a fair amount of autonomy. You usually have to teach.

" can start doing your own original, independent research the minute you show up (or even before!). Profs generally encourage you to start your own projects."

"Econ allows you to think about human interactions, and social phenomena, in a number of different intellectually rigorous ways (e.g. game theory, incentives, decision theory, quantification of norms and values, bounded rationality, etc.)."

"And economists, even if their research is highly specialized, are encouraged to think about all different kinds of topics in the field, and encouraged to think freely and originally. That's something few people appreciate. In a lab science, in contrast, you are encouraged to burrow down in your area of hyper-specialization.

In econ, furthermore, you get exposed to a bunch of different disciplines; you get to learn some statistics, a little math, some sociology, a bit of psychology, and maybe even some history." [3]

What first year classes are like What second year classes are like

What are the people like?

Role impact

How valuable if don’t get into a top tier school? "Apply to schools outside of the top 20—any school in the top 100 is worth considering, especially if it is strong in areas you are interested in. If your classmates aren’t as elite as you would like, that just means that you will get more attention from the professors, who almost all came out of top programs themselves. When Noah said in his earlier post that econ PhD students are virtually guaranteed to get jobs in an econ-related field, that applied to schools far down in the ranking. Everyone participates in the legendary centrally managed econ job market. Very few people ever fall through the cracks."[4]

According to Malcolm Gladwell being a below average performer has lasting psychological effects on your success, which favours going to tell elite schools.[5]

Direct impact potential

What knowledge do you get, and how useful is it actually? From interview with Robin Hanson: "A firm grasp of basic economics concepts and theory, developed through years of practice, is very valuable for understanding how the social world works, which is helpful for evaluating causes and interventions."[6]

Earnings potential

What earnings premium do you get? Is it a positive return taking into account opportunity costs and selection effects?

Advocacy potential

Career capital

Common exits

How easy is it to transfer from economics into other academic disciplines? i.e. social sciences (one of the key selling points is flexibility in academia) "3. What other profession gives you so much freedom to choose your research topics? Many economists now devote their careers to studying topics which an outsider would classify as political science, psychology, or sociology. Some economists even do work that basically amounts to history or philosophy, though they probably need to work on more conventional topics until they get tenure."[7]

"A number of PhD economists hold faculty positions in MBA programs, law and medical schools, public policy programs, and in a number of other fields." [8] What specific policy options does it open?

How much does it help you go into industry? i.e. non-policy, non-academia.

Consulting and finance jobs are cited as common exits. "But if you don't get a tenure-track job, you will get a well-paid job as a consultant, or a well-paid job in finance, or a decently-well-paid job in one of the many, many government agencies that hire armies of economists." [9]


Exploration value

Personal fit

From A Guide for UCSB Undergraduates Considering a PhD in Economics:

How do I know if I’m cut out for an economics PhD?

  • I love intellectual pursuits and being a student. The idea of making discoveries is incredibly exciting.
  • I enjoy math and I’m good at it.
  • The formal models in my econ courses are the best part.
  • Studying 70-90 hours a week is fine by me.
I’m really good at economic intuition but not so good at math, although I can handle basic calculus. What kind of PhD program should I look at?
Look for a program in a different field. (Sorry, but you have to be comfortable with math to do an econ PhD.)


Bryan Caplan "Overall, the econ Ph.D. is such a good deal that I would seriously advise people who want to do research in political science, psychology, or even history to just get an econ Ph.D. and become a professor of economics. Even if you have to research topics you don't care about until you get tenure (and you probably won't have to), you could easily earn tenure in econ before you would have defended your dissertation in another field." [11]

How can you figure out if you are one of these ppl and not already studying it?

  • What’s the best way to find out if I want to do an econ PhD and to show programs that I’m well suited?
      • Take the hardest economic theory courses offered at UCSB. Sometimes undergraduates take part of the first year PhD sequence at UCSB, particularly 210A (Check with econ undergraduate advising about this.) If you like 210A and get an A, this is a strong mutual signal for you and prospective programs.[12]
  • Working as a research assistant for a PhD economist engaged in academic research can be an invaluable experience. The perfect example is becoming a research assistant for two years at a Federal Reserve bank or JPAL/IPA. There are similar positions available at a small number of think tanks and research oriented international development agencies. Some university faculty also hire recent graduates. Being part of an academic research team can help you discover if this is the career you want. And it provides an opportunity for a really meaningful letter of recommendation. Even if you discover research economics is not for you, these jobs are a fine start to a career. (The pay is generally okay as well.) Two caveats: These positions are very competitive and usually require at least some computer/statistical skills.
      • is a good place to look for openings.
      • Be careful that a research assistant position includes a good deal of interaction with the economist you are working for. You need a real connection to get a good letter of recommendation.

