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View Full Version : Dilemma: Small LA school with unknown Econ Dep. What do I do?



fc2411
01-20-2015, 02:27 AM
Hello all.

After reviewing the numerous 'profiles/results threads' from various years, I noticed that those being admitted to 'top-30' Econ PhD programs come from a pretty selective group; mostly prestigious schools with respectable Econ departments. Like these individuals, I also desire to be admitted to a 'top-30' PhD programming, hopefully, right after undergrad. However, due mostly to my insistence on playing a sport in college (something I quit about a month into school), I am attending a small, completely unknown, liberal arts college in the Midwest. Worse yet is that the Econ Department at my school has only 1, albeit good, professor. My question is do I have any chance at being admitted to a 'top-30' PhD program right out of undergrad assuming that my other credentials are strong? Half-way through my sophomore year, I nearly have a 4.00 GPA (one B+ in French :livid:) and, in the past, I have been an excellent standardized test taker ; a skill that I hope is transferable to the GRE. In terms of research, I am currently RAing for my school's 1 (lol) Econ prof, but other than that there are not many research opportunities at my school.

Based upon similar posts on this forum, many people are going to suggest that I transfer, but I have a serious girlfriend at school and, thus, I would be uncomfortable transferring. One thing that I have considered is graduating in 3-years (this would mean dropping my meaningless, but interesting Poli Sci major; my other majors are Econ and Applied Math by the way), which is when my girlfriend will graduate and enrolling as a non-degree student at a Big Ten School in my state. This would enable me to take some math classes that are not offered at my school (partial differential equations, 2nd semester of linear, and a second semester of analysis) and, hopefully, secure LOR's from more reputable profs than those at my current school (maybe?).

Also, if I were not to be admitted to a 'top 30' PhD program right after undergrad, would a masters degree in Econ/Math bolster my chances any?

publicaffairsny
01-20-2015, 03:20 AM
How do they have an econ major with only one professor?

fc2411
01-20-2015, 04:33 AM
Let me clarify. There is only one prof with an Econ PhD. One other prof teaches the intro to econ class, but has a DoB. Even so, one professor teaches all the econ courses at or above the level of intermediate macro/micro. In addition to the intro class, only three econ courses are offered each semester.

publicaffairsny
01-20-2015, 03:02 PM
Let me clarify. There is only one prof with an Econ PhD. One other prof teaches the intro to econ class, but has a DoB. Even so, one professor teaches all the econ courses at or above the level of intermediate macro/micro. In addition to the intro class, only three econ courses are offered each semester.

Thats really strange. I'm at a school right now with 6 economists in the business department and they only offer an econ minor.

arrm
01-20-2015, 04:56 PM
This advice is mostly going to be targetted at someone aiming for at least a couple top-15 acceptances, rather than just aiming for a top-30 acceptance. Things might be a bit more lax than I suggest at a 15-30 school, but the broad contours are probably similar.

First, I'm assuming that you're going to have a fantastic recommendation letter from the one econ professor that you speak of. Hopefully it will include a statement like "fc2411 is the best econ graduate that we have had in the last X years." That's almost required for consideration from an unknown school. Remember that they probably haven't even seen a candidate, much less accepted one, from your school in X years, and graduate schools hate uncertainty.

You won't have a lot of access to more difficult/graduate econ classes. So all those slots need to go to math classes. Drop that polisci major as fast as you can and take every (proof-based) math and stat class available. At a minimum you want a full analysis sequence, and try to get some subset of topology, algebra, differential equations, and stat classes. If possible, switch that Applied Math major to a regular Math major and take the harder classes that requires. Excel in all of them, this is going to have to be a strength for you.

Finally, I can't tell you how much I recommend taking two years after you graduate and working at a research job. The classic examples of these jobs are the Federal Reserve banks, most of them have research departments with significant numbers of RA positions. Aim for DC, Chicago, NY, SF, or maybe Boston. Some professors also maintain research groups where you can find full-time positions or will have funding for a full-time RA. As much as possible, try to be in/near a university with a good econ program.

