|back to econphd•net||
|This guide & other sources||
There are a number of alternative and complementary sources of admission advice. If you're just beginning to think about applying to graduate school in economics, you may want to read this introduction by Robi Ragan (U Georgia) first. I highly recommend reading Tony Williams's (JHU) comments on his recent experience as an applicant. Susan Athey at Stanford is one of several professors who have posted some brief advice to applicants. More suggestions from Sheryl Ball at Virginia Tech; Davidson College has a nice site for its potential PhD students.
Much in the spirit of the econphd.net guide is Florian Ploeckl's admission guide. Florian is a graduate student at Yale. Keith David Gamble at Berkeley discusses some typical questions. Much more of that is found at Chris Silvey's popular site "Becoming An Economist;" see answers from current PhD students.
|Who wants economists and which economists do they want?||
There are 3,000 universities and colleges in the U.S., many of which hire economics PhDs from time to time. There are several thousand more international universities that do the same. In addition, some public service institutions as well as commercial research and consulting businesses employ PhD economists. To meet this demand, American programs award about 300 to 400 economics PhDs in a given year. Their graduates compete primarily for positions as assistant professors, either in a research university, like Harvard, or a teaching-oriented college. Because publications are the road to fame, PhDs generally prefer to join a renowned research university; however, there are only a few such openings each year. If you guess that they’ll go to graduates from the top schools you’re right, but there are many more top-school PhDs than “good” academic jobs. In fact, almost one quarter of all U.S. PhDs comes from one of the schools that might be described as forming the top ten. (I’m referring to Berkeley, Chicago, Harvard, MIT, NYU, Northwestern, U Penn, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale.) Given the oversupply of prestigious degrees, it's reasonable to target such programs if you plan to make a mark on the field.
A recent trend seems to be that a few of the very best PhDs from top-30 (or even top-50) and non-U.S. schools manage to get hired by prestigious departments. Programs rank their graduates internally, and the position on that list becomes a key factor in anyone’s placement. Hence, there is something to be said for entering a rising, underrated program with strong training and a pool in which you can comparatively excel. Still, the fact remains that the vast majority of new hires at good departments comes from similarly or better regarded places. For economists who enter private industry, it is less essential to graduate from a program of high repute. However, the economics PhD is not geared to applied pursuits and doesn’t give you much of an edge over MScs or MAs in the job market (not to mention over MBAs, who are often higher paid than PhDs). If your goal is a business career, you should ask yourself whether the PhD is really something that you need. Incidentally, an MBA, from a good school and with solid work experience, will earn more than $ 100,000 p.a. these days; a well-placed PhD economist starts out near $ 80,000 p.a.
PhDs educated in the top U.S. departments tend to be the most sought-after and highly-prized on the market. This isn’t true for every subject, but it is for economics because American-style graduate programs, with their intense curricula and immersive research cultures, produce competent and productive academics. This is also recognized abroad, and the few European schools that made inroads in the past with programs modeled after American ones (foremostly, the London School of Economics) are now a model for ambitious departments elsewhere that tap into an applicant pool that includes far more talent than the best U.S. programs can absorb. Much of what is said here about applications to U.S. programs applies to these emerging international programs that are refashioning themselves to offer similarly conducive conditions.
|How difficult is admission to a good program?||
The top ten U.S. programs enroll about 200 new students each year; nonetheless, competition for these places is fierce. Economics is one of the more popular fields of graduate study, for one thing. Going by evidence such as GRE scores, economics applicants are on average also among the brightest; only physics, math, and computer science applicants beat them by a little margin. Below I’ve compiled some data on average GRE scores in each graduate field and the number of applicants scoring in the top 3%. Economics ranks fourth by the first measure and eighth by the second (biology, psychology and literature attract a lot more applicants each year …).
As readers with cross-disciplinary experience have pointed out, my method probably overestimates competitiveness in the hard sciences relative to economics. U.S. programs aren’t nearly so dominant in these areas: this circumstance, combined with more scattered pockets of specialized expertise, creates a larger pool of “respectable” institutions to which the global pool of applicants is matched. Let me also mention that fairly diverse fields, in content and selectivity, appear under the heading “business” in the first table. Out of these, finance gets much stronger applicants than others. On the whole, the considerably smaller size of business PhD programs, compared to economics, can make them very difficult targets, too.
