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Thread: How bad would a masters in mathematics be?

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    How bad would a masters in mathematics be?

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    So I will have the required math background and more with great grades in time for PhD/RA applications.

    But I actually really like mathematics, and would like to take graduate courses in mathematics, and I won't qualify for them until after next year which is when I graduate. In fact there is so much that I want to take that a thought came into my head that I could get a masters in mathematics. But given that I already have the requirements for an Econ PhD, would this just hurt my application? Especially when I could be doing an RAship or depending on where I get in, an econ PhD itself?

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    Re: How bad would a masters in mathematics be?

    I personally can't think of a reason why it would hurt. I think the more important question would be whether it's worth 1~2 years of your time. Are you interested in theory by any chance?

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    Re: How bad would a masters in mathematics be?

    Yeah I am interested in theory. But I am thinking that since research experience (meaning the lackthereof) is the weakest part of my application, I should do something that allows me to make up for it. I'll post another thread, I have another question anyway that I can't find in past threads.

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    Re: How bad would a masters in mathematics be?

    If your ultimate goals are to do well in econ applications, then I think it'd make sense to somehow make up for a lack of research experience (if you haven't worked as an undergrad RA or something). Given that you have taken measures to make up for a lack of research experience, then I think it'll be a value judgment as to whether it'll be worth your time to spend additional years learning mathematics in a Master's program.

    If you must choose one of the two, then I think the relevant question here would be whether it is more important to you that you maximize your chances for econ PhD program, or whether it is more important that you pursue your interests in math. Neither of these choices are going to hurt you, it's rather more about which opportunity you would be willing to forego in order to pursue the other.

    I guess one thing to take into consideration is that I've personally heard that mathematics coursework is more important for applicants interested in theory. That is, you'll need to demonstrate mathematical ability more than other empirically-oriented candidates, who usually also have strong mathematical backgrounds as well. So in that aspect, maybe a mathematics masters is not such a bad choice either (although a rigorous economics masters would be better)

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    Re: How bad would a masters in mathematics be?

    Matheonomics' advice is quite nuanced, but I still have to say I disagree with his evaluation of the tradeoffs here. While he seems to be very clued in about pure math and its usage in economic theory, I think he's still an undergraduate. Generally, undergraduates under-estimate the importance of research experience, both in the admissions process and for building skills that are relevant for your future research career. In particular, note that "theory" is a niche field in the post-1990s economics discipline, and the part of our theoretical output that heavily depends on topology/measure-theory consists of a few top 5 papers per year + 10-20% representation in three theory journals. And any of these papers would be lucky to receive more than 10 citations in the decade after publication. It is highly unlikely that a master's in mathematics (or generally, pure math beyond undergrad real analysis) will be useful to an economist's career.

    It's true that a master's in mathematics *might* provide a positive signal for your application, in two aspects: you can finish 1st-year econ coursework, and your intelligence. The later signal is only provided if you do well in a prestigious program - and most of those are not in the U.S. There are very few U.S. master's programs that are considered appropriate for sending students to doctoral programs; this is true whether we're speaking about master's programs in math, stats, or economics.

    Second, your interests in theory are unlikely to hold. From my rough impression, a majority of students express a primary or secondary interest in theory during the admissions stage. By the end of graduate school, at least 10 times the number of students are going into empirical micro, broadly construed. And for empirical micro, research experience is a lot more helpful than a master's in mathematics. I think, because coursework is usually theory-heavy, many undergrads/1st-year grads do not appreciate the sheer dominance of applied/empirical work in our discipline.


    Finally, note that the caliber of theory students in our discipline is very, very high. There are a lot of IMO medalists going into our discipline every year. In other words, even if you do very well in a master's in mathematics, you won't necessarily impress an admissions committee -- you're a step above the majority of students who are destined for empirical work, but a step below students who are clearly math geniuses and will certainly become theorists. Considering how specialized our discipline is, this doesn't give you an advantage. It's a good idea to be capable technically, but unless you have an extremely strong inclination towards theory, you should never sacrifice the opportunity for more economics/research/RA work to take more pure math than what is necessary.