I suggest this because these kinds of jobs are made for you. To be entirely honest, you don't have much of a chance at getting in right out of undergrad. Mostly because you simply won't have the recommendation letters. I'm sure the one econ prof at your school is a good person, but I doubt that he's a very active or known researcher (how can you be with that teaching load?), and that's basically the only rec you have. Math profs are okay but they can't speak to your econ research potential. Letters of recommendation are a huge deal (probably >50% of the application), and you won't have anything to show there.

In an ideal scenario, you go work for two years, get a fantastic rec from a known researcher that you've done significant work with, maybe get a working paper on the books, take a couple upper-level/graduate econ courses at the nearby (top) university, get another good rec from a professor there, and suddenly you have a really strong recommendation. You get the opportunity to show that you can handle actual research and graduate coursework, and you get reputable people who are willing to back you on those statements. I've seen firsthand how much two years can do for an application, and I know that several top schools really push their graduate school-bound undergrads towards these paths because of how beneficial they can be.

As for if you don't get in, masters in the US are almost always terminal and will not help you for PhD admissions. Apparently there are several reputable international masters that can help, but I don't think it will do very much, especially given the costs.

fc2411
01-20-2015, 08:23 PM
Thanks for the advice. Working at the Fed does interest me, however, I was hoping to work there after obtaining my PhD. Plus, I would assume that research oriented positions at the Fed straight out of undergrad would be highly competitive; are they not? Given my undergraduate institution, I would assume I would be passed over by the Fed for students who attended more reputable, research-oriented undergraduate institutions.

Would taking upper-level/graduate econ courses and/or proof-based math courses at a Big Ten University near me as a non-degree student help my chances at landing admission at a top-tier econ program directly out of undergrad? After dropping Poli Sci, my schedule would be reasonably flexible during my senior year. If it would benefit my chances, I would be willing to take up to 5 or 6 courses at this Big Ten school.

arrm
01-20-2015, 09:06 PM
Thanks for the advice. Working at the Fed does interest me, however, I was hoping to work there after obtaining my PhD. Plus, I would assume that research oriented positions at the Fed straight out of undergrad would be highly competitive; are they not? Given my undergraduate institution, I would assume I would be passed over by the Fed for students who attended more reputable, research-oriented undergraduate institutions.

Would taking upper-level/graduate econ courses and/or proof-based math courses at a Big Ten University near me as a non-degree student help my chances at landing admission at a top-tier econ program directly out of undergrad? After dropping Poli Sci, my schedule would be reasonably flexible during my senior year. If it would benefit my chances, I would be willing to take up to 5 or 6 courses at this Big Ten school.

Honestly, if you have any shot at a top-15 econ program then getting an RA-level job at a Fed should not be very difficult. It's kind of like graduate applications, except most of the best candidates are all removed from the pool (because, obviously, they're going straight to grad school).

Of course those classes will help, I just don't think that they'll help enough to get in. I'm saying that you should really considering working for two years in addition to taking those more advanced classes. Again, the majority of your application is in your recommendation letters, and I don't think you'll have a strong suite even after some classes. Best case scenario, you have a fantastic one from an unknown academic and an okay one from someone who has only taught you in a class (and that's assuming the Big Ten school has a decent econ department, which not all of them do). That's still just not quite enough. From working for two years, you'll also get a great letter from an active and well-known researcher that you have done a significant amount of serious research with. That's a lot of value, and isn't even counting all the other benefits of working.

fc2411
01-21-2015, 01:18 PM
Finally, I can't tell you how much I recommend taking two years after you graduate and working at a research job. The classic examples of these jobs are the Federal Reserve banks, most of them have research departments with significant numbers of RA positions. Aim for DC, Chicago, NY, SF, or maybe Boston. Some professors also maintain research groups where you can find full-time positions or will have funding for a full-time RA. As much as possible, try to be in/near a university with a good econ program.