Admission to good PhD programs in economics is very competitive – equally or more so than the scuffle for the most prestigious jobs out in “the real world.” Even some schools outside the top ten accept fewer than one in ten applicants, and this from a group of “overachievers” who have excellent grades and scores. They plan to enroll a smaller number than they admit – which means that only some of those 1 in 10 get fellowship offers … E.g. Rochester offered 7% a place in 2002, and fewer than 1% a place with full funding (fellowship and tuition waiver). If economics and math-intensive research are not your passions, the contest is not worth taking up. A suitable alternative may be business PhD programs, which are still a bit easier to get into (and through!), and provide more generous stipend packages, plus a less saturated job market with higher pay.
|What does it take to get in?||
Official admission literature from the schools will always say that many factors are given consideration, and this is really true. In the end, the whole picture either looks like a fit with the particular department, or it doesn’t. On the other hand, certain weak spots are at once disqualifying. A popular program sees and expects very high undergraduate GPAs (still better graduate GPAs if applicable) at well-known institutions (ideally 3.7 / 4.0 or better, unless you come from a non-U.S. school or system that is understood to have tougher standards). It also expects a quantitative GRE score above 750 (800s are not out of the ordinary) and a decent analytical score. The verbal section is much less important, but a score below 500 looks off-putting, especially on an international application. Anything short of these benchmarks lands your application on the reject pile, unless you have some very intriguing other credentials (and usually inspite of it).
Pedigree matters - students from renowned U.S. undergraduate programs and state universities with top-ranked economics departments are popular with the adcoms (the more so, if applying to an Ivy). A concrete advantage these students have is access to well-known referees. But it is far from impossible to get into a good school without a gilt-edge degree, and the basic credentials (math background, grades ...) speak louder anyway. International admits are typically (though not without exception) chosen from the best institutions of their home countries. Professors know the major universities outside the U.S.; they understand that a Korean coming from Seoul National University is like an American coming from Berkeley. The department's past experience also plays a very important role in evaluating non-U.S. degrees. Some universities have a tradition of placing students in particular PhD programs every year because the adcoms have learnt by trial and error that they come well-prepared and succeed. In other cases, the adcom may be averse to admitting someone from the same school that "sent" a weak student last year. The same happens at the even cruder level of nationality. How does understanding this help you? Look up the current graduate students in a department, take note where they're from, and you'll get a sense of the adcom's little biases. Say you are from China and there seem to be very few Chinese students in the department: it's probably a tough place to get into.
You will need a number of math-related credits from your undergraduate studies. Graduate study in economics follows a theorem-proof approach and uses rigorous notation, so the adcoms pay a lot of attention to how comfortable you look to be with pure mathematics. Two or three terms of calculus, and often linear algebra, are deemed minimum preparation; similarly a semester of mathematical statistics. First-year graduate courses draw heavily on real analysis. Background in real analysis is highly valued and indeed almost expected of a strong applicant. Real analysis is usually the first "rigorous" mathematics course, where you have to work through all proofs and write some yourself. The course is supremely effective preparation for initial graduate courses. If you really want to delight the adcoms (you do), take metric spaces and functional analysis, too. When they see these and measure theory, perhaps even topology, they're rubbing their hands. Courses in differential equations are useful too, but if you have to choose in your final undergraduate years, the proof-based classes will always do more for you. Economics up to intermediate micro- and macroeconomics is also preferred, but perhaps not as essential. In all these, you should have earned good grades. Having taken too few math courses in college, or having performed poorly in them, rules you out of a top school. Apart from such coursework requirements, a formal major in economics is not necessary. In fact, the committee will view a math or physics major favorably, but anything – English, social work, Islamic studies – is fine as long as you demonstrate a strong aptitude for math.
Many successful international applicants have begun or completed a master's degree. Existing graduate transcripts are very helpful to the adcoms, since the content of the courses is similar everywhere, so this gives professors a good idea of what you really know and how you perform at a level of some rigor. (Research master's are also offered in some countries - they make little difference for admission.) It is generally assumed that master's level grades are inflated, so a graduate GPA ought to be rather better than 3.7. As long as you can show some solid grades in the program, it is acceptable to apply to a PhD program while still in the first year of a master's course and transfer out without finishing it. The master's degree itself will have little value (you'll get another from your PhD program). PhD programs will generally not give credit for such coursework; it serves only as a signal in the admission decision. You will start into your PhD program from year one. But if your math background is somewhat deficient, you may want to strengthen your application by completing the master's and taking the courses in the meantime. It's also easier to get recommendations if you've been around for more than a term. (And let's not forget that you do benefit academically: students who have worked through the graduate textbooks before, perhaps TAed at that level, have a clear advantage in the first year of their PhD programs and are likely to raise their stipends.)
