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Graduate School

A college degree costs a lot time and money, and if done right should help one find success on the job market and in a future career. No graduate school required. So when I was a college sophomore the thought of going on to graduate school did not hold much appeal. That said, when I set off for the London School of Economics (LSE) for a junior year abroad, I did not have a particular career in mind. LSE’s lecture courses had weekly recitations taught by graduate students, though, so I received some first-hand opportunities to learn about research, research methods, and graduate school experiences. What I learned seemed interesting, and as I laid the groundwork my senior thesis at Kalamazoo College, I concluded that a career in research would be a good fit for me.


I am preparing these tips to help students navigate the graduate school landscape I found in economics. It can be intimidating, especially for students who may feel underprepared for the technical training that the field leans heavily on. For better or for worse, undergraduate economics courses are only occasionally technical. A little training in mathematics and statistics, though, can go a long way to graduate school preparation.

The first thing to know is that graduate school training in economics is oriented around research methods and analysis. In contrast, undergraduate training focuses on content knowledge. For example, most undergraduates learn about supply and demand but not how to measure supply and demand; measuring supply and demand requires knowing how to identify and calculate the relationships between variables, which in turn requires gathering data, learning about survey methods, and training in statistics. Graduate school will provide the technical training you need to pursue a career in research. If you are not sure if you like research, then seek out a faculty mentor to supervise independent research credits or to work as a research assistant, or intern at a consulting firm.

Degree paths

Once you have decided to pursue graduate training, the next step is to determine which degree pathway is the best fit. This choice will depend partly on your interests and partly on your coursework. Theoretical and mathematical rigor varies across graduate programs, and graduate acceptance committees will only accept applicants they believe have the preparation for the courses in their program. Thus, the more economics and mathematics training a student has, the more program options will be available to them. In any case, there is great variety of graduate schools, so just be careful to find the options that best fit you. Often, program websites will list the jobs of recent graduates, which allows you to select the programs setting students up for the career you want.


The traditional pathway is the PhD in economics at a flagship university. A flagship university is one of the largest, most competitive universities in the country or in a state, such as Harvard or University of Michigan. There are many rankings of PhD programs, and the flagships are at the top. These programs require significant training in mathematics. Most students acquire this training as undergraduates and enroll in the PhD without a MA or MS. Programs feature two years of coursework in economic theory, mathematics, statistics, econometrics, and several in the student’s area of interest, before three years of dissertation work. Except at the top schools in the country, most programs experience substantial attrition—roughly one-third of attending students—during the first two years. The dissertation is work done almost entirely by the student that is arranged into three or so chapters (not including any introduction, literature review, or appendices), each of which could be eventually published as peer-reviewed articles. PhD graduates go on to work at top consulting firms, major national companies and organizations, government agencies, and universities.


A PhD program provides graduates the training they need to conduct independent research while advancing the frontier of best practices. This means that a PhD graduate will not only understand the best methods to answer a research question, but ideally how to improve those methods, if circumstances allow. PhD economists may be supervising and directing other researchers shortly after graduating.


Another traditional pathway is getting a PhD in an agricultural economics or similar applied economics program. These programs are located at historical Land Grant universities that have grown into state flagships, such as Purdue University and University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. As in “vanilla” economics programs, a PhD in agricultural economics provides training in economic theory, mathematics, and statistics, and students must complete a dissertation. There are a few key differences between agricultural economics and economics graduate study, though. First, agricultural economics departments are usually housed in an agricultural and natural resources college, with a mandate to provide research and education that contributes, as directly as practicable, to the productivity and wellbeing of households and workers. Second, a greater portion of faculty and graduate student research is grant-funded. As a result, “ag econ” PhD students tend to start research earlier in the program, work more closely with a PhD faculty supervisor, and have more cross-disciplinary experiences (especially in agriculture and natural resource topics).


Usually, students interested in a PhD in agricultural economics pursue a MA or MS before applying to the PhD. It could be a MA in economics, a MS in agricultural economics, or some other degree. I would recommend an MS in agricultural economics because you are more likely to get the research mentoring and experience you will need to be successful during the PhD. It is also likely to provide more of the applied technical experience that employers are looking for. However, while pursuing a MA or MS before applying to a PhD is common in agricultural and other applied economics fields, it is not the traditional path in vanilla economics programs; it can be done, but know that most MA or MS programs do not provide all the preparation needed for a PhD in economics (such as coursework in probability theory and real analysis).


A MA or MS degree in economics also prepares graduates for research and analysis. Similar to a PhD, graduates will know how to answer research questions with rigorous methods, though not necessarily to push forward the methodological frontier. These programs can last from one to two years. Some programs require writing a thesis after the first year of coursework. Not all flagship universities offer a terminal MA or MS in economics, though. However, many non-flagship universities do; these programs tend to be less competitive and, due to fewer faculty, may specialize in some topics more than others. Thus, if you have taken few economics and mathematics courses as an undergraduate, an MA or MS could provide a good path, however if you are interested in environmental economics, you may find it difficult to find a program that offers graduate coursework related to the environment; in this case, you may want to consider a MS in agricultural economics, because agricultural economics departments often have several environmental and resource economics faculty.

