Having been through the whole process of applying for a PhD in economics, I thought that it might be time to write my share of the pie and give tribute to all those whose work helped my own decision and application. I learned what I’m writing here from many sources (especially urch forums), so if you see any benefit in this guide, take the time to spread it. I should also say that internet certainly isn’t the only place where information about the application process can be found: your professors (especially young ones), for example, are a great resource to exploit.
« Why a PhD in economics? » Is probably the first question one would ask. This path requires dedication, and you better be sure to be mature enough to attain a satisfactory answer. The number of PhD students I’ve met that regretted their choice is simply astonishing (as is the number of extremely happy students), and I guess many landed there due to the how cool effect the prospect of a PhD in economics provides – yet did not take the time to think their choice thoroughly.
Perhaps many don’t realize what the life of a modern academic economist actually (seem to) consist of, at least at the beginning of a career: long hours sitting down trying to deepen a promising idea, pin down the right theoretical model, coding relentlessly, struggling to grasp some mathematical derivation – a set of activities enjoyed by a fairly restraint share of the population, especially at times where life in developed countries can be so entertaining. But enjoying these is crucial, because that’s what time will consist of, and it will allow you to perform well. In that sense, getting some experience as a research assistant is priceless, for it will give you an accurate idea of what it could look like (and it will also raise your chances). I was also advised – and I do recommend it – to pick a topic you particularly like and spend some time (a couple of days) to think about how you would explore it both theoretically and empirically. Record your feelings while you do that. And remember your time writing your thesis. Did you have fun writing it? If your feelings were negative, do take the time to sit down and think your decision thoroughly.
Another common source of concern is the potential monetary gain from a PhD in economics compared to what one would earn elsewhere, the private sector in particular. It seems to me that our prospects are actually quite amazing: not only are the wages potentially very comfortable, but you also retain a certain flexibility, with jobs ranging everywhere from the private sector to academia (even outside econ: social sciences, mathematics). An econ PhD became in fact almost mandatory for many interesting positions such as senior economists for central banks or at the IMF/World Bank, and elsewhere in the public sector. So really, unless your only aim in life is to have the lifestyle of a New York investment banker – in which case you should probably stay away of academia – there is little doubt that a PhD in economics is a good investment for your future, as long as you gain enough utility from it to forgo the opportunity cost.
At which school? Well, this obviously depends on your own desires, abilities and background. If you’re among those who have the opportunity to choose, you probably don’t need to read what follows. Similarly, if you have some strong regional (or emotional) preferences that severely restrict the set of schools you’re applying to, then this section certainly is of little help to you. But for the vast majority of applicants, the goal is usually to go where is best given a certain background. First, as long as you’re looking above the top10, the U.S. is a must. There seems to be a very strong consensus around this answer. The training at U.S. institutions is simply longer, deeper and overall better, as will be your prospects (even if you plan to return home). The only exception to that rule would be if you had already a very clear idea of what you’re going to work on in the medium term (which includes your thesis) and believed that you are not to suffer from the usually lower quality of education at extra-U.S. programs, i.e. if you believed that you can easily learn by yourself what your program could lack. Having a professor in that field that already supports you is also a consideration. But except from that, the U.S. should be an objective for everybody.
So where should you aim at? Every year, top programs receive roughly 1’000 applications each, for about 40-50 acceptances – and an entry class of around 20 students. So competition is fierce, and a ridiculously high number of applicants completely misestimate their chances, losing money in the process (and giving part of it to ETS, which is even worse). So let me attempt at a quick tentative guide of what are the profiles of applicants likely to crack these different schools. Let me remind you that my view is subjective by definition and that if you want to make a proper opinion of how to get in a certain university for yourself, your best bet is to go on its website and look at the typical profiles of students that entered there.
So let’s first talk about the top of the top, which includes MIT and Harvard. To get admitted there, you’ll most likely need to:
I. Have been educated in a top school of your country, and have ended among the very top of your cohort, with top grades in all economics and math subjects with only a very few exceptions allowed. Again, what matters is your relative placement in the cohort, not your absolute grades (especially in undergrad).
II. Have solid math foundations, piling up to real analysis and some advanced probability/statistics. The more math the better.
III. Have a GRE quant of 166 or above. This is probably necessary, but certainly not sufficient. The rest of the GRE grades doesn’t matter.
IV. Have stellar referee letters. I define a stellar referee letter as one where (1) the writer is an active professor (known at least in his field), or a rising assistant professor coming from a top school if he’s young, (2) he/she knows you well and (3) he/she has very good things to say about you, that is, he/she was your research or thesis supervisor and you excelled, or your teacher in a course where you topped the class, or a program director. Since competitive students tend to satisfy the other points above, this will usually be the most decisive factor, especially for U.S. programs.
V. Show some decent abilities at doing research. This is certainly the second most decisive point, and it is neglected by many. Top schools seem to especially like students who’ve spent a couple of years (possibly part-time) being research assistants. An outstanding bachelor’s or master’s thesis could compensate a bit, but not much. Having published a paper in a decent peer-reviewed journal certainly can’t hurt that aspect.
VI. Luck, and contacts. Yes, there is a fair amount of randomness, and not much can be do about it, although having a solid network can help, as my own experience suggests – more on that later.
VII. Finally, you also probably have some kind of outstanding achievements behind you. This may be the publication of a paper, an exceptional path outside of academia, obtaining a grant from the National Science Foundation or a Fulbright fellowship, or an unusual educational background.
To be clear, most of these points are neither necessary nor sufficient, but if you lack more than one of them, it is very likely your chances are extremely thin. Now if we move to my subjective top10, which includes in a first block Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley, Chicago and a in a second block NYU, Yale, Northwestern, Columbia, this list doesn’t change much, but you’re allowed to have some more gaps. For instance, I didn’t have much research experience nor outstanding thesis, and had only two good letters. The further you go down the list of schools, the more constraints you can relax.
What if you fall off of many of these aspects? Luckily, plenty of them can be adjusted. But let me remind you firstly that this is just a signaling game that you sometimes lose out of bad luck, and there are plenty of successful students that comes from outside of « my » top10: in the U.S., I’m talking about Penn, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Brown, UCLA, Duke, and others; UBC and Toronto in Canada; and in Europe LSE, Barcelona/GSE, Oxford, Toulouse/TSE, Paris/PSE, UCL, Zürich, and so on. Since many professors and assistants professors at these schools are coming out of top10 programs, the quality of the teaching you’ll have there will likely be as good, and if your research follows, you will have no troubles moving up the ladder, so there aren’t any reasons to panic.
Moreover, some schools are very strong in certain specific areas of research, and if they happen to match your interests, there can be as good as top10s. Finally, do not forget about business schools, especially if you have ties with finance or management. So if you apply in the top15, it is usually recommended to send applications to the top10 business schools as well. There also exist some prestigious joint programs, such as the PhD program in financial economics at the University of Chicago.
Hopefully, at this stage you’ll be certain that you want to pursue a PhD and have now a list of about five to ten schools to which you would like to get in, and realistically think you could. The next article talks more extensively about how to adjust the potential weaknesses in your profile, and the admission process per se.