Is it always good to get a master's before applying to PhD programs? It's becoming a reality for prospective applicants from unfancied undergraduate schools who are less than very well-prepared. If you don't have the right math credits, or your undergraduate GPA is mediocre, a master's course can solve your problems. It is much easier to get into the terminal master's program of any department than into the PhD program. Unfortunately, terminal master’s students in economics are generally not funded in the U.S., and tuition is not cheap. (Scholarships for master's students are available at some non-U.S. schools, e.g. at the National University of Singapore, but the trend is to move the money into PhD programs.) From a cost angle, and also with a view to ideal preparation for the PhD, a master's in math or statistics may be preferable to a master's in economics. (It makes a more favorable impression on adcoms besides.) Economics master’s programs are actually on the wane; they seem hard to justify, which is why top schools that don’t need the cash don’t offer them, but concentrate their resources on the PhD. (NYU and Boston University are the most prestigious U.S. schools that do offer the terminal master's.)
Letters of recommendation carry much weight. Contrary to popular belief, they do not need to come from famous professors. They must, however, come from academic economists (or perhaps mathematicians) – not your boss at work, nor your old philosophy instructor … If a non-economist can endorse you in a uniquely meaningful way, perhaps submit this recommendation as an extra. Of course, a distinguished referee can’t hurt, but getting an enthusiastic, specific letter from someone who knows you well is more important. Because lukewarm letters are very damaging, be sure to ask referees in advance whether they can support you whole-heartedly; a good way to breach the topic is to ask their advice on the type of program you should apply for. You can provide a background sheet with your grades, scores, and other credentials to recommending professors and refresh their memory about things you’ve done in class.
Phone calls from professors on your behalf will not necessarily help (and neither would personal e-mails to people on the committee, showing off your insightful opinions on their work); in fact, they can invite a negative reaction. More likely than not, people will find “helpful” outsiders disturbing and lecturing students presumptuous; professors often get contacted and won’t let it influence the decision. Of course, if your backer is or has been at the department you are targeting, that’s a different thing … Keep in mind how many students are applying and that professors cannot give individual attention at this stage. If anything, resentment at being busied with networking attempts may work against you. The situation is different at less established, more narrowly focused departments. Writing to professors makes good sense here, since you’d want to ascertain that they have resources in your area of interest and perhaps identify a potential supervisor. In some European systems it is even a necessary step in the application process - more on that later.
Much is made of the Statement of Purpose, but apparently it has a smaller impact in economics than in other subjects. Little that’s definite is known, but in my opinion, overly enthusiastic homages to economics or the department should be avoided as they sound artificial and waste space. Don’t forget that the professors who will read it are very intelligent people and won't appreciate your presuming otherwise. Nor do they care much about your sincere love for economics, your presidency of the toastmaster’s club, or the good things you’ve done in your community, as long as you can read and construct proofs. They also know you’re applying to other top schools and would gleefully go to any of them if you had the chance. The best approach is a conservative one, stating your credentials and objectives in a clear and focused way, outlining a specific research idea (without sounding rigidly attached to it – a delicate balance needs to be struck here), and mentioning how the school’s particular strengths fit into your plans. Look up the faculty’s research interests and histories to determine this.
Work experience (except at a central bank) is wholly irrelevant for graduate admissions. No degree of accomplishment or seniority in the private sector means anything to the professors. If you try to turn such a background to advantage in the statement, it will hurt you. You will sound as if you are delusioned about the nature and requirements of graduate study. Any major program would reject you. Most applicants have little or no work experience, but those who have had a career (and made an informed decision to apply for the PhD) should make only passing reference to the fact and instead implicitly address the questions that a prolonged absence from academia raises in people's minds. Primarily, they would wonder whether your math background is active knowledge, whether you can discipline yourself to study, whether your commitment is final and unencumbered by financial and family obligations.
A popular myth is that the admission committee rolls out the red carpet for applicants who have published a paper. I suspect that the opposite can be true. Top-school professors think nothing of low-quality journals; those publications are rarely up to the mark of good graduate research. Moreover, a poor-quality publication becomes part of your permanent record as a writer. Your advisors intend to work hard to make you an attractive candidate for the academic placement market and might prefer to start out on a blank page … Of course, if you have a paper in a good journal, your fortune is almost made. But good journals (check the list of journals included in the econphd.net rankings) are virtually inaccessible to students, so I ignore the possibility. That said, there’s nothing wrong at all with sending a well-crafted technical paper as evidence that you can do serious research. If you submit anything, it ought to be a short and rigorous piece; qualitative (or even empirical) work is not likely to impress the committee.
So graduate programs require high GPAs - but what if you don't have a GPA? The main alternative to letter grades are numerical grades on varying scales. Australia, for instance, uses a percentage scale, i.e. the best possible grade is 100. In converting numerical grades, I would use the following key, which the University of Michigan endorses for Australian grades. (If the scale is, say, 15, just work it out proportionally.)
