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Thread: US PhD as UK undergraduate

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    US PhD as UK undergraduate

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    I am currently in the first year studying for a 3-year undergraduate degree in economics at Cambridge University. I am aspiring to study at a top 5 Ph.D. programme in economics in the US.

    From my knowledge, Cambridge has admitted very few students to US Ph.D programs straight from the undergraduate degree. I feel that this is partly due to a lack of applicants though, since very few students seem to intend to pursue an academic career.

    The level of mathematics in the degree is mainly covered through a year-long Mathematics and Statistics course in both the first year and second year. We have year-long econometrics courses in both the second and third year.

    Hence, the most mathematically rigorous combination of subjects I can study throughout the three years is:

    Year 1 (all 5 compulsory - no optional modules) - Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, Mathematics and Statistics, Political and Social Aspects, Economic History

    Year 2 - Microeconomics (compulsory), Macroeconomics (compulsory), Econometrics (compulsory), Mathematics and Statistics (optional)

    Year 3 - Microeconomics (compulsory), Macroeconomics (compulsory), 7500 word dissertation (compulsory), Econometrics (optional), Further Micro Theory (optional)

    The main problem about applying straight from undergraduate is that I would need to apply for Ph.D programmes by the end of the second year/beginning of third year, meaning that my grades from the more mathematical modules will not be available to Ph.D. programmes.

    Also, since I'd be applying between my second and third years, I would need research assistantship experience hopefully between first and second year. However, there are no official opportunities for this kind of research in my economics department. And I'm unsure as to how to go about obtaining research experience. Especially since research assistantships are the best way to demonstrate aptitude for your letters of recommendation.

    Any advice for my current studies, research opportunities or further study would be much appreciated.

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    Re: US PhD as UK undergraduate

    Re research opps: In the US, econ departments usually have labs that hire students. Or you take a class with a professor, impress them and then either ask to be hired or have them advise an independent study. You want to have some metrics before that though.

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    Re: US PhD as UK undergraduate

    Quote Originally Posted by pulsars View Post
    Re research opps: In the US, econ departments usually have labs that hire students. Or you take a class with a professor, impress them and then either ask to be hired or have them advise an independent study. You want to have some metrics before that though.
    Not that many US econ departments have centralized hiring of RA's. I agree that you should at minimum have taken metrics, but I would say this is necessary but not sufficient. Personally, I would add one introductory programming course to the mix. This gives you the ability to pick up whatever programming skills you need while you're on the job (I'm assuming you'd RA for an empirical researcher, not a theorist). I got my first RA job without any background in programming, and looking back on it, I was pretty much the most useless RA ever. (Needless to say, I did not get a letter from that job)

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    Re: US PhD as UK undergraduate

    In my own experience (and from other stories I've heard), many US admissions committees are very bad at judging the strength of an application from the UK. At the minimum, for some reason the US also generally requires UK applicants have a masters degree despite the first year of a UK undergrad course covering more than an entire economics major degree in the US.

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    Re: US PhD as UK undergraduate

    Quote Originally Posted by Rohanps View Post
    despite the first year of a UK undergrad course covering more than an entire economics major degree in the US.
    Hm, source for that? It seems unlikely to me that any one year course could cover as much as I did in 4 years of Econ.

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    Re: US PhD as UK undergraduate

    Quote Originally Posted by cdreier View Post
    Hm, source for that? It seems unlikely to me that any one year course could cover as much as I did in 4 years of Econ.
    Just check any syllabus for first year courses at a UK university. The fact that maths generally is required for entry into economics programmes in the UK tells you everything.

    You are, of course, entitled to believe differently should you so wish.

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    Re: US PhD as UK undergraduate

    Quote Originally Posted by Rohanps View Post
    Just check any syllabus for first year courses at a UK university. The fact that maths generally is required for entry into economics programmes in the UK tells you everything.

