View Full Version : Getting into a PhD program w/o dropping out of uni

09-05-2007, 02:06 AM
I need some advice on what I should do the next couple of years to get into a good US PhD program in Economics. Sorry for being so long-winded~~~

Type of Undergrad: BSc Philosophy, Politics & Economics (yeah, I know~~:rolleyes:~): Economics major, Philosophy minor at Warwick U (England) (note that Warwick is usually ranked 3-4 in the UK for Economics). I spent my second out of three years at Queen's U in Canada. I'm entering my final and third year in October.

Undergrad GPA: Warwick (1st year): 76% during my first year: "1st" (~"A") on all my courses and #1 out of 50 on my program) at Warwick. Queen's (2nd year): 91.4% at (93.7% in econ) - all A's (anything 80+ is an A). Could not have got any higher grade on any course, so let's say 4.0.

GRE: Not taken, I'm predicting I can get 800 (or close to that) on Q, and perhaps 560 on V (non-native speaker).

Math Courses: calculus at high school (it's standard in Europe); multivariable calculus and some linear algebra in my first year (compulsory course in economics department); statistics in my first year (the usual hypothesis testing stuff) --> see Issue #1

Econ Courses: Micro + Macro (up to third-year level); advanced economic theory and econometrics next year; a variety of applied courses (labour, etc.) and economic history.

Letters of Recommendation: --> Issue #2

Research Experience: None. --> Issue #2

Teaching Experience: None at university (I've never heard about undergrads doing any kind of teaching in the UK...?! please prove me wrong!); I've taught IB revision courses in maths (and biology).

Research Interests: Micro, Labour

Other: 22 / Female / Swedish. I got the highest mark out of almost a hundred on my philosophy course last year - maybe this may compensate for some problems with the GRE verbal part (read: analogies....). I've learnt Chinese for a year, so I am now conversational and read novels in modern Chinese.

My goal is to get into a funded (I'm poor) PhD program in Economics at a top 20 school in the US (I see myself as an academic in the future). I believe I have the intellectual capacity for this, but sadly, little else at the moment. On really bad days it seems like I should just redo the last 3 years of my life or so (i.e., dropping out of university and do a maths degree instead). Thus, I really need some constructive advice about how to spend the next 2-3 years to accomplish this goal.

Issue #1: Maths (of course ;))

For me, this problem stems mainly from degree regulations in the UK being very rigorous. We are locked into a degree program from the last year of high school (when we apply for university) - in general, changing program would require dropping out and reapplying. Once in a particular degree program, we have very little choice about what to do and when to do it: next year, I need to do a module in political economy, one in econometrics, a third-year level course in economics (I will be doing avanced economic theory), and one additional 2nd or 3rd-year module in whatever. The mathematics courses I wanted to take (differential equations, linear algebra) are first-year courses (equivalent to 2nd-year courses in the US), and hence, I cannot take them for my degree. We are technically not allowed to overload, but since my educational record is impeccable, my program coordinator has allowed me to do it anyway - unfortunately, three of my classes are scheduled on the same time, and I will have no opportunity whatsoever to take the one-semester diff equations course (I'll already be stretching with two overlapping classes).
So, I cannot take a bunch of maths classes in my last year, as most people on here seem to be doing. I cannot stay on for a year either, because that just doesn't happen in England.

Issue #2: Professors / LoRs / Experience

All my economics courses at Warwick were taught in classes of more than 200 people, and I highly doubt that any of the professors would know who I am. I'm sure I could get someone writing about how excellent my academic records are (since I'm the top of my program), but that won't be anyone that actually knows me and can make a convincing description. I hold no hope that any of my classes the coming year will have less than 70 students. Classes in Canada were smaller and actually involved a lot more interaction with the profs; I'm sure I could get some of my Queen's profs to write me a LoR based on my essays and exams, but I wouldn't be there to ask face-to-face with the personal interaction that would entail. (You should be aware that I kind of regret going abroad for a year for this reason - had I been around for all three years I would have had more of an opportunity to take several courses with the same prof and actually make a personal impression. However, I had a great time in Canada.)

I really enjoy researching papers and I would just love getting involved in research with a professor. However, I've never heard about undergraduates in England ever doing that (please prove me wrong, someone!). It seems like this would be an excellent opportunity to develop some kind of professional relationship. However, I just won't have time to do this for this year given that we start in October and that quite a few American schools have deadlines in December...

Issue #3: I have an American boyfriend (we've maintained our long-distance relationship for a year now and it's stable); we want to be together; I have no greencard but I'm kind of too young to get married (he's two years younger than me as well). He's finishing his undergrad in 2008 too, and wants to do a master in computational finance, financial mathematics or the like. Our original plan was just to go to the same US university for grad school (good luck...) -- he doesn't want to join me in here the EU, and I'm not overwhelmingly enthusiastic about staying here either.