To calculate your GPA, you need to convert every grade to U.S. grade points and take the weighted average, where the weights are credit hours. A credit hour corresponds to the number of lecture hours per week in a twelve-week term. (Hence, add up the total number of lecture hours for the class and divide by 12.)
Grades aren't the only way in which adcoms can compare you. It helps if you have an official class rank or percentile. Some universities award "honors" on graduation that directly imply a percentile - if so, explain this. If you have no official class rank, ask your referees to quantify your standing in the class as they perceive it.
Lastly, if you feel that your converted grades or your official class rank still don't do you justice - say because your university, although not well known, is particularly competitive, it's ok to mention this in your application. Chances are, the adcom is already aware of it from previous experience (otherwise, they probably won't pay attention to your claim unless it's substantiated by the referees).
|How much funding could I get?||
Economics departments give considerably lower fellowships than business schools or science departments. Worse yet, some people will be admitted without fellowships and a few end up paying tuition. But it is commonly understood (although the department may not be willing to explicitly guarantee it) that all students who stay on beyond the first one or two years are funded in some manner. Often teaching assistantships are part of it, but many programs also reward academic success with scholarship money.
Generally, the best and most competitive programs offer the most generous funding – MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale admits can expect to get a package of, perhaps, between $ 16,000 and $ 20,000 per year (with tuition waiver). Most other schools offer lower awards or awards tied to teaching duties, and the less prestigious the program, the less money tends to be available, and the more teaching is allocated. Some schools offer good first-year fellowships that will not be renewed subsequently (but can be replaced with a teaching or research assistantship).
The reason good programs don’t normally tie their aid to teaching is that the first-year coursework will be too intense to be compatible with chores. A teaching assistantship in the first year is a suspicious affair: either the coursework is not that hard, or they deliberately expose students to tremendous stress, compromised performance, and threat of failure in order to keep staffing costs down. If financially manageable, it would be advisable to turn down a lucrative teaching assistantship in favor of a lower fellowship.
To a minor extent, and for the right reasons, it is possible to bargain for a higher award if you have only received a tuition waiver or a small fellowship (say, below $ 10,000). This needs to be done with tact and with stress on the insufficiency of the funding to meet your basic needs, rather than by pointing out your other options. Money is always a sensitive issue, and departments don’t want to “bid” for students. Weigh carefully whether the slim prospect of a significantly better deal justifies the risk of alienating some people you may soon be working with. Communicate your respect for the department and your correspondents before everything else. And if the financial side permits, you should finally base your choice on the quality of the education only.
|Chequered histories And transfers||
The following is a common story: I didn't take college seriously at first and got really bad grades, but I've come around since then and aced the rest (or my master's program). Will those early years come back to haunt me? You know there's a price to be paid, but it's not as high as forefeiting all chances of entering a good graduate school. The adcoms genuinely want to find good students, not deliver moral justice. Recent grades count for a lot, but it's important that these grades are in subjects that matter most to the adcoms: your math and advanced economics classes. If you've taken real analysis etc. at that dark point in your life, you probably need to enroll in metric spaces or measure theory now, or graduate micro theory perhaps, and excel.
Although the disparities in your record will be obvious to the adcom and really don't need that much comment, you can refer to them in your statement. But don't devote much space, except to emphasize that the problem is resolved - sympathy is not a factor in admissions. It may be a good idea to cite a grade-point average for the two most recent years, or for advanced math and economics classes only.
It is quite feasible to enter a PhD program based on average credentials (or, at any rate, accept a less than ideal offer) and transfer after a successful first year. Since your grades in actual PhD coursework are considered to be an excellent indicator, even one term of high grades can greatly improve your appeal, so it is possible to reapply immediately after the first term. Typically you will want a reference from someone in your current program, confirming that it makes sense for someone of your capacity and / or interests to study elsewhere. The new program normally expects you to repeat the first year there.
Now for the unfortunate case that the bad years were the most recent ones. The typical example is a master's program, or beginning of a PhD program, gone awry. Your past achievements count for little once this has happened. Even not very selective departments will be reluctant to consider, let alone fund, you. In some cases, a current professor may be willing to recommend you and emphasize attenuating reasons for your recent performance. Short of this, the PhD may no longer be an option, unless you can study without funding (possibly even do a master's before reapplying).
