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Econ phd with liberal arts degree

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I am in my mid twenties and one year through an MPA. My undergrad was in english. I had issues during undergrad that influenced my choice of major and my performance, so i don't consider that experience reflective of my abilities and goals. Nonetheless I got into a decent MPA program and have a 4.0 average including statistics and research methods. I have perfect verbal gres. My quants are around the 60th percentile, but I took the test after coming out of an english major, taking no math since high school and with no preparation. I am planning to invest in math tutor to up my quant scores and think i should be able to achieve a 160 or higher. Its really not the most difficult math so I think it will just take some preparation.


I want to apply to an economics phd program. I am also considering a phd in public policy or public admin, but I think economics phds have better job prospects and economists' papers on public policy are more respected than pp or pa phds. I am within the SUNY system, so I hope to get into a SUNY program to study public sector economics. I would love to go to SUNY Albany, because I am invovled in NY State politics and my goal is to find solutions to the budget issues in New York where we have wonderful social services but high tax rates. SUNY Buffalo has an interesting program with focuses on urban economics and family dynamics in low income populations which really fits with my work experience as a non-profit program manager, where I have developed and expanded a new program serving illiterate populations. I also have political campaign and RA experience.


Do these goals sound feasible? I am planning on taking 4 econ classes at local schools along with full stats and calc sequences before enrolment but not necessarily before applying. I would some of them during the next 2 summers and some in the year between application and start. I think i have a unique skill set for an economist, as I have verbal strengths that are less common in the demographic of applicants for programs I'm applying to. I alss have an interest in public secotr economics developed with work experience and lifetime residence in the state, which probably sets me apart from other applicants. Any advice is appreciated.

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A simple Google search gives me this:





the conversation about economics PhDs tends to be more lively at urch.com


I've been a student of economics for 5 years now and I've looked at the PhD myself, so I'll share my musings.


1. It's great that you have research experience, but what is it in? It's good to have RA experience period, and if it's in an issue related to your research interests, that's even better, but if it's not in economics or does not use quantitative data in a significant way, then it's not so useful. 


2. It's good you have work experience relating to your research interests, but again, this is quite tangential to a research PhD in economics.


3. The quant score, even 160, could be an obstacle to your admission to an economics program.


There are three main issues with your plan, as it appears to me:


1. You don't appear to have actually done any economics. Of course, what people do in undergraduate economics courses is hardly research or even industry economics, but at least it acquaints them with what it's like to think like an economist and how to construct arguments in an economic way. Work in economics is extremely dry: it's all drawing graphs and crunching huge data sets and trying to figure out how to program a variable so that it represents what you want it to represent whilst minimizing the influence of tangential variables in its value. My mother went into public policy (World Bank and shit) with her Economics PhD, but that was 30 years ago, when the field was a little more lenient, and even then, when you do public policy research, you focus on a very narrow interpretation of a very narrow indicator, or you manage employees who are doing the same. Deviating from this methodology tends to get people shunned in the community. Excellent writing and speaking skills are absolutely a huge differentiator among economists, but only on top of what you can do as an economist - namely, crunch numbers and draw graphs. That's why so few economists have these skills, and those who get to use them, like Larry Summers or Milton Friedman or Ben Bernanke, all come from prestigious universities and are few.


2. How much math have you got? All the stuff you learn before calculus should be called numeracy skills rather than math. The math you will see in the PhD will involve a shit ton of proofs and not-nice functions. That said, it's good that you're gonna attempt the sequence (though it's better if you have at least a couple of math grades to show in your application - in fact, I'd say it's imperative), but inevitably a PhD in economics is either gonna use a lot of analysis or a lot of statistics. Pick which one you like, but know that both of them are fairly difficult to do non-trivially.


3. Have you thought about how useful this degree will be to you in your career? Have you spoken to people who hire/are employed in the positions you want? Although everybody is like, wooooow, whenever they see an econ PhD, it's not practically very useful unless the industry you are joining is specifically asking for an Econ PhD. Polisci and soc fields are getting increasingly mathematisized now, and from my research, a PhD in that is enough for most policy jobs that require a PhD. Obviously, your employment prospects in general are improved by an econ PhD, but that's because, you know, it's a booming academic field all over the world and a lot of your would-be colleagues are hired to program huge data sets in finance and consulting firms.


Finally, it's useful to remember that economics has become a very popular, and as a result, increasingly competitive degree, which is attractive not only to Americans, but to international students, most of which come with better stats than the average US student. Judging by the particulars you give, I don't see you getting into a PhD program without doing a master's first. Unless you have an in with the admin committee - in which case, all the more power to you. You could also look at universities like George Mason or UToronto, which are more heterodox and therefore more literary, but that comes at the price of skepticism from the community. It would be easier to give you advice if you gave particulars on what math and econ classes you took and your grades, what your research was in, what your GRE was, etc.


Economics is a fascinating field, and I wish you luck!


P.S. programming is becoming increasingly important for research in economics, so if you can pick up a programming course or two on the way, that could differentiate you from fellow applicants.

Edited by ExponentialDecay
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You're right about the quant score. I already have a 154 on the quant and am planning on a 10 point bump if not more. Either way I want to develop math skills including proofs and function even if I do a pp or pa PhD.

Research project is a quant study of determinants of college president compensation. I may end up with a publication credit and plan to start my own project in spring.

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That was a short response from my phone. Let me expand.