Why these specific Feds? Why are they better suited for future graduate admissions than others?

sulebrahim
01-21-2015, 03:13 PM
I agree that working at the Fed will help, especially for letters of recommendation and possibly a research pipeline. If you can't do that, the big ten school option make sense. I mean most of the big ten schools are top 40 except maybe 2 schools.

lbox
01-21-2015, 03:23 PM
Ditto on getting an RA position, but don't limit yourself to FED. Look for RA positions with Profs at top schools. Also try and do an REU or similar research experience during the summer.

arrm
01-21-2015, 05:22 PM
Why these specific Feds? Why are they better suited for future graduate admissions than others?

Feds are like any other research department, there are better and worse ones. I might be missing a couple, like maybe Philadelphia, but those are generally regarded as having good research departments as well as solid name value (e.g. Richmond Fed is significantly less prestigious than the NY Fed). Another consideration is proximity to a good econ department, which probably puts Chicago (UChicago, Northwestern), NY (Columbia, NYU), Boston (Harvard, MIT), and Philly (UPenn) a bit above the rest.

As I and others have said, you also don't want to necessarily limit yourself to Feds. Those positions are easy to find and apply to, but that doesn't mean that they're the only option. Look for professors who might want to hire RAs, and especially those with larger research groups.

economeister
01-21-2015, 08:15 PM
As of December 2014, according to IDEAS the top three Federal Reserve banks in terms of research are (1) the Board, (2) New York, and (3) St. Louis (source: https://ideas.repec.org/top/top.central.html). I'd aim for these first.

TheTemp
01-21-2015, 09:41 PM
For university-based RA postings, be sure to check here: Research Assistant Positions not at the NBER (http://www.nber.org/jobs/nonnberjobs.html) . I'd also recommend looking into think tank RA jobs (e.g. RAND, Brookings). Do you have programming skills? That would be very helpful when applying for these types of positions.

fc2411
01-22-2015, 01:07 AM
For university-based RA postings, be sure to check here: Research Assistant Positions not at the NBER (http://www.nber.org/jobs/nonnberjobs.html) . I'd also recommend looking into think tank RA jobs (e.g. RAND, Brookings). Do you have programming skills? That would be very helpful when applying for these types of positions.


I am only a sophomore, but as of now I am at least moderately proficient in R, MATLAB, and LaTex. I am currently scheduled to take a few computing classed before I graduate. Should know the basics of Java, JavaScript, and C++. Is that enough or should I consider taking more programming classes? Note that if I were to take more programming classes, it would mean dropping a few upper-level/graduate Econ/Math courses that I am planning on taking my junior and senior year (something that I definitely lack due to my undergraduate institution). Being unfamiliar with the background that the Fed and Professors are looking for in RAs, I'm not sure which would be more prudent.

TheTemp
01-22-2015, 02:03 AM
Ah didn't realize you were only a sophomore. That's what I get for skimming. You're probably better off taking upper level math instead of programming courses per se, but if you get an opportunity to do some stata work for your econ prof then that could be valuable. Nice to see you've used R - I prefer it personally but many (most?) economists seem to rely on Stata.

fc2411
01-24-2015, 11:53 PM
Sorry to bring this thread back up, but I am curious about how much research experience I should have to be competitive for an RA position with the Fed/Professor? Research opportunities are sparse at my school, so if they are looking for someone with a lot of research experience am I even a viable candidate? If not, am I better off just trying to go to a non-top-tier PhD program right out of undergrad (definitely not my preference, but I will if its the only option)?

econstudent0999
04-19-2016, 02:14 PM
I am also in this situation, my university has a very small econ department also, 5-6 PHDs, none well known, a lot of classes taught by lecturers at the lower level. Overall i think the thing that most holds me back most is my university is only able to offer intro econometrics. Where most big econ schools offer 2-4 at an undergraduate level, i am hoping this doesnt hinder my grad school options. Although im not looking close to top 30 haha.