Which schools should you apply to, and when? Almost everybody tries one or two really prestigious programs (Chicago, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Stanford are known as the “Big Five”), more if very confident. Even if you think that admission there is unrealistic, you’ll feel better afterwards for having probed the limit. The rest depends on how competitive you expect your application to be, and how safe you want to play. Normally, the final list will comprise five to eight departments and include one or two back-up choices where admission seems very likely. But if you wouldn’t want the economics PhD unless from a very good school – because you have other options or you can afford to wait and reapply if necessary – it is perfectly reasonable to have no safeties at all. There is a tradeoff between number and quality of applications; they do take time (particularly if you wish to understand and address what is special about the programs you picked), and your recommenders will be better motivated writing to a small number of appropriate choices than lots of inferior or unreachable ones.
How do the schools stack up? The “Big Five” are great in every major subdiscipline of economics. Other renowned programs are on par with them in some areas, but not in all. You’ll need to spend some time looking up the faculty’s research and identifying departments that have at least two or three well-published Associate Professors or Professors working on the topics you’ve earmarked for specialization. Later, on the job market, it will make a big difference who supervised your thesis - besides name recognition, an established professor has the contacts and the influence to get you on shortlists. On the other hand, one should not overestimate one's commitment to a research area before doing graduate coursework. You'll discover that there's more to various topics than you can now imagine, and your professors will sway your inclinations. Flexibility is therefore valuable at the point of entry - hopefully there's consistent quality at some level.
We’re all consulting, and subjecting a good part of our judgement to, “the rankings.” Not to do it would be foolish, since rankings contain fairly objective information, which is hard to come by through our personal contacts. But which ranking to use? There are two major types: reputation (survey) rankings and publication / citation counts. Economists know their colleagues and the work done at the leading departments; in reputation rankings they take all factors into account and provide a more or less balanced assessment. Aggregated over a large and representative sample, these ratings mean a lot. US News & World Report publishes the best-known reputation rankings of graduate programs each year – but the NRC (National Research Council) studies, conducted every ten years, involve many more respondents (from a list of key faculty supplied by the schools’ dean’s offices). The US News ranking, which tries to survey two senior members in each program, garners a response rate of about one-half and basically has an adverse selection problem. The two key indices reported by the NRC are the “program effectiveness” and the “faculty quality” rating, each ranging from 0 to 5, where fives indicate universal agreement that the program is “extremely effective” and the faculty “distinguished.” The grades translate into: 5 – distinguished, 4 – strong, 3 – good, 2 – average, 1 – marginal, 0 – indadequate. You can look up the NRC rankings here.
Publication rankings have some methodological issues: articles published in different journals are hard to compare objectively and page numbers may or may not correlate with quality. Also, some schools excel in research productivity (publication) rankings because they have a handful of individuals who write prolifically in specialized areas - depending on your interests, this may be important or unimportant to you. However, I have come to side with publication rankings for primarily two reasons. (1) The reputation of departments in a professor's mind is really a proxy for publications, and an imperfect proxy at that, constrained by what fields the professor pays attention to, which recent moves she is aware of, etc. (2) It has been argued, and seems true by circumstantial evidence, that publication rankings are a leading indicator of future recognition. Partly, this may be because frontier research turns into mainstream stuff; more importantly, I think, professors correct their biases in response to publication rankings.
There are a good number of recent publication rankings around; I strongly recommend the econphd.net rankings because these use a consistent methodology to rank departments worldwide in fairly narrow subdisciplines, and are moreover the most inclusive (over 60 journals). Clearly subdiscipline rankings are more meaningful than aggregated rankings, since everyone has some preference for a research field within economics. Sampling different rankings, and perhaps averaging them, yields information of poor quality and is, in my view, not worth an applicant's time. Resist the temptation; the econphd.net rankings meet every need and are quite simply the most current and accurate publication rankings available.
It’s not a bad idea to apply to non-U.S. programs, for a couple of reasons. (1) They have much fewer applicants, even when compared to U.S. programs of similar quality. (2) Some programs offer generous funding with most admissions. Elsewhere, applying for available funds may be more involved, but that narrows the pool of applicants; there are information rents to be earned. (3) Every year, some admitted students have their visas denied by U.S. consulates. “At-risk” applicants (this is especially frequent for Chinese) may want an option outside the U.S.
Unfortunately, not every university system operates like the American system. All Canadian and Australian universities, and a few others besides, have very similar application processes to those in the U.S.; the marginal effort in applying to them is not large. (Note, however, that the Australian deadlines are entirely different.) Other good programs require a substantial investment in information search, personal contacts, filling up unfamiliar forms, and supplying extra write-ups and references. One should have a good reason for taking this upon oneself. Perhaps a specialty is particularly well represented in one of these places, or one is a marginal candidate where entry barriers are low and seeks the aforementioned information rents. Some regional specifics follow, although very sparse in some cases. There are no programs to speak of in Africa.
