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One Student's PhD Economics Experience

Doing a PhD in Economics


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.


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.


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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