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Thread: Econ PhD from pure math background? / Refining goals

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    Econ PhD from pure math background? / Refining goals

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    Hi all, I'd like some thoughts on my current situation. I'm currently a senior math major, and up until a few months back, I'd been pretty much dead set on attending grad school in pure math. This past summer, however, I interned at a trading firm ended up leaving with a pretty serious interest in financial markets.

    I'm still looking at math grad schools, but mainly towards the more applied side (i.e. programs that'll give me the chance to take more coursework and conduct research in derivatives pricing). I also started looking into Econ PhD programs that'll give me the chance to do markets-oriented research.

    My main question is: will Econ programs give me serious consideration with essentially zero undergraduate economics coursework? If not, would the recommended course of action be to go for an Econ MA/MS, or work for a few years in something like a fed/similar RA or econ consulting job?

    Profile's below, to give a better picture of where I'm at.

    Type of Undergrad: BA Mathematics, USNews T10
    Undergrad GPA: 3.8. Avg 3.91 across Soph+Jr years, had some issues as a freshman. Should be ~3.85 at grad.
    GRE:
    Taking this fall.
    Math Courses:
    Calc II/III, DiffEq, Linear Algebra, Intro to Proofs, Abstract Algebra (yearlong sequence), Galois Theory, Number Theory, Real Analysis (yearlong sequence), Complex Analysis, Probability Theory (yearlong sequence), Differential Geometry, Advanced Linear Algebra. Generally A/A- grades, with with a B- linear algebra from my freshman year.
    Econ Courses:
    Intermediate micro (B, from freshman year). AP credit for intro micro/macro. Haven't taken an Econ class in 2.5 years.
    Other Courses:
    Intro to CompSci, OOP, Data Structs & Algorithms, assorted physics courses.
    Letters of Recommendation:
    Two from math instructors/research supervisors, one from a physics instructor.
    Research Experience:
    Three years research, all in math and physics.
    Teaching Experience:
    Tutor for Calc I/II/III, linear algebra, physics mechanics, and electricity & magnetism through school's tutoring program.

    I'd appreciate any feedback to whether Econ programs are even a realistic goal at this point (and how I can improve my profile), or if I should just drill down on the applied math programs and go from there.

    Thanks!
    Last edited by snickers bar; 09-17-2019 at 01:12 AM.

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    Re: Econ PhD from pure math background? / Refining goals

    Hard sell, in my opinion. At minimum you would need letters from economists.

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    Re: Econ PhD from pure math background? / Refining goals

    You'd be a good candidate for an RA job at a business school, which would give you an opportunity to develop your background in economics (and be able to tell whether you want to want an econ PhD). As mathenomics said you do need letters from economists. I would advise against applying to econ PhDs straight out of undergrad as I think you don't have enough information on your own interests to set yourself up for success going straight into a PhD program. You should at least know if you like how economists think about financial markets

    Something else you should think about if you like financial markets, why wouldn't you want to just go directly into the industry? From your internship it sounds like you have an in, if not at the same firm at least to recruit for other ones. In particular AQR would love a profile like yours. If you're from Chicago as I suspect you are they recruit heavily there. I've also seen people work at AQR for a couple of years and then go on to top-5 PhD programs.

    This is way more lucrative as a career path than an economics PhD would be. I'm not trying to dissuade you from pursuing academia, but as someone who worked in finance for a year before taking an RA job to pivot, you should give due consideration to this option.

    Again if you're from Chicago as I suspect feel free to DM me for more specific advice. I was an econ/stat major at Chicago and did about half the math major as well, worked in trading for a year before doing an RA stint, and thought about quant jobs after grad as well. If this would be helpful to know about in more detail do reach out.

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    Re: Econ PhD from pure math background? / Refining goals

    There are a number of interdisciplinary applied math / comp-sci master's programs (and occasionally PhDs) that have a track/concentration for financial markets and frequently send people to advanced research jobs in hedge funds etc. They will like your background. You should look around; many are relatively new programs. Some of them will even be in engineering departments. The caveat is that they will usually be paid programs with limited opportunities for teaching stipends.