Canada Toronto is traditionally viewed as on par with U.S. top 30 schools, and UBC (the University of British Columbia) currently has research output to rival that of top 20 departments. Next in line are Queen’s University, the University of Montreal (not to be confused with the University of Quebec at Montreal), which are roughly like top 50 U.S. schools, and Western Ontario. Application procedures and deadlines are as in the U.S., and there is similar availability of funding (which admits are automatically considered for). Canadian programs also run like their U.S. counterparts, with equivalent coursework, requirements, and placement mechanisms.
Australia / New Zealand Australia (and New Zealand even more so) is still on the way to forming departments and programs that consistently meet U.S. standards. Traditionally, the Australian National University was the region’s flagship, but the University of Melbourne is now an equal competitor and attracts an impressive list of visitors every year. The University of New South Wales is the third power. Graduates from these programs usually place fairly well with Australian universities. University of Queensland, Monash University, and the University of Auckland (the best in New Zealand) have vestiges of noticeable research. These are not comparable to U.S. top 50 departments. Australia’s academic year begins in late February / early March and runs to December; the admission deadlines are in fall of the preceding year. The application process is similar to that of the U.S., although the GRE tends not to be required. The selection process (for funding in particular) places heavy emphasis on grades and is to an extent controlled by university bureaucrats, rather than the department. Hence the system favors those with good GPAs, even if the coursework is deficient in content.
UK In the London School of Economics and University College, England has two fine American-style programs that bear comparison with U.S. top 20 schools. The application procedures are also similar. There are more good departments, but many of these (most prominently Oxford and Cambridge) separate funding from admission decisions, so that time-consuming applications to multiple bodies with various objectives are required in order to have a reasonable chance of support. Some of these foundations ask for separate essays and references. Funding is generally easier to obtain for European and Commonwealth citizens than for other foreigners. Among the more ambitious programs, e.g. Warwick and Essex, a positive trend is in the making to offer some department-sponsored scholarships. The best schools have two-year coursework sequences akin to those in the U.S. and are earning international recognition for the quality of the training (particularly LSE, UCL, and Warwick).
Europe The centuries-old university systems of the continent still reflect different underlying philosophies. The German and French universities (and related systems such as the Belgian, Austrian, and Dutch) traditionally have no tuition charges, while scholarships are primarily offered to nationals through government offices (or to European citizens, through the European foundations). There are typically no admission cycles or even formal admission processes: rather, one contacts a desired supervisor and “competes” for an available PhD research topic (that may have funding attached to it). The departments are, in the German system, organized into professorships that function as separate institutes (with their own academic and other staff and budgets), working within a clearly demarcated specialty. One seeks affiliation with an institute (headed by a particular professor) and becomes a member of the department through membership in the institute. In the French system, a pattern has emerged in which departments host fairly autonomous research centers, and professors may be affiliated with several of these. This model is also becoming popular elsewhere in Europe and outside the U.S. Some of the centers train and fund graduate students. An outstanding success story of this system is the Toulouse, which must be counted among the world’s top sources of high-quality theory research.
In most cases, one needs to make specific enquiries (by e-mail to a professor or a secretary) to ascertain availability of places and prepare an application. At the leading departments, English is the lingua franca, so despite appearances command of the local language is not necessary. But scholarships and paid assistantships may be difficult or impossible to obtain. Alternative to these idiosyncratic systems, some European universities now offer U.S.-style programs at the department level, with the usual admission requirements, department-sponsored scholarships, and a standard coursework sequence. The University of Bonn, the Stockholm School of Economics, and the European University Institute are examples. Spain has already followed this route for some time; the University Carlos III of Madrid, Autonomous University of Barcelona, and Pompeu Fabra University are all well-established and accessible to international applicants. European education is in a rapid process of transition; those who are interested may benefit from researching some of the departments that are listed at this site for new offerings. I have not discussed Israeli universities, since I am not familiar with the system and because few people seem to consider them due to the security situation. But it should be noted that Israel’s economics departments have been remarkably productive; Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University have two of the most impressive faculties of mathematical economists.
Asia Programs in Asia divide into those that cater to an English-speaking, international population and those that are national in focus and (except in India) conducted in a native language. The former are found in Hong Kong and Singapore and, although mostly populated by students of ethnic Chinese origin, are certainly open to others and in fact offer some of the best scholarship opportunities anywhere. HKUST (the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) comes closest to being a university of international stature. The National University of Singapore (NUS) is an affluent, well-run institution but has a less serious research culture. Some outstanding theory research originates at Japanese universities, especially the Universities of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. But faculty quality is not uniform, and the programs are really not designed to accommodate non-Japanese PhD students. The only major Indian program, at the Delhi School of Economics (the Indian Statistical Institute doesn't systematically train PhDs), is of course conducted in English, but seems to attract little international enrollment - perhaps funding is too limited. Other programs, at the Seoul National University in Korea and Taiwan's best department, Academia Sinica, are also local in scope. For the typical applicant, Hong Kong's universities and NUS are possibly interesting options, since funding is quite generous, but one should be aware that in Singapore, at least, students regard the program more as a jumping-off point to the U.S. than as their PhD training of choice.
