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Re: Profile Evaluation: PhD Finance
Industry LOR's are fine as long as they are PhD's who have published in top tier academic journals. For an industry LOR, someone publishing in mid and lower tier journals will not help much. However, one stellar LOR from a PhD who regularly publishes in top finance journals could possibly be enough even if the other two are from less well published PhD's.
As far as your research experience goes, adcoms will have no way to know if it actually is comparable to what is done in academia or not - unless the work was done together with a PhD holding LOR writer who mentioned this in the LOR, and the adcoms probably would not trust that assessment unless the LOR writer publishes in top journals.
If you take calc II, calc III and linear algebra a top 50 that accepts self-funded students (there are a few) might accept you and you would have a decent chance at top 100's. With real analysis and a serious stats/econometrics class or two you would be competitive for top 50's, possibly even top 30's.
I think a top 15 is simply out of reach without a lot of improvements to your profile which would take way too much time. I don't think your chances are better in econ. While econ PhD programs admissions are a little less competitive outside the top 15 they are also less willing to take "older" (over 30 year old) students than finance PhD programs. If you go outside the top 50, whether in econ or finance, your odds will improve.
I would like to know why do you want to go for a PhD? You have a good industry job, and if it is just to move to a better job in finance, an MBA or MFE/MQF or a some other finance oriented masters degree would accomplish the same thing (depending on where in the financial industry you want to go) in far less time. If it is for the prestige of having three extra letters after your name, you would be perfectly fine going to a top 100. If you want to teach, once again a top 100 would do just as well. The only reason to target top programs is if you truly want to be a researcher in academia. While not all students end up taking that route at the end of their PhD's, those students who enter top PhD programs with any other goals in mind often don't end up completing the program.