Degree preparation

Students tend to fall into one of the following groups, based on their coursework. (I call out environmental economics in the first box as the topics course because almost every student I interact with has taken or is taking environmental economics or similarly themed course, like ecological economics.)


Principals of Microeconomics

Business Statistics

Calculus I

Environmental Economics or other topics course


Intermediate Microeconomics


Calculus II

Independent research course


Probability Theory

Linear Algebra

Calculus III

Real Analysis

The beginning student has taken a couple courses in economics as well as courses in statistics and calculus. The statistics course is often part of their major requirement (that may be named something like Environmental Statistics for environmental studies majors or Statistics for Social Research for sociology majors, such as at Loyola University Chicago). The calculus course is usually a university core required for graduation. The student may be interested in but without much experience in research.


The intermediate student has the basic courses, plus intermediate microeconomics, econometrics, and more calculus. If I am working with a beginning student at Loyola, then I either strongly encourage this set of courses as part of my mentoring. Similarly, other students may take the econometrics course at the behest of a faculty mentor supervising their independent research. Probably most students fall into this category because they are majoring in economics. In any case, this is the type of student that approaches me asking about graduate school. It is also the type of student I usually hire as a graduate research assistant.


The advanced student is usually either minoring in mathematics or double majoring, although this is not required. If you are interested in working toward a PhD, then the advanced calculus, linear algebra, and probability courses are essential for success. If you want a terminal masters, then I would recommend the advanced calculus and linear algebra courses. To be clear, though, this profile is closer to the ideal than to the minimum requirements for graduate school. In my current position, I rarely work to get into graduate school the advanced type of student.


The beginning student will find some terminal MA and MS programs open to them, but they may struggle to get accepted into competitive masters programs and are not ready for a PhD. This is not say that they cannot eventually pursue a PhD, but before they do they need to load up on additional economics, mathematics, and statistics courses (and try their hand at research).


The intermediate student is also not ready for a PhD, but they are discretely more prepared than the beginning student. They are ready to jump into advanced mathematics courses, which they could take as a MA or MS student. They may be able to get into competitive MA or MS programs, especially if they have a high GPA and high GRE scores.


Students should apply to graduate programs likely to award them a scholarship or assistantship. Programs at flagship universities usually offer teaching and research assistantships that provide a monthly salary as well as pay the student’s tuition. Teaching assistantships are most common in an economics PhD. Usually, the department provides what is called a nine month “one-half time” teaching assistantship, with the student working as a teaching aid, grader, instructor, or similar capacity for half of their time (20 hours per week) during the academic year, with the other half taken up studying and attending classes. The size of the financial package can scale with the prior coursework and training of the student, with some receiving small fellowships to supplement their base assistantship award. Large fellowships that pay the student’s tuition and a stipend without requiring 20 hours of work per week are common at top-ranked schools or reserved for the best-prepared applicants. Regardless, there is no separate application for funding, although students should pay attention to any forms from the department or school that might ask if they want to be considered for funding. Funding is typically awarded based on merit rather than financial need, although there may be exceptions.


Research assistantships are common to MS and PhD programs in agricultural economics. Funding can come from the department, the school, or an external grant. Research assistantships are often awarded as one-half time appointments, with the student working for 20 hours per week for nine months, though sometimes twelve. A faculty member will supervise the student’s work. While not all assistantships are tied to an existing project, faculty members usually design grant-funded assistantships to support their own projects or “lab.” Grant-funded research with a faculty mentor can put students on a fast track to experiencing research and analysis, publishing peer-reviewed articles, and networking. A half-time assistantship salary can vary greatly from program to program, and grant to grant; it could be less than $2,000 to perhaps $3000 per month. Most assistantships cover tuition costs. Unlike in some of the hard sciences, students interested in research assistantships do not need to contact a faculty member to be considered, although they can inquire with the graduate coordinator about the possibility of funding.


Assistantships and fellowships are less common at programs that only offer terminal MA and MS degrees. About one-quarter of economics MA and MS students are on assistantships. The exception is probably agricultural economics departments, including those offering a masters but not a PhD program, like at Montana State University and the University of Delaware, which will be able to support most students using a mix of departmental and grant-funded research assistantships.

Final thoughts

I have worked with many students who were great candidates for graduate school because they could carry out research independently, with a moderate amount of supervision. That means carrying out a self-directed project or following a faculty member’s plan of work. Do not be intimidated by the technical requirements in an economics graduate program if you want to make a career out of research. Technical requirements are there not because economists love math but because good analysis requires more than just subject knowledge and intuition. The scientific revolution did not happen because scholars avoided technical knowledge; quite the opposite. We can stand on the shoulders of giants. Most students already have the basic training they need to jump into intermediate coursework, before applying to a MA or MS program. Students can have all of their graduate schooling paid for if they are accepted into an economics PhD at a flagship university or an agricultural economics MS or PhD at a Land Grant university.

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