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Re: Finding RA work? Possible alternatives?
Possible route, but you should note that what econ adcoms prefer is research assistance experience with economic professors. Personal research experience (e.g. thesis writing) has a small weight, because it's hard to evaluate. So a master's program won't help you that much in PhD admissions; though it may have some value of its own, depending on what career paths you're considering.
That leaves me with,to my knowledge, going after a master’s that has a thesis built-in
Don't bother. Even if you come up with the greatest idea ever from an undergraduate and finish it within a year, any mainstream econ publication takes ~18 months of review, often longer. It won't fit into your timeline.
or attempting to self-publish some research.
My advice is to keep looking for RA positions, possibly with a history or public policy professor if you can't find an economics position. Doing a good job at any kind of RA job will help you get a second one.
Additionally, always keep open the possibility that you might not be as interested in a PhD in econ as you think you are. You'll need substantial time/money investments to get admitted to and to finish such a degree, and you should really consider the costs and benefits in the long run. Typically, I'd say it's impossible for an applicant to be sure he wants a PhD in economics until he has some research experience.