Applying to Grad School in Economics
- Is grad school right for you?
- Deciding where to apply.
- Choosing classes.
- Recommendation letters.
- Financial aid.
- GRE and Toefl.
- After you got in.
Disclaimer: these are just opinions and people can disagree with the
Is graduate school right for you?
Graduate school is doing research. You
will read a lot of journal articles and books, write proofs, collect
data or conduct
experiments, and work a lot. Many students also work as
or teaching assistants to earn a stipend. Graduate school is not for
but there are some ways to help you identify whether it is the right
for you to follow.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
The best way to know whether you enjoy doing research and working
in an academic environment is to try it! The first step you should take
to get involved in research as an undergraduate. Talk to your
and teaching assistants and ask if you can work for them as a (paid or
volunteer) research assistant. Commit to a minimum of one year with
them. The more experience you get, the better you will be able to
identify what you enjoy doing, the more exposure you'll get to the
different aspects of conducting research, the more advanced research
tasks you'll learn, etc.
In addition, ask other graduate students about what it's like to
in their doctoral program - both good and bad experiences. Ask them
specific questions about their program and it's requirements and what
the lifestyle of a typical graduate student is like. You should also
talk to professors who know you well and ask them whether they think
you have the potential
to succeed as a graduate student. For information about other
look at departmental webpages and find out what the degree
faculty research interests, etc. are for their program.
Your answers to the following may supply some hints about your
motivations for entering graduate school:
1) Does living on a small stipend for 4-5 years while
studying most of the time repulse you?
How do I research graduate schools and decide where
2) Do you enjoy writing term papers?
3) Does the idea of giving verbal presentations of academic material in
front of large and small groups of very bright people bother you?
4) Do you enjoy reading academic books even if they are not assigned
5) Do you put off studying for a test as long as possible?
6) Have you on many occasions given up desirable social opportunities
in order to study?
7) Do you get very interested in answering some questions?
8) Do you like to study, and can you do so without direction or
assignments from anyone else?
9) Do you read over recent issues of professional journals?
10) Do you dislike library research?
11) Are there other careers besides being a researcher that you'd like
12) Are you sick of school right now?
13) Are your grades mostly A's?
14) Are you self-motivated?
15) Did you do well in statistics?
16) Did you enjoy it?
17) Do you feel a Ph.D. is desirable primarily because of the social
status it gives to those holding it?
18) Do you like the idea of doing research?
19) Do you dislike working for a long time on one topic?
20) What would you do if you didn't go to graduate school?
21) Do you realize that, given the opportunity cost a Ph.D., a MBA or
would be a much better financial investment?
22) Do you have the interest and motivation to succeed in a doctoral
program? Are you sincerely excited about your field?
- First of all, go to a university library and search for
'keywords' in their database to find journal articles and books on
research topics that interest you. Who wrote these articles? What
universities are they affiliated with? Locate other articles and books
written by these individuals to find out as much as you can about their
- Look at universities' web sites and find the econ department
homage. Look for information on faculty interests, graduate
applications, and fellowships. Email the department and ask them to
send you information. Email graduate students and introduce yourself as
a prospective applicant and ask them
what it's like to be in their program (it is best to give them a list
specific questions you have).
- Talk to your professors and ask them if they could recommend
graduate programs and/or people to work with. Also find out what they
know about the individuals you located by doing library research. Ask
about the reputation of their department, their university, and them as
researchers in their field.
- Send an application to at least eight schools. It is a
good idea to apply to at least a couple "back-up" universities, i.e.,
places that may not be your top choices, but because they are perhaps
not as well known or reputable as others, you have a good chance of
being accepted (and where
you would rather go than do something else). You can always decide later
whether you want to attend or not.
- Some other factors to consider as you decide which schools to
1) It is advantageous to go to graduate school where there are at least
two people whose research interests you. Now, beyond just
that the fields in which you might be interested iare offered, you should not
worry too much about it as [a] you will learn the tools that you will need to
define a precise topic only in your first year and be exposed to the existing
literature in the field in your second year (it is only at the end of your
second year that you should be deciding on a topic), [b] by then most people
decide on topics that have hardly anything to do with what they thought that
they would study when they applied, [c] before getting there, there are two
important hurdles that will require all your attention: first admission and then
passing the comprehensive exams to be allowed to stay in the program.