Latin America I am not really acquainted with Latin American universities, so I cannot say much. The premier institution of the region is ITAM, the Mexican Autonomous Institute of Technology. Its publication output compares with that of top 100 U.S. departments. Else, and on a smaller scale, only the University of Chile can be said to have a noticeable volume of articles published in international journals. The Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (IMPA) in Rio is put on the map by occasional significant technical work.
Applying to economics-related programs at business schools is a popular diversification strategy. For a fact, business schools often pay significantly higher stipends to their students; they don’t attach teaching responsibilities and they usually don’t revise stipends on the basis of performance. Secondly, although business schools accept, on the whole, fewer PhD students than economics departments, their selection criteria are more subjective. Someone who lacks an important math credit or two, and would be disqualified by an econ adcom on that basis, may succeed with a b-school adcom that has less rigid expectations and is impressed with a compensating strength. There is also the argument that the applicant pool to business schools is on average not as strong, since very well-trained students are often theory-inclined and shun the business programs. And finally someone might apply to business schools for the “right reasons”: being interested in the applied economics of management and competition. (Of course, for one whose primary interest is theoretical or empirical finance, business schools are natural first choices. I’m guessing that this guide is mainly read by more generalist economists and have them in mind.)
The application process at business schools is decentralized; submissions are made to, and decisions taken by, a specialty, such as management & organization, business economics, finance, marketing, accounting, etc. One has to commit to a field at the time of application and invest some time and thought into presenting an informed research proposal in that field. Different departments would appeal to different types of economists: business economics to those with somewhat theoretical leanings and interest in industrial organization / game theory, or perhaps empirical macro and public policy. Business economics programs often have an emphasis on micro or macro. Wharton and Haas, for example, are on the public policy end of the spectrum; Northwestern’s MEDS is a game theory powerhouse. Management and organization is typically the least math-oriented department, given to survey, experimental, and other empirical studies. Decision science at business schools is usually a synonym for operations research, but in some places (notably Fuqua and INSEAD) it means choice theory. Under the umbrella of finance, technical general equilibrium research can take place, also time series econometrics. Columbia Business School has a combined finance and economics program.
An individual department typically admits a very small number of students – almost certainly less than ten, and perhaps as few as one. Because all are generously funded (at the major schools), few are expected to reject the offer. This makes the admission rates appear brutal, but of course the applicant pool divides into the specialties – if economics departments admitted people by subdiscipline, the numbers wouldn’t look so different. Without a doubt, however, business PhD programs are becoming more popular and more competitive every year. They are not necessarily easier to get into, in terms of a percentage, but the gamble is less predictable, and this works in certain people’s favor. Because the objective criteria have a smaller weight, the SOP (and any networking one is able to effect) deserves more attention. One should become familiar with the research done by the handful of department members who work in the targeted field: not at a general level, but specifically, by reading into their work, understanding the themes and current directions. The idea is to make a play for one or two of the faculty who are available to supervise by tailoring the proposal to their research program.
Some business economics programs – Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB – make their students take the first year sequence in the economics department. Kellogg also leans strongly toward pure microeconomics; they’ve hired a faculty that wouldn’t make a half-bad econ department by itself. But the majority of PhD programs in business schools end up being less rigorous, partially due to the chosen focus, and put their students through considerably more benign trials. Attrition is minimal. And for all that, placement prospects are typically bright, albeit in most cases restricted to business schools. (And with the caveat that a business economist faces competition from economics PhDs who are frequently preferred on account of research promise.)
A good ranking of business PhD programs does not exist. MBA program rankings are poor substitutes, since they have nothing to do with the faculty’s research output. But the list of potentially eligible programs is fairly small; it’s feasible to research their faculty publications and placements. Business schools with notable PhD programs are Anderson (UCLA), Chicago GSB, Columbia Business School, Fuqua (Duke), Haas (Berkeley), Harvard Business School, INSEAD, Kellogg (Northwestern), Michigan GSB, Olin (Washington University), Simon (Rochester), Sloan (MIT), Stanford GSB, Stern (NYU), Wharton (U Penn). The Darden School at Virginia does not have a PhD program, and Yale’s is, like some others, more of an afterthought than a serious undertaking in its own right.
