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Is it too late for me to make myself grad school material?


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Hello! I'm looking to get myself ready to apply an Econ or Applied Econ Masters program for Fall of 2019. The goal of this is 1. to make myself competitive for at least a T100 Econ PhD program, and 2. To enable me to move into a career in policy if I decide I'm not cut out for the PhD route. Being 2 years out of grad school in kind of a dead end job though, I'm struggling to see what I can do to make up for some deficiencies in my undergrad. I'm desperate to switch careers to a subject I've been passionate about my whole life, so I'm hoping somebody here can help me. My full background info is below, but I'll just start out with my 2 primary weaknesses/concerns.

  • Lack of research experience. This is probably my biggest weakness, and I have no idea how to remedy it. I'm not in undergrad anymore, I can't easily ask a professor for an RA job, and I also have responsibilities now (I'm getting married soon) which make it much more difficult to immediately upend and move across the country if that's what it takes. Not sure if my goals are achievable if I can't overcome this problem.
  • Shabby letters of recommendation. Not much I can do about this, as it's tied to the first problem with research experience. Maybe if I'm lucky I'll hit it off with a professor at the U through these math courses who can write a letter as well, but I don't know that I can count on that

Schools Applying To: I'll apply to the best schools I think I have a shot at. Something like the Duke MA is likely beyond my reach, but I'm looking strongly at the University of Minnesota MS in Applied Economics and similar programs.

Interests: I have some wide ranging interests, but urban and labor economics are particularly interesting to me

Undergrad Institution: No name liberal arts college (unfortunately)

Undergraduate GPA: 3.72

Undergraduate Major: Economics, Computer Information Systems

GRE: 170 V, 164 Q, 4.5 AWA (will take again if necessary, which I suspect it will be)

Quantitative Courses: Outside of the standard Econ courses (intermediate micro/macro and an Econ department statistics course, all of which were A's or A-'s I believe), I also took econometrics and Calculus 1 and got an A in those. I know that's inadequate, so I'm preparing for grad school by taking more math courses at the local U (University of Minnesota). Specifically, I plan on at least finishing the calc sequence and taking linear algebra, but hopefully I can do more than just that. I'm assuming I'll get A's or A-'s in those, because, well, I kind of have to.

Years of Work Experience: 1 1/2 years as an Application Developer at a financial services company, and around half a year as a Business Intelligence Specialist at the same company (my current position). Probably not too helpful for my application, as it's mostly reporting and pretty basic work with financial sales data, not any super interesting analysis or research.

Age: 24

LORs:  Here's where it gets dicey. I have 1, maaaaaybe 2 undergrad econ professors who I can get to write for me, but I didn't really do much in the way of research in undergrad so they won't be able to speak to that. I tutored for stats and for intro Econ courses, so one of the professors can mention that, but that's about it (other than just saying I was a bright student). For my third letter, I'll likely have to rely on a former manager, or a third professor who may or may not remember me well. And honestly, even the Econ professors who I'm counting on might not have that much to say (after all, I've been out of their class for a few years, and I don't know how well they'll remember me). 


Any advice would be appreciated! I know I'm in kind of a rough spot, but I'm willing to make sacrifices if necessary to make this happen, and I don't necessarily have to get into a top tier Masters program either, as long as it can still accomplish my goals.



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I think your profile is strong enough for a decent masters program. Your GPA and GRE scores will get you past the initial rounds of cuts in the admissions process. I wouldn't worry about getting into a "top" or pricey masters program. As long as the program is solid and has sent some students to PhD programs at the tier you're hoping to achieve, it should be fine. Keep in mind that not everyone in a masters program is aiming for a PhD, so they might not have a lot of students going, but you get the idea; even 1 or 2 in the last few years would be a positive sign. Research experience might help, but I think it's less common for a masters program. You can gain research experience during the program and build relationships so that you have stronger letters for a PhD application.

So, the letters...if you have enough letter writers that can write positively about your academic work and character (even if they're not speaking about any research skills), you should still be able to get into a masters program. Give your writers as much information as possible; transcripts, a copy of your personal statement, perhaps a paper you did for their class, etc. Meet with them face-to-face if possible, or by phone, and chat a bit about your goals. This all will help them to remember you and speak well of you in a letter.

You don't have to come from a top undergrad or even a top masters program to get into a good PhD program. It can help (if you have connections with top researchers in the field), but there are ways of compensating for that. Ultimately your skills, ideas, experiences, and fit will matter much more at the PhD level than the name brand of your school. I think aiming for a top 100 PhD program is very doable for you if you put the work in.

Edited by Jazlynne
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You are not too late to go back. I was in a similar boat when I returned for my first masters (4 years out of school, working a dead-end job with few skills in where I wanted to end up) - only to realize that "real world" experience counts a lot in applied social sciences. 

I second a lot of what @Jazlynne said regarding how to talk to professors about your credentials and remind them about yourself. Additionally, you can ask the admins how many professional letters of recommendation they accept. Even a dead-end job with little analysis skills often requires practice field knowledge. For example, I ended up using my direct manager and the county director as 2 recommenders. The county director had better credentials and could speak to some of my professional skills and character (such as being a team-player and taking initiative) - whereas the direct manager discussed the direct projects of interest.  In short, think creatively because I'm sure other people believe in your skills and aptitude for graduate school


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