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By Roman Duda · Published June 2015
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On this page:
- 1 Research process
- 2 What is this career path?
- 3 Entry requirements
- 4.1 Doing high impact research
- 4.2 Advocacy potential
- 4.3 Other benefits
- 5 What are the downsides of doing an economics PhD?
- 6 Who should consider doing an economics PhD?
- 7 Next steps
- 8 Learn more
- 9 Get free, one-on-one career advice
An economics PhD is one of the most attractive graduate programs: if you get through, you have a high chance of landing an impactful research job in academia or policy. In particular, academic economics is one of the best ways of conducting and promoting global priorities research, one of our priority paths . You have back-up options in the corporate sector since the skills you learn are in-demand (unlike many PhD programs). You should especially consider an economics PhD if you want to go into research roles, are good at math (i.e. quant GRE score above 165) and have a proven interest in economics research.
- • Decent chance of entering economics academia, which has potential for highly valuable research (such as contributing to global priorities research) and the option of working on topics in related social sciences.
- • In demand by think-tanks, government departments and international organisations (e.g. IMF, World Bank).
- • Gain a broad set of tools for understanding how the social world works and evaluating causes and interventions.
- • High degree of autonomy when writing your dissertation.
- • Backup options in the corporate sector.
- • Takes a long time (5-7 years), with low pay.
- • Doing highly open-ended research provides little feedback which can be unmotivating.
Ease of competition:
Our reasoning for these ratings is explained below . You might also like to read about our approach to rating careers .
Key facts on fit
You can test your ability and interest by taking classes in economics, math and statistics either at your university or online. You don’t need an economics undergraduate degree to enter but proven math ability is required, so make sure you study quantitative subjects. See this guide to getting into an economics PhD program.
Get free, one-on-one career advice
We’ve helped hundreds of people compare between their options and introduced them to people who can help them with their career. If you’re interested in using an economics PhD to work on issues like global priorities research or artificial intelligence policy , apply for our free coaching service :
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If you are well suited to this career, it may be the best way for you to have a social impact.
Based on a shallow investigation
Table of Contents
For this profile, we interviewed economist Robin Hanson and read the following sources. See all our research in our wiki .
What is this career path?
In this profile we focus on doing an Economics PhD in the US, which usually takes 5-7 years. 1 In the first two years you take classes and the remaining time is spent on writing a dissertation. You usually have to teach during your PhD. More detail on what you do in each phase is here . At the end, you usually apply for jobs through the centrally organised Job Openings for Economists , which is run by the American Economic Association, or you can apply for jobs independently.
An economics major isn’t required but you need proven math ability and it helps to have taken mathematical economics classes.
You also need:
- A high score on the quantitative reasoning section of the GRE – 165 (90th percentile for all individuals taking the GRE) or higher for most programs. If your score is less than 160, your chances are very low. 2
- A high GPA (3.5+), especially in economics and mathematics. 3
- Excellent letters of recommendation from academics; ideally, those that are well-known.
Can you enter from a non-quantitative background? It’s possible, but difficult. You’ll need to spend one to three years retraining. See some advice on how to meet the entry requirements if you have a non-quantitative undergraduate degree .
Why should you do an economics PhD?
Doing high impact research.
Research in economics academia is a potentially very high impact option because you can work on priority cause areas, like global priorities research or AI policy . For example, to contribute to global priorities research you might work on the economics of existential risk and long-term trajectory change, while the macroeconomics, political economy and industrial organisation of AI will be important for developing informed AI policy.
Doing such research is a realistic option because Economics professors get a lot freedom to do research across a wide range of topics and disciplines. That also gives you great option value for future research. 4 You often even get a high degree of autonomy with your dissertation and aren’t forced to specialise narrowly in your advisor’s research interests, giving you freedom to pursue research topics that you most want to work on during your PhD itself (though we’ve heard that sometimes there is pressure to choose topics with higher publication and job market value).
If you do an economics PhD, you have a decent chance of getting a job as an academic: Data indicates that more than half of economics PhD’s get jobs in academia after their PhD. 5
If you don’t get a job in academia, or if you don’t want to, there are other important sectors that explicitly hire economics PhD’s, including:
- Government (e.g. Federal Reserve, Treasury, Department of Justice)
- Nonprofit research organisations and think-tanks (e.g. RAND , National Bureau of Economic Research)
- International organisations (e.g. World Bank, International Monetary Fund)
The impact you can have in these jobs tends to be more direct and focused on specific issues than in academia. Many of these jobs are advertised on the Job Openings for Economists , which means you don’t have to apply for them separately from academic jobs.