    Personal experience - I was similarly interested in math and theory, and I nearly finished the equivalent of a master's in math as an undergraduate student (two 1st-year sequences + several second-year electives); none of my math coursework beyond undergrad intro analysis became substantially useful as a graduate student in economics, whether in coursework or in research.

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    Re: How bad would a masters in mathematics be?

    Chateau are you serious that IMO placement is considered a strong signal of mathematical ability for econ admissions? Math comps, including the olympaid is all about memorizing how to do the kinds of problems you will be asked. So you just do every practice problem, memorize the methods, and attempt to reproduce as many as possible at the competition. Obviously this is difficult, but I would be far more concerned about having to compete with someone who with a math degree from HMU or a european school than someone who did well at a math competition.

    But overall you guys make good points, I should probably focus on research opportunities which is my comparative disadvantage than go for more math. I guess I should also try not to signal that I'm interested in theory so that I'm competing in a weaker pool.. So should I have this in mind when finding a research opportunity? I mean I really like international macroeconomics, and large-scale macroeconomic modeling (which I know is a lot of empirical econometrics, but I am most interested in the theory side of it), but I suppose I could do something else to get into a good program.

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    Re: How bad would a masters in mathematics be?

    I agree with everything chateauheart mentioned here. For your economics career and your applications, it'll be much better to pursue opportunities for research.

    I definitely should've clarified earlier that I'm a graduating senior, and any inputs I make to this forum is based on advice I received from faculty members and alumni, not from my personal experience. You should definitely put more weight to chateauheart's advice since he/she's much more experienced. You should also talk with other professors at your school as well as alumni currently in PhD programs, since they've gone through the whole process recently. Whenever I had to make "big" decisions, I found it helpful to take the "average" of advice I receive from experienced individuals (unless there were compelling reasons otherwise).

    I guess what I wanted to initially communicate was more from a personal values/philosophical perspective. Even if a Masters in mathematics was completely useless in economics, I don't think that necessarily means you shouldn't do it. I tend to think that not all life decisions need to be based on optimizing one's career path. Maybe you have a pure desire and intellectual interest to learn mathematics, not for the sake of your career, but solely for the enjoyment of learning. People place different preferences and priorities on the enjoyment of learning and a successful career. I'll be working as a full time RA after I graduate because I placed higher priority on the latter, but I never considered this as necessarily the right choice for everyone. If you have a strong desire to learn more math, you can afford it financially, and you feel like this is something you're going to regret if you miss out on today, then maybe delaying your applications for two years isn't such a crazy idea. If you merely have an interest in math but you're honestly okay with not going that much deeper into it, then maybe you're better off pursuing more research opportunities for the sake of your economics career. If this helps, many professors (although not all) allow their RAs to take 1~2 classes while working for them, including graduate level math classes. This can perhaps be a good compromise.

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    Re: How bad would a masters in mathematics be?

    RA position will give you more of advantage at the time of application, allow you to build savings, endow you with greater programming skills, and help you determine your commitment to research. If you decide not to apply to econ grad school for whatever reason, you'll also be stronger positioned in the job market because of your programming/statistical chops and work experience.

    So it's 'bad' in the sense that the opportunity cost is high and the expected payoff is low.

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    Re: How bad would a masters in mathematics be?

    I think it just has very little influence on your application.

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    Re: How bad would a masters in mathematics be?

    To semi-hijack this thread: I (an American) have a B.A. in history and wanted to pursue an econ Ph.D. My only econ/math coursework had been a few grad-level econ courses.

    I needed to beef up my application with an M.S., so I was debating between an M.S. in math/stats or econ. The handful of economists I talked with told me that an M.S. in econ would be redundant for econ Ph.D ("they plan to teach you the econ themselves") and that few Ph.D programs respected American econ masters programs. The economists said an M.S. in math/stats would be much better ("they want to make sure you won't fail out the first year").

    Thus, I'm now a year into my math/stats M.S. program. I don't have any regrets. I see most of the courses I'm taking are listed on "recommended math prep" lists at econ Ph.D admissions pages. I thus disagree with mathenomic's claim that "a rigorous economics masters would be better."

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