Having read everyone's profile on here, I am 99.9% convinced that I cannot get into a top (ehm... any) PhD program for next year, and particularly not with funding. I have been thinking about doing a masters degree in economics at UBC - it's supposedly good for economics, relatively cheap (extremely cheap compared to masters degrees in the US), and I kind of like Canada. However, it's still quite far from the US (my bf), and I was wondering if it would actually help me do to get into a PhD program in the end (I'd be studying mainly economics - not maths, and there seems to be no opportunity to do courses outside of economics). Do you reckon that it be better if I did a masters degree in - say - statistics given that I could get in)? I'm thinking that if I'm in a more American-styled system, I might have more of an opportunity to get some teaching or research experience as well.

I need some encouragement, crazy ideas and inspiration (friends of mine say I should just give up on economics and go to law school instead - not very encouraging :(). Anything is appreciated. Thank you.

Karina 07
09-05-2007, 03:10 AM
Initial impression: I would see if there is anywhere you can get a job after graduation, doing research for a professor (or any kind of research). Then you can take classes while doing research and developing links with professors and kill all 3 birds with one stone. And they will be the courses *you* need, not the courses that just happen to be in some economics master's program, so that you wouldn't just have more of the same experience you're having now in the UK.

Failing that, I would try to get any kind of job which would let you take the math courses you wanted plus research with profs a wee bit on the side. This can be tough to fit in all at once, but if you only take 1-2 math courses at a time it should be doable, and since the rest of your record is impeccable I would hope that the admissions people will be alright with that. (Side note: presumably, even if you don't have grades for everything you want on your transcript by the time you apply, if you have at least good grades in a core bunch of courses at least a few places will take you at your word that you'll pursue X in spring term or whatever; not everywhere, and not for everything, but if you lack one thing that it'd be good for you to have knowledge of (like real analysis) it'd be at least better to say you'll take it in the spring than to not give any indication that you'll take it at all. Again, of course try to get everything you can on your transcript now, but just in case you miss one thing, it could be worse. I'd worry more about the LORs....)

Another option: there are a few fairly well-respected online math courses offered from U.S. uni's (UIUC comes to mind, also I think Stanford?). You can maybe take a couple of those alongside your courses this year. I don't think they go up very high to really advanced stuff, but it should at least cover differential equations I think.

Though this is focusing on the math, don't forget the LORs. They're probably the most important thing. *Any* way you can do research with a prof will help you immensely, hence my first suggestion.... Actually, if you can afford it (and you would have to pay for a master's if you were to do it in Canada anyway), instead of my second suggestion of working and taking classes and doing free research under a prof (if a research job and classes fails), just take classes and research under the prof; it'll help your future the most and would give you a lot more on your record and more in-depth LORs. And I do think it might be better to cherry-pick the math courses than do a structured master's, if you are determined to go to a Ph.D. program afterwards; the advantage of an actual master's would be if it let you research with profs, or just get to know profs well, but I'm not sure that you couldn't get to know profs without it.

Anyway, hope this helped. I'm at least a bit familiar with the UK system, so I really sympathize. Master's programs in the UK actually let you interact a lot more with professors and do your own projects, but then you want to be close to your boyfriend, which I also totally understand.... Keep in touch, let us know how it goes!

09-05-2007, 05:19 AM

Math: online classes (check Open University, it might be that you uni will allow transfer credits)

LORs: I'd expect that your problem is not unique and adcoms will evaluate LORs from UK with that in mind (but that's just my expectation). So the issue is not there. If you have some free time, offer your profs to do some small RA jobs... just make sure, they don't turn out to be something that will take up a lot of your time...

09-15-2007, 11:55 AM
I am a finalist at Warwick (Econ) as well. I have not really asked any member of staff yet but it seemed that the title "Research Assistant" is usually reserved for Ph.D. candidates in the UK. (Not pouring cold water, but I am worrying about my number of Maths course, LoRs, research... same type of stuff like many other UK students) I tried do a search on "undergraduate research assistant" in Google UK and it bounced me hopeless results.

But I think I will leave these questions till the term starts. By the way, how are the courses in Canada like compare to the UK?

09-15-2007, 03:39 PM
Thanks a lot for the advice and thanks to Katrina in particular.