    You are, of course, entitled to believe differently should you so wish.
    It seems silly to get into what feels like a pissing contest, I don't want to get into it too much. But, from Cambridge, this is what I see for year 1: "Candidates for Part I of the Tripos are required to study for, and be examined in, five 'papers' (the terminology used for a course), all of which are compulsory. These comprise papers in Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, Quantitative Methods (Mathematics and Statistics), Political and Social Aspects of Economics, and British Economic History."

    I'm not saying that's a light load for one year, or that it's underwhelming in any way, but I'm quite sure that I covered more than that in 4 years of undergrad. It seems hyperbolic to say otherwise.

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    Re: US PhD as UK undergraduate

    Here's a clip of economics requirements from Oxford:
    US PhD as UK undergraduate-annotation-2019-01-22-113711.jpg

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    Re: US PhD as UK undergraduate

    • If you want research experience at Cambridge, I'd suggest talking informally to your DoS or other fellows at your college, or supervisors, to see if they have any research assistant opportunities - or know anyone else at the faculty who does. As others have said, you might not be able to help people with research much until you've done the metrics course in second year and have a bit of experience with programming in Stata.
    • Your dissertation is also a good opportunity to show off your research ability, and you should try to do well enough in that for your supervisor to write you a good letter.
    • There are also other options for research experience in your summers. The IFS has a summer student programme that is good experience and worth looking into, and there are probably others.
    • You should probably take the maths and stats course in second year. In third year, I don't think you necessarily need to take both metrics and the optional theory course - if you are particularly interested in one of the other courses, it's probably better to take that and do well. If you want to do both, of course, go for it.
    • Regardless, I wouldn't suggest applying straight out of Cambridge if you're aiming for the top programmes. I don't know of anyone who's recently got into a top 5 programme straight from Cambridge.
    • Your options instead of applying are either to do a masters, a full-time RAship, or both.
    • For a masters, the top UK programmes (LSE, UCL, Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick) are all decent, and I'd rank them in roughly that order. The econometrics and mathematical economics masters at LSE has a particularly good reputation/placement record, I think. If you get high marks in your first and second year then you should have a good chance of getting into any of these programmes.
    • A full-time RAship at a US institution is a good alternative: you get a close relationship with a professor (or sometimes several professors) for your recommendation letter, you get direct experience with research, and you may have the opportunity to take maths courses alongside to top up the limited maths experience that you'll get from Cambridge. A lot of them are posted on the NBER site, here and here, and they start being posted in around September each year - keep an eye out for the ones that say they are able to sponsor visas, since you'll need visa sponsorship to work in the US. Programming skills (particularly in Stata) are very helpful for applications for these (several of them have data handling or econometrics tasks in the application process), and you will probably not be taught enough at Cambridge so you should study some on your own by the end of your second year if you're considering this option.
    • If you do well in the tripos and get into a good masters programme, you can certainly apply straight out of your masters, but you have the option of doing an RAship afterwards to improve your chances even more.


    Hope this helps!

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    Re: US PhD as UK undergraduate

    This is a question I had too, back when I was studying in Cambridge a few years ago. There is a track record of Cambridge Econ sending people straight to top PhD programmes in the US - when I was there, it was maybe 1 person a year (and in some years 2 people) on average. Although typically, those people tended to have performed in the top 10 in 2nd year exams (and potentially 1st year too), especially in the maths papers. There are a few more who will do a Masters at Oxford, LSE or Cambridge and then go on to a top US school.


    In terms of research assistance, the opportunities are rarely published, so it requires you to be quite proactive in trying to set up time with faculty and ask for opportunities. There are people who wrote cold emails to academics in the US - doesn't always work out, but worth a shot. Some colleges do have formal research programmes and partnerships (e.g. Pembroke has one with Caltech) and there are a few research centres (e.g. in development there's J-PAL) who may have internships. The dissertation third year dissertation also provides an opportunity to show your research ability and get a good reference from your supervisor.

    Hope this helps!

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