Applying to Graduate School


After four years of college we would understand if you think grad school is the last thing you want to do after graduation. Maybe you've even heard horror stories about students racking up debt in graduate school or struggling to find jobs despite having advanced degrees.

But economics graduate school might not be what you think it is. It is quite different from most other graduate education experiences. We recommend that you consider it (at least if you, like us, love economics and economic reasoning).

Reasons to Consider Graduate School

  1. Tuition-free: Economics PhD programs are nearly always tuition-free and typically offer substantial annual stipends.

  2. Commitment-free: A PhD program is essentially no commitment. If you decide to leave after a year, or after a week, you can, with no debt owed. Moreover, most PhD programs award a masters’ degree after the first two years. So, if you decide the PhD is not for you, you can still obtain a valuable advanced degree.

  3. Job Market: The job market for economists has been extremely strong for many years. It is not like the job market for most other new PhDs. It is highly organized (see here), and the quantity of PhD economists demanded is very high relative to supply. This is because demand comes from many sources: liberal arts colleges, research universities, business schools, public policy schools, law schools, government agencies, research organizations, and the private sector, including many Silicon Valley firms in addition to banking and finance. Economists have a range of skills that many employers value. See: 
    1. The Complete Guide to Getting Into an Economics Ph.D. Program
    2. Goodbye, Ivory Tower. Hello, Silicon Valley Candy Store.
    3. Survey of the Labor Market for New Ph.D. Hires in Economics 2015-2016

  4. You Don't Have to Be a Math Genius: You do not have to be a rocket scientist to be a professional economist. You should like math, and be reasonably good at it, but that’s all that’s necessary. There are a large number of PhD programs in economics, applied economics, business economics, agricultural economics, and public policy with different levels of mathematical intensity.

  5. Intellectual Freedom: You get intellectual freedom in your research as a grad student and in most research and teaching based jobs—the ability to work on what you want.

  6. Go Anytime: You don’t have to go grad school right after graduation. It is common to wait one to two years, and many students wait three, four, or even five years.

  7. Common Good: Economics is ultimately about maximizing social welfare (certainly not just maximizing profits). Economists can both do well and do good. If you want to work on topics and issues that are important to society, and make a positive contribution to these issues, becoming an economist can be a great way to do it. See here.


For much more information and advice, see:

Recommended Courses

To prepare for economics graduate school while at Bowdoin, we would recommend a combination of economics and math degrees: an economics major with a math minor, the reverse, a double major, or the combined math and econ major. Specific courses you should take are Multivariate Calculus (Math 1800), Linear Algebra (Math 2000), Intro to Math Reasoning (Math 2020), and a course in econometrics (Econ 3516) or Mathematical Probability or Statistics (Math 2206, 2606). Other valuable math courses include Introduction to Analysis (Math 2603), Numerical Methods (Math 2209) and Optimal Control (Math 3109), topology, nonlinear optimization, mathematical modeling, game theory, and computer science courses. The Bowdoin faculty can assist you in choosing undergraduate courses.


Most graduate programs require GRE scores for admission, with strong emphasis on the math and analytic portions; some programs also require scores from the GRE economics subject exam. Other important considerations for admission include letters of recommendation, undergraduate coursework, essays, and GPA.

In fact, letters of recommendation are an extremely important component of your application, so we recommend getting to know at least one economics faculty member well outside of the classroom, ideally by working on an independent study or honors project with her/him, or as a research assistant—and impressing that faculty member by doing a great job!

What to Expect

Lastly, a note on what PhD training in economics actually consists of. It typically has the following components: (i) a first year of intense training in core courses on macroeconomics, microeconomics, and econometrics, (ii) qualifying examinations (which need to be passed to proceed beyond the masters degree), (iii) a second year of courses, largely in the student’s chosen areas of specialty, (iv) teaching and/or research assistant duties in most years, perhaps all, and (v) a dissertation, which typically consists of one very well-developed research paper, and one or two related papers, written starting in year three. The dissertation process is overseen by one or two primary advisors (professors) determined by the student and faculty.