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Thread: Undergrad Looking for Honest Advice about pursuing an Econ PhD

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    Undergrad Looking for Honest Advice about pursuing an Econ PhD

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    Hi! I'm about to be finishing my sophomore year at a Private T-10 US University. I'm currently double majoring in Economics and Statistics with a minor in Political Science. I've had a passion for economics and economic research since high school. I find myself constantly reading papers on SSRN/NBER, communicating about economic issues, and engaging in lively debate with my professors. I'm interested in doing a PhD not for anything related to prestige or possible salary but rather that I think I've got a passion for teaching and would really love to contribute research to the field. That being said, I've been really interested in getting a PhD since I entered college and after my academic performance I've become really discouraged.

    I've found that I've had a hard time excelling academically in school - its not necessarily a lack of effort but I think that I took too many classes a little too early (have "overloaded" every semester) and having had no experience whatsoever with higher level math or computer science coming out of my high school I've faced a pretty steep learning curve. That being said, I would like some realistic advice about what my chances for grad school are as well as wether its worth it to pursue a PhD given my struggles (i.e. will math kill me). Side note: I have some very good opportunities in finance as well for my junior summer and I'm thinking about foregoing possible full time offers to pursue a research assistantship or graduate school. Here's my stats:

    Type of Undergrad: T-10 w/ top 5 Econ Dept
    B.S. Economics, B.S. Statistics

    Undergrad GPA: 3.7 Currently

    Math Courses: Multivariable Calculus (B+), Linear Algebra (A), Probability (B), Regression (A), will be taking Bayseian Statistics as well as Diff EQ/Analysis later (4.0 in all electives)

    Econ Courses: Intro Micro (B - no excuses, but got very sick the week of the final with an A leading up to it), Intermediate Micro (B - again, had an A until the final. Tough luck), Metrics (A), will be taking Intermediate Macro this coming fall (4.0 in all electives)

    Other Courses: Various CS/Polisci/etc.

    Letters of Recommendation: Have made some connections with professors in my department, including the chair and my metrics professor and have been making an effort to strengthen these.

    Research Experience: public policy research freshman summer, Work in an Applied Micro lab currently using R/Python and running analysis
    Teaching Experience: TA for computer Science Class, Teach a basics of investing class
    Research Interests: Behavioral Economics, Applied Micro

    Other: Internship at a Fortune 25 Company in Analytics, lot of professional experience related to finance, politics (interned at a think tank), and data science

    Any advice at all would be appreciated. Thank you!

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    Re: Undergrad Looking for Honest Advice about pursuing an Econ PhD

    Let me begin by saying that the grades obtained in electives are borderline meaningless when it comes to PhD admissions since only math and econ grades hold weight. However, the fact that you're at a Top 10 will make things a lot easier, since you'll be able to get good letters from renowned faculty members. You should do as much of the following for the remainder of your 2 years in college.

    First, it's good that you're planning to take Analysis soon. You should make sure you score well in all upper-level math courses. Secondly, if it's possible, you should take at least PhD Micro I in the Fall of your senior year and get a good grade for it. Do note that this won't be easy given your classmates will mostly be other PhD students. Lastly, try to get as much research experience as possible during summers and even part-time during the semester. It would be great if you can secure a year-long position with an actively publishing economics faculty member, as opposed to a couple short-term ones. A longer period of engagement will help them understand your capabilities, and also get to know you better; this will culminate in a more informative letter.

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    Re: Undergrad Looking for Honest Advice about pursuing an Econ PhD

    Does your school offer Advanced Micro and Metrics? I would take those classes rather than electives. Tutonic gives good advice on taking graduate Micro, but I don't think you are ready for the workload. Graduate classes are often taught horribly and you need to reference couple of book to learn the material presented in lectures. Since its top 5 econ dept, just take Advanced Micro, Advanced Metrics and take the full Analysis Sequence. If you get A in those courses then think about taking grad Micro. I would also either take Theory of Probability (casella berger) or Grad Metrics to offset the B in probability.

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    Re: Undergrad Looking for Honest Advice about pursuing an Econ PhD

    Quote Originally Posted by Bayes View Post
    Does your school offer Advanced Micro and Metrics? I would take those classes rather than electives. Tutonic gives good advice on taking graduate Micro, but I don't think you are ready for the workload. Graduate classes are often taught horribly and you need to reference couple of book to learn the material presented in lectures. Since its top 5 econ dept, just take Advanced Micro, Advanced Metrics and take the full Analysis Sequence. If you get A in those courses then think about taking grad Micro. I would also either take Theory of Probability (casella berger) or Grad Metrics to offset the B in probability.
    I actually agree more with Bayes re: taking grad micro. There is an interesting trade-off when it comes to grad micro: it is the best signal of your ability to pass your first year, because the micro sequence is the one that most often causes attrition. However, it being a good signal means that if you fail it, you are sending a good signal that you cannot handle the rigor. Given your performance in intermediate and introductory micro, you should consider carefully whether you are ready to take grad micro.

    The alternative of taking the math and perhaps the most rigorous non-grad micro/metrics classes you can seems like the best option. Then, if after taking the analysis class you feel ready then you can take grad micro. The truth is that many successful applicants from top undergrads do not take grad micro prior to their first-year. And many of them will just barely squeak by in grad micro during their first year, but this is okay, because if you do not want to be a theorist it is not necessary to excel in the micro sequence.

    All that being said, your general interest in policy issues, minor in political science and interest in applied micro make you a good candidate for public policy PhD programs. You should check those out. They also tend to be a little more forgiving when it comes to math background.

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    Re: Undergrad Looking for Honest Advice about pursuing an Econ PhD

    I have no idea what scares economists of grad micro. You never hear math majors being petrified, or being told to be "very careful" while taking a grad level math class; perhaps the only class which invites some degree of trepidation is scheme theoretic algebraic geometry. But comparing the intellectual depth and tower of abstraction in Grothendeckian geometry to Mas-Collel micro is absurd. Is this because economics students are just not well prepared? I think the real reason is that economics graduate classes are often kept "graduate only", whereas math and physics grad classes are often open to both undergraduates and graduate students. This culture should percolate down to economics some day.

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    Re: Undergrad Looking for Honest Advice about pursuing an Econ PhD

    Quote Originally Posted by alphatrunks View Post
    I have no idea what scares economists of grad micro. You never hear math majors being petrified, or being told to be "very careful" while taking a grad level math class; perhaps the only class which invites some degree of trepidation is scheme theoretic algebraic geometry. But comparing the intellectual depth and tower of abstraction in Grothendeckian geometry to Mas-Collel micro is absurd. Is this because economics students are just not well prepared? I think the real reason is that economics graduate classes are often kept "graduate only", whereas math and physics grad classes are often open to both undergraduates and graduate students. This culture should percolate down to economics some day.
    Econ departments are usually quite ok with undergrads taking grad classes. That's not the issue. I think the difference between math and economics is that economics undergrad classes are at a vastly different level than grad classes, while I'd imagine (although this is speculation) that there is not a huge gap between an upper level undergrad math class and a grad math class. I think fundamentally this is because economics is not a hard science - it's a social science. The people who are undergrad econ majors span the gamut from people who will go on to sales or marketing to people who will perform theoretical economics research (basically applied math). As a result undergrad classes tend to lean more into the softer less rigorious aspects of economics. So it's not that they are so impossible, it's more that people are often caught by surprised by how different it is than intermediate undergrad classes.

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