I've written to the maths department at Warwick and I keep my fingers crossed that I can take a one-year course in analysis and a one-semester linear algebra course (in addition to my normal courseload). They do a course in differential equations too, but that one simply won't work out with my timetable. If they won't let me do that I'll nag at them first and then if there's no way I'll ask them to write me a letter stating that it's impossible for me to take these courses at Warwick, and do some distance-learning courses at UIUC or the like instead. (I might take the course in diff eq from there anyway.) Actually, I think that the whole distance-learning thing was one of the most constructive ideas I've heard for a long time; although such courses might not be as rigorous as real courses, I would imagine that doing them at the same time as doing my degree work signals some sort of dedication to adcoms.

I am still considering going to UBC or to another Canadian institution for an MA though. The main reason is that I won't have the opportunity to get decent lors or experience in time for application (remember, our term starts on Oct 1 and ends in early December). Hopefully, some more run-of-the-mill ones complemented by my transcripts and gre scores would be enough to take me into a decent MA program. By the end of my year at Warwick and after some time on an MA program, I might have enough lors and a enough research experience to go where I really want to go.

Nonetheless, I am still quite curious about how people with Bachelor's degrees (foreign in particular) land research assistantships. Assuming that I wanted to go this route, should I just track down some profs at research universities, send them my grades, resume and a convincing letter explaining why I'd be an excellent research assistant, and ask them to sponsor me for a J-1 visa or the like? I guess for this to be successful, you'd better apply to a prof at some university with a lot of excess research funds to throw around, right? (My dad is a prof and he sponsored a few Indian students from IIT to do research-related summer jobs, but then he's in applied science with backing from industry and so has a lot more money to do that sort of thing than I would imagine the average econ department has.)

Asian, I found university in Canada a lot more pleasant than at Warwick. I guess it kind of depends on which school you go to, but my professors were all extremely friendly and helpful (something I didn't quite experience during my first year at Warwick, hopefully it'll be better now though). When you went to their office hours, they'd not only help you but also chat a bit with you, ask how you found the pace or structure of the course, and most of them would actually care to learn your name! More lectures than at Warwick, but no seminars (I think they might have practice classes for maths/metrics courses though). Class sizes are usually large in the 1st and 2nd year, third-year classes seldom have more than 50 (often down to 30-40... feels like you're in high school again), fourth-year classes are tiny (like <30, down to 10). As for the teaching quality, I found my 3rd-year micro class extremely daunting at first (the main text was Jehle&Reny's Advanced Microeconomic Theory), but then I only took Econ1 (combined micro+macro) in my first year. But the professor was awesome and very friendly and would patiently explain over and over again for the less talented who made an effort to come to his office hours (believe me, I waited outside his office for about an hour once). Overall, the admissions process probably isn't as rigorous as the Warwick one and there were quite a few not-too-bright people around, but the really brilliant ones were no fewer than at Warwick.

09-15-2007, 07:22 PM
Thanks for sharing your Canadian experience there. I think the attitude to teaching differs by person, some people are more into research and takes teaching as a job, seriously I have had seminar tutors who are on either side of the extremes. But I have to agree with you, with the relative difference in class size, it is very difficult to find a professor who can afford to spend good quality time on every single individual.

About the Maths courses, I have managed to get in touch with the lecturer in charge of the EC119 Mathematics for Economics course. He seemed quite friendly (from the e-mails) and he is from the Mathematics department. I managed to get his consent regarded attending his lectures and seminar classes, all I need now is to hopefully get me personal tutor to put that item down on the LOR (better on the transcript.. I really don't mind sitting extra exams, but I doubt the Economics department would let this happen). Anyhow I will talk more about Mathematics I need during the start of term. Apparently maths student stand a better chance (in our uni) getting better, if not good, LoRs as they have to meet with their personal tutor every week

About Undergraduate RAs, I saw that the faculty (i have only looked at Harvard) often post on their noticeboard asking for undergraduates. The RAs are asked to do simple tasks such as data collections, handling spreadsheets , writing literature reviews and translations. Perhaps doing some computer work with econometrics and statistics at most, but nothing that goes way beyond Bachelor level. (see more: RA Postings (http://www.economics.harvard.edu/undergraduate/RAPostings/RA%20Postings.html))

hope this helps

09-17-2007, 03:02 PM
looking at your profile, you look like an excellent student and also pretty determined to pursue a PhD in Economics. My suggestion is to apply to top UK MSc Econ degrees (LSE, UCL, Warwick), which have a better reputation than Canada ones and they are much more competitive. If you want to go into a really math based one, I would apply to UCL, which is also the best in Micro and labour economics, and one of the best in world in Microeconometrics. Furthermore, when you will be exposed to hardcore economic theory, you will understand if you really want to do a PhD in Econ in US (which is supposedly harder than MSc standards in UK), and getting a Master will definitely increase the probability of being accepted in a top US institution.