    An academic-oriented program, like typical econ PhDs, will tend to expect a more comprehensive econ background, and the demonstration of research interests and commitment. You have neither of those yet. If you apply now, you'll probably be rejected by most top 30s and receive a few offers below that, which is an underplacement for your talent. *If* your goal is to get into the best econ PhD possible, the optimal path from now on may be to apply to work as a full-time RA for an economist(s)' project (easier if you have strong programming knowledge) and then try to get 1-2 strong letters, but this will likely take two years. My guess is that this is too big of an investment for (what is to you) an uncertain career prospect. You cannot be sure at this point that you'll like doing an econ PhD, as you have minimal exposure to actual economics topics.

    Finance PhDs are in the middle of those two choices.

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    Re: Econ PhD from pure math background? / Refining goals

    Quote Originally Posted by chateauheart View Post

    Finance PhDs are in the middle of those two choices.
    There are some finance PhD programs that will seriously consider someone with pure math background, though without finance or econ LOR's you will be at a disadvantage.

    Also, there are some other B-school PhD programs in fields like Operations Research and Strategy that would be more likely to look at someone with a pure math background. A lot of people in those departments are doing econ or finance related research. For example, the OR department in my university's B-school has some top tier faculty (INFORMS Fellows) doing research in derivatives pricing and risk optimization.

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    Re: Econ PhD from pure math background? / Refining goals

    It sounds like a PhD in finance would be your most preferred option, and you have a pretty good shot at those if you go back to your trading firm/to industry in general for a year or two and then apply.

    If that doesn't sound appealing, then RAing at a business school is also a good option.

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    Re: Econ PhD from pure math background? / Refining goals

    Hey, I just wanted to thank everyone for their feedback.

    After weighing everything a bit more, I've decided to get a couple recs on file and take the math subject GRE this year, and then spend a year or two working in industry while applying to stats, finance, and OR programs that best match my interests.

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    Re: Econ PhD from pure math background? / Refining goals

    Quote Originally Posted by snickers bar View Post
    Hey, I just wanted to thank everyone for their feedback.

    After weighing everything a bit more, I've decided to get a couple recs on file and take the math subject GRE this year, and then spend a year or two working in industry while applying to stats, finance, and OR programs that best match my interests.
    Taking the math subject test is a waste of time since it is directed towards students going for PhD's in Pure Math/Math Theory. You have a BA in math from a top tier school with almost straight A's so you don't need to prove your math knowledge or skill. Finance PhD programs will not care about it, I don't think any OR PhD programs require it or advise it and if they don't require it or or advise it, they probably will not care about it. A few stats PhD programs require it, but they are very theory oriented (top tier) programs and are not a good fit for your interests. Some other Stats programs advise it, but if you look at the stats board on gradcafe, the consensus there seems to be that for someone with a good math background it is not necessary at those schools.

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    Re: Econ PhD from pure math background? / Refining goals

    Assuming that the strength is the same, do “three econ letters” better than “two econ letters+one math/stats letter"?

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    Re: Econ PhD from pure math background? / Refining goals

    Quote Originally Posted by happyecon View Post
    Assuming that the strength is the same, do “three econ letters” better than “two econ letters+one math/stats letter"?
    Yes, almost always.

    A rare counterexample: You have two detailed econ letters from economists you worked under or worked with, but they've never seen your classroom performance in an econ-theory course. You have spotty math grades, and you never took any grad econ courses, but you did very well in an advanced math course that's relevant for economics (e.g. real analysis, analysis-based probability theory, advanced linear algebra, or any grad stats course). Then you may ask for a 3rd letter from the math/stats instructor to reaffirm that you did very well (e.g. 90th+ percentile). This can be useful in removing suspicion from adcoms that some advanced math courses have grade inflation (e.g. median at A), which makes them a noisy signal by itself.


    It is very rare for all those conditions to occur. For US econ applicants with spotty math grades, the easiest solution is to take a first-year grad econ theory course; doing well in such a course will eliminate any need of math/stats reference letters.

    Remember that the key value of reference letters is that they could compare you favorably with previous econ PhD students they've mentored, or draw from their own experience in an econ PhD program. This is why letters from economists are almost always more valuable.

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