2) Ask your librarian for books that give rankings of each
school/program and list the average GRE test scores, etc. for students
who are accepted
Because it takes several years to finish a doctoral program (5 to 6 years normally), you want to be confident that wherever you end
up attending graduate school, that you enjoy your research and like
your colleagues. Of course, there are many other factors involved in
choosing a program, but these
are the very basics. So it is very important to research the different
Choosing classes (as
- Graduate schools care much more about what hard classes you've
taken and how you've done in them than about overall GPA.
- If you have taken difficult classes its probably a good idea to
point this out in your application essay because schools might not know
the math classes are, which economics classes are the advanced ones,
- If your math background is weak and you are currently out of school,
consider taking a topology class at a university close to you. It will help
your application and help you during your first year of PhD.
Who are the professors who will be writing your letters? You
typically need at least three. Have you seen all of them
they know about your plans for grad school? Some professors will
more involved if you ask them for advice. It is important that
know you are serious about grad school, that you understand what it is
about, and that you are qualified. Make sure this comes across
you meet with them. Check with them as early as possible about
letters, this gives you plenty of time to seek out someone else if they
hesitant (if someone says, "I'm not sure I know you very well" that is
- Help professors to personalize their letter: 1. when asking your
professors to serve as a letter writer (in person or by email) remind them who
you are and how they know you; let them know which graduate programs you are
planning to apply (very important), and let them the opportunity to given them
their opinion on the appropriateness of these schools for you. 2. provide
them with your resume, transcript, and if possible a copy of relevant
application material, including essays. 3. an informal couple of paragraphs
with any additional material that may be relevant for the letter. This paragraph can
include info about your summer
internship or job and how it prepared you for grad school/employment, your
goals, what you have been doing since college (if you are no longer in college
information). It's your
to let him/her know anything extra that you would like the letter to
include or that would help him or her personalize the letter. Don't stress about this, I'll only use it to help you.
- Recommendations which are not from economists (or mathematicians) are
given very little weight for application to a PhD in economics.
- Get recommendations from people who know you well.
- Give professors every possible opportunity to say they don't
feel comfortable recommending you to the school you're applying to. If
they express any hesitation don't have them send it. One bad letter
hurts much more than any good letters can help.
- It's fine to have a letter from someone you worked for even if
they didn't teach you in a class.
- A letter from a relatively senior and prominent professor (but only if he
knows you) cannot hurt.
- Don't take a chance: send a reminder a week before the deadline
to your professors.
- On your graduate school application its very important to write
an essay saying what kinds of areas of economics you're interested in,
you think are interesting, what papers you've read that you've liked
Be as specific as possible. Its not necessary to have a specific thesis
and odds are if you try to pretend you have one when you really don't
come off as sounding very naive which is a bad thing. Mostly schools
read these to see what field you're interested in and to get a sense
you have any idea what you're getting yourself into.
- For a Ph.D. program, these usually require a description of your
past research experience and your future research interests. Some
students will have a thesis or a summer research project to report on
-- that is terrific. The essays flow nicely when you can relate
this project to your future work. The main thing people are
looking for here is that you know what grad school is all about and
that you understand what research is. It also helps if you
include a sentence or two which indicates why a given school is good
for you -- this can be as simple as naming the faculty in the
field. But be careful here -- make sure your information is up to
date, and check it out with a faculty member here.
- For economics, they could care less if you actually do what you
say you are going to do in the essay (most people don't), but in some
the sciences, the information might be relevant for matching you to
specific labs or sources of funding. Talking about the essay with
your letter writers is a good way for them to get up to date with your
interests, and to get feedback. You should definitely get at
least one faculty member to review your essay.
That means getting it done early.
You'll be surprised at how hard it is to write 2 pages.
- Application essays for NSF fellowships have typically been
judged differently. They seem to want a specific thesis proposal and
value clear brief surveys of the existing literature, a clear statement
of what you'd like to add to this, a discussion of datasets you might
want to use etc. They
don't like vague statements about liking economics, and don't seem to
that people aren't really going to do what they say.
- Most programs do not finance the first year of Ph.D. but
generally offer (although they don't commit to it) positions as
teaching or research assistant that finance students in their further
years (up to a limit!).