A part from this, I wish you really good luck with your decision.

09-17-2007, 05:34 PM
Asian, thank you for the link. I think it is very interesting, although I kind of fail to see how some of those jobs would really help develop your research skills. Ah well, the search moves on.

trustmiller, there are two main reason I am looking at Canada rather than the UK:

(1) I really like Canada. :p

(2) Economical situation: Tuition fees for a 12-month MSc are &#163;17,532 at LSE, &#163;8,925 at UCL, and &#163;6,500 at Warwick. For a 12-month MA at UBC, the corresponding figure is C$4,939 (including compulsory student fees), which converts into &#163;2,372. In addition, costs of living in Vancouver would not even approach those in London (despite Vancouver being fairly expensive relative to the rest of Canada). I doubt the Warwick programme is better (or worse) than the UBC programme. If I had the opportunity to get my hands on all of the money to study for a year in London, I might start evaluating whether that would be some 6 to 12 times better than doing the UBC programme. However, I just don't have that much money. I don't even have a clue where I could get hold of that much money. In fact, I'll be about &#163;12k indebted by the time I finish my degree. If I'd have to self-fund my education (which seems to be the usual thing to do for this kind of master), UBC looks like a better buy to me.

09-17-2007, 05:46 PM
Two thoughts:

1) While not ideal, you're math background isn't horrible. You did very well in multivariable calc/linear algebra course you took. I might try applying to PhD programs and tell them that you took as much math as you could and are planning to take real analysis in summer school before enrolling. You might be okay... The letters don't need to be written until December, so I'd go over to the econ dept, tell them you're really interested in grad school and offer to work *for free* 8 hours a week (a prof may be impressed by the initiative and offer to pay you anyway, or at least hire you even though he normally doesn't hire undergrads). Don't email them, bring your resume and transcript and show up at their office hours.

2) I believe the World Bank and IMF hire recent graduates (their application deadlines are very early!). Visas are not an issue if you work for them. Both are in Washington DC very close to George Washington University (a good place to take math) and provide the opportunity to get to know good economists who can write letters.

3) I believe student visas allow you to work part time in the USA. I've heard of overseas students enrolling in something like the Harvard Extension school for courses, using that to get the visa and working 20 hours a week as an RA for a (Harvard/MIT) professor at the NBER. Although you want to line up the RA job BEFORE coming.

4) I know someone who got a part time job as a nanny (to get the visa + somewhere to live + some money) and then enrolled in classes in a local college. Although you have to be very careful going this route because some families are really horrible and exploit a lot. That said, educated western European nannies with good English are in very high demand...

5) If you can't make the USA work, I'd try to get a as an RA job for a year somewhere like IFS - they have good researchers and many LSE/UCL profressors are affiliated with them (they'd be good people to know for letters).

Good luck!

09-19-2007, 12:46 AM
Based on your marks at Queen's, you should be in good shape for UBC's program esp if you take one more math course; Queen's is also worth applying to as an alternative. I think you can get a good education at either school. You will probably be able to get some funding at UBC. As for placement, I think UBC sent ~12 people to PhD in econ, Queen's sent 1 or 2 fewer people to PhDs. At UBC, no one got into top 15 US schools with funding, although a couple of people got into schools like UCLA, Michigan with no funding. Personally, I think I'd have much better chances if I applied to PhDs now with my MA done, but I didn't really feel like doing that and like it here (so I'm doing my PhD at UBC).

It might be worth rolling the dice this year and applying to PhD programs; it will depend on your LORs but good performance at Warwick will count for something, esp if you start talking to profs about possible research areas. As for math courses, a good mathematical economics course may be a substitute for pure math courses (but an imperfect one, it will depend on the choice of topics).

If your 3rd year course was at the level of Jehle and Reny and you did well in it, you might think about doing a PhD micro course in your MA as this is the standard MA Micro text at UBC, U of T, Queen's - that being said, most students from economics (as opposed to math/engineering) backgrounds at UBC had good backgrounds in undergrad micro and still found it difficult; PhD micro is harder as far as I can tell. Doing well in PhD micro at UBC or Queen's would send a very strong signal for admissions purposes. Also, applying after one more year might let you get stronger LORs from your profs for this year - who you might have a shot at getting to know through office hours and class since your classes are probably smaller than in 1st year.

As for the MA in stats/applied math - if you can find an MA program at a good school that is sufficiently flexible to allow you to take undergrad math courses for which you are actually well prepared, and that will also allow
you to take grad econ courses, it would be a great choice. I doubt many such programs exist, especially if you don't want to pay too much for your studies. If you can get a good RAship, that would be a great option too, not sure if those are easy to come by.