Economics PhD

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What is this career path?

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." [1]

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."[2]

According to Malcolm Gladwell being a below average performer has lasting psychological effects on your success, which favours going to tell elite schools.[3]

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."[4]

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) 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." [5]


Exploration value

Personal fit

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." [6]

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.[7]

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


" 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."[8]

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.[9]

"...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." [10]


Past experience

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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." [11]

Best resources

Research process


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