Having an economics PhD also puts you in a position to build a public platform and become a public intellectual through journalism and writing books.
You can also influence policy through your research, though some claim that most of the time economists just provide arguments for people with pre-existing views. However there could be room for outsized influence if you provide policy recommendations on issues that are orthogonal to popular disputes, 6 and our guess is that in the long-run economists can change conventional wisdom about what is good policy. You might do this by engaging directly with policy or by conducting academic research on the most pressing problems in order to shift the research priorities of the economics community. Examples of organisations working on the latter are the Global Priorities Institute and the Forethought Foundation .
- You gain a broad set of tools for understanding how the social world works, which is helpful for evaluating causes and interventions. This may help you better evaluate your future career options to have more impact. A notable example of this in action is the founding of GiveDirectly (one of GiveWell’s top recommended charities), which was founded by economics PhD students.
- Excellent job prospects: You are nearly guaranteed a job. The unemployment rate for economics PhD’s is very low (0.8% in 2013) and data indicates that it has the lowest unemployment rate of all science and engineering PhD’s. 7 You also get the benefit of the centrally organised Job Openings for Economists , which allows you to apply to many different jobs in a short period of time and interview for them at the same time, in the same place.
- Academic salaries for economics PhD’s tend to be higher than other PhD’s. The median pay for those who gained economics PhD’s in 2013 and were in full-time employment at a university was $108,000, which is higher than all other science PhD’s. 8 Moreover, the jobs outside of academia which economics PhD’s get are higher paid than non-academic jobs other PhD’s get. 9
What are the downsides of doing an economics PhD?
- You have a relatively low income whilst doing your PhD and have to work very long hours.
- You spend 5-7 years getting exposure only to academia, making this option less good for exploration value.
- The high degree of autonomy you get means there is little external structure on your time, which can be stressful, and you get very little feedback about how well you are doing which can be demotivating.
- Many PhD economists end up in academic jobs where they spend a large portion of their time teaching, leaving less time for research. 10
Who should consider doing an economics PhD?
Commonly given advice is that you should only do an economics PhD if you:
- Are good at math and enjoy formal models in economics
- Are willing to study 50-80 hours per week (hours are particularly long in the first year)
- Love intellectual pursuits and have a strong drive to do self-directed research. 11
If you meet those conditions, then an economics PhD may be a good option for you if you want to go into economics academia or if you want to do high-level research at think-tanks or international organisations.
To get a sense of what academic research looks like, try reading published papers in major journals, such as the American Economic Review ( here is one paper ). You can then test your ability and interest by taking classes in economics, math and statistics either at your university or online.
If you are interested in global priorities research, read our problem profile on the topic, and the research agenda of the Global Priorities Institute.
There are many guides online to getting into an economics PhD. We recommend that you start by reading this one , and then read a few of the others . If you’re applying from a non-quantitative background, see these tips by one of our users.
- Ideas for research questions in economics
- Noah Smith – If you get a PhD, get an economics PhD
- All our articles on Economics PhD’s
- Publishing and Promotion in Economics: The Tyranny of the Top Five by James J. Heckman and Sidharth Moktan
- Podcast: Dr Eva Vivalt’s research suggests social science findings don’t generalize. So evidence-based development – what is it good for?
- Podcast: David Roodman on incarceration, geomagnetic storms, & becoming a world-class researcher
- Podcast: Prof Yew-Kwang Ng is a visionary economist who anticipated many key ideas in effective altruism decades ago. Here’s his take on ethics and how to create a much happier world.