- Every student applying to graduate school should apply for an
NSF fellowship. Winning one gives you a much better financial deal than
any school will offer. Even if you don't win just the fact that you
applied will increase the probability of your being accepted by
graduate schools. Don't
be surprised to find that the fellowships are only weakly influenced by
grades and GRE scores. The essays matter a lot. Even if its
whether your eligible go ahead and apply. The rules seem to change a
- If you come from a developing country the Ford Foundation, the
and the WorldBank have scholarships http://www.worldbank.org/wbi/scholarships/home.html
- Look at http://www.scholarshiphelp.org/
- Cornell University Graduate School Fellowship Notebook is a good database of available
- Search on the web. For instance google lists
available source of financial aid. But also http://scholarships.kachinatech.com/scholar8.html
Fulbright is a popular source of funding for foreign students,
however it is generally associated with a required two-year stay in
your country. Even with legal assistance, there is no way
to bail-out of it
(even if it was only for a $1,000 travel grant !!! ). Many students
when starting their Ph.D., thought that they would come back to their
actually decide to start their career in the US. So make sure to
all the condition associated with the fullbright and be aware that it
represent a large cost later.
GRE and TOEFL
- As long as its in by the deadline it doesn't matter. It is an
advantage to have your folder be complete very soon after the deadline,
which means making sure your recommenders get their letters in.
- But PLAN AHEAD especially if out of the country.
- If you are planning to apply to grad school, but not for a year
or two, you still need to do some things this year. Figure out
your letter writers will be, and meet with them individually, telling
about your plans. Some of them might prefer to write a letter now
make notes, so they will remember in a few year's time.
- If in the country, don't forget to allow time in the spring to
go and visit the programs you are interested in, for interviews if
med school), or to meet the faculty (Ph.D. programs). Visiting is
for figuring out a good match, and you can make contacts that might
- These examinations should be taken no
later than October and preferably earlier. Applications will
not be considered
unless the GRE and TOEFL (if non-native) scores are included.
if out of the country it is important to schedule your exams on time.
- Though the GRE test is not necessarily a good predictor of
success, it matters a lot (especially the quantitative and analytic
portion). Studying with practice books for both the TOEFL and the GRE
dramatically increases your scores so you should definitely
practice. Especially if you
are outside if the US, you may not realize it, but students in the US
in some developing countries) spend a lot of time and resources to
for the test (special books, classes, study groups) so you would loose
lot by not doing the same.
- The economics GRE doesn't usually count for much, but it does
give a chance for people who haven't taken much economics to make a
- Financial statements: it's hard to generalize on what you should
do on these. At Harvard, for example, its always best to make it seem
like you have money because their administration has a rule that they
can't accept people without offering them enough money to come. As a
result they often reject people who at the end of the process they
would have preferred to
people they give money to. At other schools, if you seem to have a lot
money it may reduce the size of the fellowship offer you get. It may
however, increase the probability of getting accepted because a school
a few partial fellowships to offer will give them only to people who
to have the resources to accept them.
Congratulations! You got in a few school. How
Wonderful! You have been accepted by a few place. Which one should you
choose? Essentially the one with the strongest graduate program (which is not
necessarily the same thing as the strongest department). Whether you are
visiting the schools or having the make a decision from afar, here are a few
things that you may want to keep in mind:
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- grad students have a much clearer idea of what it feels like being a
student there than faculty... so you may learn much more from them than from
- assessing the overall quality of the grad students in the program may give
you an idea of the strength of the graduate program (which is not perfectly
correlated with the quality of the department, the latter being easier to
assess from the faculty members' vitae);
- you may want to ask about retention rates and qualifier exams,..
(voluntary and involuntary departures)....;
- something that is really important and would help you to assess 2. is the
placement record... where did students who graduated in the last two years
from this department get jobs, especially students OTHER THAN the top 2-3
students in that year... I don't want to make you doubt your abilities but the
fact is that the very top student(s) in any department will do great on the
job market... and schools will be quick at telling you their best placement
while you would like to know the full distribution of placement and form
yourself expectations of where you're most likely be.... don't hesitate to ask
different faculty members about placement overall and within fields (even the
best placement in development or in theory can be very different for the same