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How to prepare for a PhD in Economics

  1. The key thing you need to know is that PhD programs in economics are highly mathematical and the mathematics required by both our Economics and Management Science degrees is not enough to get you into a top PhD program. To be a competitive applicant, you will need to take some upper division mathematics classes such as how to write proofs (Math 109), linear algebra (Math 102), real analysis (Math 140A or 142AB), probability (Math 180A) and statistics (Math 181AB).  See more below.
  2. Graduate schools care a lot about the difficulty and content of the classes you’ve taken. Getting a high GPA won’t necessarily get you into a good program unless they are the right classes.
  3. If you want to get into a top PhD program, it is especially important to take real analysis (Math 142AB or Math 140ABC—likely Math 140A is enough) and do well in the class. Real analysis teaches you how to write and understand proofs.  These skills will be important to your success in first-year graduate courses as well as in your research career.  Since real analysis tends to be a difficult course everywhere, your grade in this course is often taken as a key signal of your ability to succeed in a PhD program by admissions committees. If possible, try to take this course when you don’t have a lot of other commitments so that you can devote a significant amount of time to this course, learn the material well and get a good grade.
  4. Other upper division mathematics and statistics courses are also helpful. In particular, understanding linear algebra is important in graduate-level econometrics courses. Therefore, taking Math 18 and Math 102 (lower and upper division linear algebra courses) can give you a strong foundation in these topics.
  5. It is also important to have a strong foundation in statistics and probability theory. You will learn a lot of this in the econometrics sequence (if you are interested in pursuing graduate school, you should consider taking the honors classes 120AH-BH-CH). Another class to add to your statistics foundation would be a course in probability (Math 180A).
  6. In general, if you are interested in going to graduate school in Economics, you should seriously consider majoring in Joint Mathematics-Economics. This major will undoubtedly increase your workload, but it will both make you a more attractive applicant for graduate school and give you the mathematical foundation needed to succeed in graduate school. Students who took many math classes in while in high school should consider double majoring in math and economics.
  7. If you have exhausted your undergraduate opportunities to take classes in math and economics, consider taking a graduate class. Taking graduate courses in economics or mathematics can send a strong signal to admissions committees. This can be slightly risky, however. Undergraduates may be at a disadvantage as graduate students tend to form study groups for first year courses. If you decide to take a graduate course, you should plan on devoting A LOT of time to the course.  Again, it is extremely important that you to do well in a graduate class.
  8. Coding is an essential skill to have in graduate school. Therefore, taking courses with a data analysis and coding component (for example, Econ5/Poli5D: Introduction to Social Data Analytics, Econ 112: Macro Data Analysis and Econ 121: Applied Econometrics) can help develop your coding skills. The most popular statistical packages in economics are STATA, R, and MATLAB. If you have the time, it may also be a good idea to take an introduction to programming course from the computer science department.
  9. Courses that have a research component (Econ 191A-B and Econ 199) will also be invaluable preparation for graduate school. By developing your own research topic, you can learn about each step of the research process: from topic selection, background research, data management all the way to analysis and writing. Selecting an empirical topic is especially encouraged as it will give you valuable experience cleaning and analyzing data and getting more comfortable with various data analysis software. This might also be a good indication of whether a career in research is a good fit for you personally. Finally, the Professor teaching Econ 191AB will get to know you and how you tackle problems very well and so be able to write the kind of informed letter of recommendation that graduate schools like to see.

To summarize, in order to prepare for graduate school, it is extremely important to take the right courses and do well in them. To be competitive, you will need to have a record of performing well in difficult mathematics and economics courses.