Entry requirements

Who can actually get one of these?

  1. A good score on the quantitative reasoning section of the GRE - 165 or higher for most programs.
  2. A high GPA, especially in economics and mathematics.
  3. Excellent letters of recommendation.[13]

Data for the 2013-2014 application cycle (77 institutions reports, source AER, May 2014)

Applications Offers of admissions Acceptances Enrolled
22,805 3,486 1,200 1,118
Harvard UC Berkeley Wisconsin Rice
NRC Ranking Top 5 Top 10 Top 20 Top 100
Quant GRE 166 163 (or higher)+ 163-164 163 (approx)
GPA 3.8 3.75 3.0+
Admit/Apply 30/800 60/800 120/500 8/250


"Does it matter if I’m not an American?" "Citizenship is generally irrelevant for admission. It may matter a little for financial aid. At public schools tuition rates may differ for non-Americans. Note that at the top programs the majority of students may be non-Americans." [14]

" aware that the culture of economics is still fairly conservative, and not in the good way. Econ is one of the few places in our society where overtly racist and sexist ideas are not totally taboo (Steve Landsburg is an extreme example, but that gives you the general flavor). Discrimination against women, in particular, probably still exists, though I'd say (or I'd hope, anyway) that it's on the wane."[15]

"Although economics used to be male-dominated, this has changed significantly. Currently about one-third of econ grad students are female. The Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession tracks our progress in this area" [16]

Job satisfaction

Drawbacks to doing an economics PhD include a low standard of living during graduate school, the stresses that come with a high degree of autonomy, and the field’s conservative culture.[17]

"...econ PhD programs force you to manage your own time, while giving you very little feedback about how well or badly you're actually doing. That can be stressful and depressing." [18]


"1. What other Ph.D. can you realistically finish in 4 years? People in other fields routinely take six or eight years to get their degrees. Most economists don't finish in 4 years, but it's quite do-able."[19]

Past experience

Take action

Learn more

Next steps

How to transfer into it from other subjects?

Bryan Caplan - "Ph.D.-level econ is so different from undergraduate econ that it isn't that much of a handicap to start from scratch. You do of course need to know a fair amount of math, but you could have learned that math studying dozens of other fields." [20]

Best resources

Guides to getting a place

QZ - The complete guide to getting into an economics PhD program

Miles and Noah: The Complete Guide to Getting Into an Economics PhD Program

A Guide for UCSB Undergraduates Considering a PhD in Economics

Tips on Applying to Top Graduate Programs in Economics

Tips for Applying to PhD Programs in Economics

Maximizing Application Utility: A Guide for BYU Undergraduates in Preparation for Graduate Work in Economics

Which program to take?

Remaining issues

  1. How easy is it to transition into academic jobs in fields outside of economics? E.g. statistics, maths, sociology, psychology, history.
  2. What proportion of those who get jobs in academia get tenure-track jobs, and what proportion get post-docs? How does economics compare to other disciplines on what proportion of PhDs can get tenure?
  3. What is the dropout rate for this PhD?

Research process

Previous version of profile



A Guide for UCSB Undergraduates Considering a PhD in Economics

Bryan Caplan - Is the Econ Ph.D. a Free Lunch?

QZ - The complete guide to getting into an economics PhD program


Noah Smith - If you get a PhD, get an economics PhD

The value of economics PhDs: A conversation with Robin Hanson

Should You Get a PhD in Economics? Links and Resources

[ Considering Graduate School in Economics? Some Unofficial Advice From Bill Craighead, Wesleyan University]

Miles and Noah: The Complete Guide to Getting Into an Economics PhD Program

Five-Thirty-Eight - What The Next Generation Of Economists Is Working On


Tips on Applying to Top Graduate Programs in Economics

[ Tips for Applying to PhD Programs in Economics

Maximizing Application Utility: A Guide for BYU Undergraduates in Preparation for Graduate Work in Economics


American Economic Association Universal Academic Questionnaire Summary Statistics


National Science Foundation: TABLE 60. Statistical profile of doctorate recipients in social sciences fields, by sex and field of study: 2013

National Science Foundation: TABLE 61. Statistical profile of postgraduation plans of doctorate recipients in social sciences fields, by sex and field of study: 2013