You are right that I have no math or econ prep. However, looking into the admission requirements on department sites they say you can repair deficiencies in course work prior to enrollment. I plan on having calc 1 and 2, econ 101 and 102 before application and then doing intermediate micro and macro over the year before enrollment and linear and calc 3 on campus the summer before.


I know I have an unorthodox background for econ, but I think I can make a contribution to the field. I am a recovering academic failure, so I know how to work around barriers. I overcame the challenge of getting into a masters with a sub 3.0 gpa in a liberal arts major with no academic recs (and quite frankly a transcript that had some very troubling notes such as multiple medical leaves and probably some disciplinary notes). Now I'm one of the top students in my program with a 4.0 and one of the only students in a small program hired as an RA. I built a successful career in a challenging non-profit town with no college internships and terrible grades and references because I had the dedication to do it. I think if I decide I want to do an econ phd I can do that too.


I am open to considering other fields. You make a good suggestion about talking to people about their backgrounds. I know the CEO of the only think tank in my small city has a poli sci phd from a SUNY. I should contact U Albany and ask if they can put me in touch with some think tanks there since that's where I eventually want to work. I know I can get into a pa or pp phd program, and probably more highly ranked than if I were to go the econ route. However, I am possibly interested in a career outside of academia in public finance, IB or consulting and I think an econ phd might offer those avenues. I am also really inspired by the work of Jens Ludwig who is a leading anti-poverty public policy researcher and an econ phd. I have a top twenty econ program in my city, and the school happens to be my undergrad alma mater so I am probably going to talk to one of their profs who works in public economics and see if I can finangle some paid or unpaid research experience.

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Your persistence is very inspiring. Perhaps I'm too pessimistic, but the competition for admission to a T20 will make anyone suicidal.


1. You need to push for 170. Some programs will slash GREs during the first round, and anything under 165 will keep you out.


2. That research sounds fascinating, actually. You might want to talk to your PI about your options. He might have good advice and hook you up with the right people.


3. So, as far as I understand, you intend to do the intermediates, linear algebra and calc III concurrently with applying? As in, you will not have these subjects when you send your transcript to admission committees? This is very, very, highly unlikely to work. Econ MAs expect you to have calc III and linear algebra. Econ PhDs expect you to have more math, up to complex analysis and topology. You definitely need proof that you can work with multivariate functions in order to gain admission to an Econ PhD. I have heard of people who have gone on to a PhD with stellar grades in an economics undergrad (there was no mention of the math component) and experience in front office finance, but I don't personally know them, so I won't amend that to my advice.


4. Sure, you can get an econ PhD in order to enter finance or consulting, but if that's your goal, you're better off getting a T20 MBA. I haven't researched the MBA as thoroughly, but it seems to me that, with your background, you might be a better fit for a competitive MBA program rather than a competitive PhD program. Econ PhDs in finance are mostly hired as freelance consultants or in leadership roles - in which case your thesis has to be related to the business of the firm.


I don't think you know enough about this path to follow it; I equally don't think it's wise to become an economist because Cool Dude is an economist. You can do valuable work in public policy and socioeconomic research with a sociology, polisci, public policy, anthropology, cultural studies, or similar degree. At that point, it matters how well you do your work and how much your colleagues value you rather than what degree you got and what college you went to.


Obviously, I'm not the final authority on anything. If you already know what you want to do and where you are going to apply, it's best to talk to the admissions committee at the school or email the professor whose research interests you and ask them directly. In the end, the decision will be theirs anyway.

Edited by ExponentialDecay
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Like I said I am also strongly considering pa or pp phds. I can probably get into a better pp or pa program than econ. I just have a sense that econ adds value in terms of quantitative rigor and research legitimacy. I know I will have to supplement my experience to get into an econ program so I am asking about it to get a better understanding.


Additionally I would not be opposed to taking an extra year before applications to complete a math sequence. I probably plan on doing one round the fall after I graduate from my masters and a second round one year later with enhanced quantitative prep. If I end up getting into a pp or pa program in that first round that I can't turn down I may not apply to more econ programs, but would probably complete the math sequence anyways in the year pre-enrollment.


Thanks for the suggestion about MBAs but I am pretty serious about research. I work as a manager now and day to day operations is not where I want to do. I am a decent manager but I think I am a better thinker. I just mention finance as an escape hatch in case something goes wrong and I need other employment, so I like that econ has those options in a way other fields do not.


I understand top 20 applicants are locked into admissions formulas, so I appreciate you entertaining my unconventional questions. Remember I'm not looking to apply top 20. My ideal school SUNY Albany ranks around 75 so we are in different ballparks here. SUNY Buffalo isn't even ranked on US News. I have enough self-confidence that I believe I can produce influential research regardless of where I go, so ranking is not a huge consideration. There are some top 30 programs in my area that would be nice for me to go to, but I think I am a better fit for other more humble programs.

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Thanks for the advice. I am pretty deep into campaign season right now and with work, research and summer classes that doesn't leave much time for math. But once the campaign ends in November I plan on hiring a weekly math tutor and doing math homework every night. I was a great math student in high school but I really had my issues in college and rejected math in favor of a shall we say "bohemian" lifestyle. I consider my gre result somewhat compromised, and looking at the curriculum, getting the score I need should not be too hard. Mastering the fundamentals of calc and linear will take more effort but I think I can do it. I see this prep as a win win; it will make me a competitive applicant for top pa and pp programs and open the option of econ.

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