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One Student's PhD Economics Experience

Doing a PhD in Economics

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Here's one Ph.D student's response to my article Why Get an Economics Ph.D?. My experience has been nearly identical, so I agree with everything in this e-mail.

On the question of a Master's Degree in Economics - I was in a Master's program (Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada) before I entered my Ph.D. I wouldn't have survived three months as a Ph.D. student had I not attempted an MA in Economics first. So I think they're very valuable, though many do argue that they have no value.

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Thanks for the graduate school focus in your recent articles.

Three of the challenges you mentioned 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 of your undergrad.

I applied unsuccessfully to PhD programs for two years before conceeding 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 math GRE was 780. I had graduated at the top of my class with a 4.0 GPA in my economics major and completed a stats minor, I had two internships - one in research, one in public policy - all while working 30 hours a week to support myself. It was a brutally hard couple of years.

The departments I applied to, and my undergrad adviser, pointed out:

1) I attended a small, regional public university, and our professors spent significant time with students, to the detriment of their own publishing.

2) Though I took a heavy load of stats, I only had two terms of Calc.

3) I had never published, even in an undergrad journal.

4) I aimed for highly-ranked schools in the Midwest - Illinois, Indiana, Vanderbilt, Michigan, Wisconsin, Washington U. in St. Louis - but neglected schools on the Coasts, which might have seen me as a more 'diverse' candidate.

I also made what was considered a tactical error - I went to talk with the graduate programs before I applied. I was later told that this is a taboo, seen as schmoozing. I 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 - only to have him tell me that he would be ending his tenure to take a position at another college, and would not be in on the approval process.

Most suggested I prove myself with a Master's first. I had been told that many schools pick top candidates immediately after undergrad. But this makes sense - departments commit considerable resources to their PhD candidates, and want to make sure their investment will survive first-year exams.

I find it interesting that so few departments offer a terminal Master's in Econ, I'd say about half as many as offer only the terminal PhD. Fewer still offer an academic Master's - most of these are professional programs. Still, I'm glad it gives me a chance to dig deeply into research and see if I'm ready for PhD research.

Thanks for your articles, Mike, and best of luck in your studies.

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Thanks for the great letter!

Be sure to see the links about doing a Ph.D. in Economics on the side of this article.

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