Plan to mail your applications by early December. (You should check actual deadlines earlier than that: several schools discount or even waive the application fee if you submit completely or partially in November or early December.) You need your final GRE score by end of October or early November: this means, start practicing for the GRE no later than early September. Whatever ETS claims, smart practice can raise your score by hundreds of points. You might get the best results from taking two sample tests in a row, about once a week. (Tests are available from prep books and the software ETS sends you three weeks after registration.) This builds up stress resilience and won’t make you as hostile to the GRE as looking at it every day, over a two-week period, would. Review math, but don’t memorize word lists – increasing the verbal score doesn’t help your application. Sit for the GRE by October, so that you have a chance to retake in November (you are allowed to test once per calendar month). Don’t try to improve a result that’s already good enough (quantitative part is 780 or better) – ETS will report all scores to the departments, and if you do worse the second time around, it discredits your initial, satisfactory performance. Draft your statement of purpose by early November and revise it several times, in intervals, until December until it sounds genuine. If a sentence looks dry, tortuous, or pompous to you, it will also look that way to the reader.
Some programs begin sending out acceptances in early February, but most of the action takes place in the last February week and the first week of March. Almost all schools notify admits by March 15; only waitlisted and rejected applicants will not hear until later. Generally, schools take care of their admits first – many immediately e-mail these applicants when a decision has been reached, though quite a number of schools still send acceptances by post. Rejections almost always come by letter, and weeks later, but if you politely enquire about your status by e-mail, the graduate secretary will usually reply after decisions have been reached. The best way to find out whether decisions are out is to check the Princeton Review graduate message board; information exchange tends to be particularly lively in the economics community. You might also try Who Got In?, a site that exists solely for this purpose. Details from the spring 2002-2004 rounds of admission are available in the decision tables at econphd.net.
You could be waitlisted for admission or for financial aid. It’s hard to predict whether this will eventually result in an offer; sometimes it does and sometimes not. The schools initially take in a group of people of whom they expect a subset, not exceeding the enrollment target, to come. Programs that offer full funding to most or all applicants (such as Stanford) make a conservative round of initial offers, and extend more offers once they get a picture of who’s accepting. Other programs (Chicago, for instance) manage enrollment by giving just a few of the admits money and passing any unclaimed financial aid on to the next best. Harvard makes awards conditional on the applicant’s securing outside funding (ideally, things like NSF grants) to shoulder part of the cost. Thus, some schools have waitlists and others haven’t, and Harvard has something they call a waitlist, which is more like an ultimatum. Waitlists are frustrating. Some claim that you can tip the scales by writing to professors and reiterating your interest in the place, but in reality there’s little you can do except … wait. (One reader, who was waitlisted at three top schools, eventually got rejected for admission and / or funding by the two departments he actively and frequently contacted while on the waitlist, and received full funding from the third.) Getting waitlisted does not reflect uncertainty about your eligibility (in that case, they’d just reject you), it is a question of enrollment targets. All depends on which way the initial admits decide, and when.
|Which offer to take?||
When you have several offers, you start looking for information in earnest. Fortunately, departments will be much more responsive to enquiries when you’ve been admitted, and it’s easy to get in touch with current students. You’ll be committing something between five and seven years to the program, so the chemistry in such correspondence is a factor not to be discounted. You’ll also want to check how many students fail to complete the degree and why (because they are asked to leave? fail the exams? enter better programs? take industry jobs?). Some schools are notorious for taking in a lot more students than they plan to graduate, in order to have a large pool of budget-friendly TAs on hand. The implication is that many won’t pass the qualifying exams or, most commonly, will not continue to get funded at some point. Completion rates of about half are normalcy in many U.S. departments. Few publically report their numbers, but as a rule of thumb, programs with higher drop-out rates tend to offer fewer and / or less generous fellowships in the first year, for obvious reasons.
Another key aspect to consider is the placement track record of the program. Most departments make this information available on their website or in brochures. A historical perspective of the eventual success of PhD training is offered in a 1992 article in the Journal of Economic Education. It ranks departments by current faculty positions occupied by their PhD graduates. The sample includes virtually every academic economist at a PhD-granting school in the U.S. in 1992, making this a particularly objective effort that looks at labor market outcomes which necessarily reflect careful evaluation, since hiring institutions “put the money where the mouth is.” On the negative side, the list is biased towards long-standing and large programs, and recent developments have little influence.
All said, there is a group of U.S. departments that has for decades supplied the great majority of leading economists. The stakes are high, and the competition is accordingly – but rest satisfied that, in giving it your best effort, you’ll serve the interest of our dismal science … as if led by an invisible hand, as they say!