October 24, 2012

Advice to students thinking about grad school in economics

In this article I lay out some advice on the preparation that students may need before applying to the economics graduate programs, and eventually going to grad school, basing on my past experience and what I've learned from other fellow graduate students. This is most applicable to international undergraduate students interested in economics doctoral programs in the United States. Much of the advice here of course applies to (economics) graduate programs in other countries and for prospective students with different backgrounds as well.
  • Read David Colander's The Making of An Economist, Redux, to get an understanding of what grad school in economics is really like, and see for yourself if it is the right idea for you to pursue grad school.
  • Even though it is always better to learn more math in college, the undergraduate math preparation is generally sufficient with Real Analysis (on top of Mathematical Analysis) and ODE. Of course you'd need substantially more mathematical knowledge than these eventually, but in which areas of mathematics should you further your study depends on which field of economics you eventually choose. Just cramming in all the math you can take does not always justify the cost. On the other hand, you can always extend your math skills once in grad school or even later in your career. But everything said, ceteris paribus, more math is always potentially helpful.
  • While you're busy taking courses from the math department, make sure you also study mathematical economics, i.e. the area of mathematics that economists most frequently use, which can be sufficiently different from what the standard undergrad math department sequences offer.  Take an advanced mathematical economics or optimization theory course if you can. Make sure you read Simon & Blume as much as you can (preferably finish it) before grad school - particularly Chapters 15 (IFT), 18 (Kuhn-Tucker Theorem), 20 (Homothetic functions), 23, and 24 (difference/differential equations). Alternatively, you can read Dixit's Optimization in Economic Theory which is appropriate for college students as well. During my first year in grad school, I also found Varian's Microeconomic Analysis very helpful and a pleasure to read.
  • When applying, try to diversify your choices by applying to Business Economics and Public Policy / Political Science programs as well, if you have an interest in any of these. These programs are essentially economics programs with a particular focus. Their methodology will be economic, and many of the faculties members in these schools have PhDs in economics. Sometimes even business school economists may work on some theory if that's what you are interested in. If you are not sure, read the CVs and publications of the faculty members before you apply.
  • Confidence is always important regardless if you're still a prospective student or you are already in grad school. Sometimes you cannot understand some hard materials simply because you don't believe you can. Most of the things you are faced with in grad school are not as hard and profound as you imagine them to be. If you don't understand it, read it again - and again.
Further readings:

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