- Podcast: Mushtaq Khan on using institutional economics to predict effective government reforms
- Podcast: Economist Bryan Caplan on whether lazy parenting is OK, what really helps workers, and betting on beliefs
Notes and references
- See our wiki. ↩
- GRE Guide Table 1a and A Guide for UCSB Undergraduates Considering a PhD in Economics ↩
- “An overall GPA of at least 3.5 is a prerequisite. It is not uncommon to see an almost perfect GPA among top candidates.” Tips on Applying to Top Graduate Programs in Economics ↩
- “What other profession gives you so much freedom to choose your research topics? Many economists now devote their careers to studying topics which an outsider would classify as political science, psychology, or sociology. Some economists even do work that basically amounts to history or philosophy, though they probably need to work on more conventional topics until they get tenure.” Bryan Caplan – Is the Econ Ph.D. a Free Lunch? ↩
- “Among the successful job seekers, 62.8 percent found employment in academic institutions as compared to 61.0 percent in the 2013-14 year.” Center for Business and Economic Research, University of Arkansas. SURVEY OF THE LABOR MARKET FOR NEW PH.D. HIRES IN ECONOMICS 2015-2016 See also National Science Foundation. TABLE 61. Statistical profile of postgraduation plans of doctorate recipients in social sciences fields, by sex and field of study: 2013 ↩
- “Economists rarely influence policy as advisors for people who haven’t made up their minds and want advice. Instead, people who favor a certain position generally seek policy advisors who they will expect will provide arguments favoring their position. So economists, and other policy advisors, often have influence mainly by providing ammunition for advocates of the views they support. There is more room for influence if you provide policy recommendations that are orthogonal to popular disputes.” The value of economics PhDs: A conversation with Robin Hanson ↩
- National Science Foundation. Table 4-1. Unemployment rate among doctoral scientists and engineers, by field of doctorate: 2013 ↩
- National Science Foundation. Table 54. Median annual salaries of full-time employed doctoral scientists and engineers, by field of doctorate and sector of employment: 2013 ↩
- In 2013 Economics PhD’s had the highest median starting salaries of all science doctorates in government ($137,000), nonprofits ($135,000), and for-profit private companies ($148,000). National Science Foundation. Table 54. Median annual salaries of full-time employed doctoral scientists and engineers, by field of doctorate and sector of employment: 2013 ↩
- “…many econ PhDs teach college level courses while conducting very little research.” A Guide for UCSB Undergraduates Considering a PhD in Economics ↩
- A Guide for UCSB Undergraduates Considering a PhD in Economics ↩
What's a PhD program in economics like? And what exactly do you do in it?
I'm currently a first year in an Economics PhD program. Here's the general gist.
First year is just classes, 3 each semester, one in micro one in macro and one in metrics. After an intense year of classes we take prelim exams in August of before the second year to demonstrate general competence in economics.
Second year is more classes but now we get to choose some of them and start to specialize in our chosen field.
Year 3 we begin research and are expected to come up with a paper which will eventually be our dissertation. We also must choose an advisor at this point.
Year 4-5++ research and dissertation writing.
Then when you have made "significant contribution to the field of economics" you defend your dissertation and if you do well enough some old men add 3 extra letters to your name.
The whole time you do this you are spending ~20 hrs a week teaching undergrads so the university will keep paying you.
Note some (mostly European) programs require a masters and skip the first 2 years of classes
Worth noting that the classes are very math-heavy. Not just wrote memorization or writing about economic principles. Freakonomics is fun but studying for a PhD in Econ is not like chatting on the podcast.
If you want to pursue a PhD in Econ, you should take as much math as you can--calculus, linear algebra, real analysis and statistics.
Do you mean that in US you can do PhD after 4 years of undergrad? While in Europe (as I’m going to start soon) you can apply after 3+2 years. Is that the correct distinction?
They could be doing anything related to economics. They could be researching the long term impacts of a specific change in policy at a region; or they could be looking at the impacts on small business or SMEs.
It's too much of a broad topic to ask about. Why not ask him what his research is about? Any good researcher would be able to explain their research in layman terms.
he looked very innocent although he's 31 but I only saw like 8 pictures of him
I can assure you... Looks have absolutely nothing to do with being a researcher.
Correct, I’m going to start a PhD program of 3 years in Italy. Usually we have 3 years of undergrad instead of 4.
Ranked by Size
If your goal is to be a professor at a top school, it's really top-7 (or even top-2) or bust. People do move up -- List comes to mind -- but it's not easy. You will not go from PhD Oregon -> AP at Harvard, unless the system completely breaks and you are severely underplaced into grad school.
The wonderful part about economics is the vast applications of the theory and tools that you learn. Whether you want to be in academia, public or private sector. Getting a PhD in Econ will not pigeon hole in necessarily. A PhD in Econ is a 3 part process. First they teach you the theory behind economics in both macro and micro.
Don't view a PhD as an investment. It is hard to justify an econ phd (or almost any phd) purely on the basis of increased lifetime income. Even ignoring the fact that a phd will usually be earned during some of the more productive and formative years of your life (20-26), 4-5 years for a small bump in expected earnings will almost never work out.
Most others can be obtained through various masters and or experience at a job with a masters. Opportunity cost: Masters is 1 to 2 years of life are the cost of tuition which could range in total from about 20,000 to over 100,000. PHD is 5 years of your life, a massive amount of stress, and the time/money costs of preparing.
An economics PhD is one of the most attractive graduate programs: if you get through, you have a high chance of landing an impactful research job in academia or policy. In particular, academic economics is one of the best ways of conducting and promoting global priorities research, one of our priority paths.
What's a PhD program in economics like? And what exactly do you do in it?. 7 comments. share. save. hide. report. 88% Upvoted. Log in or sign up to leave a comment ...