Graduate training for a PhD in economics requires much more mathematical sophistication than undergraduate economics does. Multivariable calculus (Math 150), linear algebra (Math 250) and real analysis (Math 350) are essential. Other math, statistics, or computer science courses may also be useful as preparation for certain fields in economics. In general, good grades in math classes will boost your chances of getting into a top Economics PhD program, and will make it easier to understand what your professors are talking about and to survive once you get there. To get an idea of what economics research is all about (and to get to know a faculty member well), you should consider writing a senior honors thesis.
Where should you apply? There are several rankings available on the web, and these can give you a rough idea of reputations of various departments. Most departments are stronger in some fields than in others — talk to a professor in the field you are interested in for more specific suggestions on where to apply.
Masayuki Kudamatsu’s excellent Tips 4 Economists website contains a curated list of links to many different sites that offer good advice for economists at various different stages of their careers, from applying for graduate school through becoming a Dean.
Getting a PhD in Economics, a book by Stuart J. Hillmon, is probably well worth reading if you’re thinking of devoting your life to this.
The very entertaining Noah Smith of Stony Brook University makes a case for getting an economics PhD in his blog post “If you Get a PhD, get an Economics PhD.” Smith and Miles Kimball of the University of Michigan follow up on that with their “complete guide to getting into an economics PhD program.” Jeff Smith of the University of Michigan follows up with some good additional advice in a post here. Bruce Bartlett, commentator for the New York Times, follows up with advice on how to pursue a career related to economics or public policy without getting a PhD in economics here. “Considering Graudate School in Economics?” by Bill Craighead of Wesleyan University is also quite informative.
Harvard Professor Susan Athey’s tips, available here, offer some good advice.
Columbia Professor Chris Blattman offers lots good advice for students interested in development economics and/or public policy and thinking about a masters or a PhD in economics, political science, or something related. This includes blog posts such as: ” Frequently asked questions on PhD applications,” “What MA, MPA, or MIA program is for you?,” and ” How to get a PhD *and* save the world.” He also provides good advice on how to ask for recommendation letters here.
Also recommended for those thinking about graduate school in economics: Eight of the World’s Top Young Economists Discuss Where Their Field Is Going.
We’re not kidding about the math background required for an economics Ph.D. Anyone considering econ grad school should check out samples of the preliminary examinations that you are required to pass at the end of your first year to stay in the program, which can often be found online. Here are examples from The University of Wisconsin, and from the University of California, Davis. These are pretty typical.
How to finance a PhD? Graduate programs typically offer merit-based fellowships or teaching assistant positions to some of the students they admit. Some students borrow to finance the first year of an economics PhD program, and then can usually obtain teaching assistant positions, research assistant positions, or more rarely fellowships, to finance their tuition and living expenses after the first year. If you are a US citizen or resident, you should also consider applying for outside fellowships from the NSF and Javits. NSF graduate fellowships in particular are extremely competitive and prestigious, and are rumored to help you gain admittance to top schools. The application for an NSF graduate fellowship requires that you submit a research proposal — Chris Blattman offers excellent advice on how to write a proposal for NSF funding for graduate school. If you are an Asian citizen, you should consider applying for the Japan-IMF scholarship. Miles Kimball offers thoughts on the cost-benefit aspects of financing graduate education in economics here.
Mark Foley at Davidson College hosts a page that collects many of the links above here.
Graduate programs in economics look for a high score in the quantitative GRE. But know that the kind of math that is on the GRE is much easier than the math you are expected to know before you start a Ph.D. program in economics (see first paragraph above).
You can find a partial list of Williams graduates who have started Ph.D. programs in economics or related fields in recent years (since about 2005) here.