On Applying For and Deciding on Ph.D Programs in Economics – What I Learned about Applications
In the past week, I’ve spent a great deal of time reflecting on the application process, and the path that I took to get to Purdue (Ph.D). I’ve learned a lot along the way, and I hope that this post can be beneficial to current and future members and lurkers.
Unconventional profiles are extremely suboptimal. Recently my profile (and subsequent placement) has been used to suggest that others can do the same. What everyone should recognize is that you want a conventional profile. You want a high GPA (3.7 minimum-higher the better), a high Quant GRE score (163 min, preferably 165+), as much research experience as you can get, take at least the full calculus sequence, Math Stats, Linear Algebra, and Real Analysis, and have 3 extremely strong letters of recommendation. For a discussion on optimal math and at what point diminishing returns persist, see this post by Catrina. You don’t want to go into the fight with a deficit-because that means you’re starting at a deficit. Be smart. Stack the deck in your favor. Start with a conventional profile if at all possible.
Unconventional profiles take more work. If you must start with an unconventional profile, know that it’s going to take more work. You’re better off going slower and getting better grades than finishing quick with poor grades. Quality>quantity in terms of coursework. Less coursework with a stronger performance is preferred in Ph.D applications to less coursework with a weaker performance. No one cares what you were juggling that resulted in why you performed poorly-all they care about is the grades. Make sure you get the grades. Take out extra loans if you need to, and work less. I’m not sure how many times I will say this: Get better grades; learn the material.
Research Experience: No research experience is hard-it’s hard for you to know this is what you want, and it’s hard for graduate programs to believe it’s really what you want or that you’re any good at research. The more prestigious the research experience, the easier time you’ll have applying, and the better placements you’ll receive. Lower-level research is still fine-most/all of what I did was lower-level compared to NBER/FED type positions.
Unconventional isn’t just about grades and experience-your institution matters. It’s an unfortunate but true fact of life-where you attend university matters and will impact your chances at graduate school. If you’re from an unknown institution, be prepared to do a master’s somewhere, or at least graduate work. During this time plan to get research experience and earn grades as close to perfect as you can. Choose a school with individuals in the field you are interested in whom place students well and have connections. This information is often in a CV-but past coauthoring can indicate potential relationships that can be valued for placement.
I am the exception-not the rule. Look at past profiles and results. Although there are several members (myself now included) that have overcome the obstacles to go from terrible circumstances to receiving an outstanding placement, this is abnormal. There are many more individuals whom have attempted such a feat and come out with placement significantly further down the list. Know that when you go in with an unconventional profile that the odds are stacked against you.
Rank isn’t everything. Professors seem to have varying opinions about what schools are ranked. While it is true that USNEWS/other sources give a good idea, it’s not everything.
Think about advisors. Regardless of the relative strength of a program, don’t apply to a program that doesn’t have a good advisor for you. Talk to your professors about whom would be a good advisor. Talk with current grad students at these programs. Check their CV. Scour the web for any information indicating whether a professor was good or bad to work with. And don’t just look for one-make sure there are multiple individuals suitable of advising you during your dissertation.
Think about placement. As a continuation of the bullet above, be cognizant of where potential advisors have placed students. You can be a star, but as is indicated by some programs “under-placing” their students, an advisor’s ability to place you is extremely important. Their relationships with individuals that will hire you in the future is important. Do not under-weight or under-value this. Many individuals look at program-placement, but that’s not the best indicator of your potential placement because not ever student is within your field.
Consider department strengths and your interests (or those orthogonal to your interests). Many individuals change their interests once they enter a program. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is likely how well you like a professor/their teaching style, or their ability to advise you. You should go into a program with the idea that your interests may change. But be weary of entering a program whose core-strengths lie in a field that you know that you don’t like. I hate macro, and I hate econometrics. I cannot imagine working for 3 years on a dissertation in either of these fields. Completing graduate coursework in these has only confirmed this. This doesn’t mean that I’m not open to fields outside of my interests (game theory, micro theory, experimental, behavioral), it only means that I’m not open to the fields that I have no desire to earn a Ph.D in.
Rank is relative. Rank is just a general impression of a department. Rank is not absolutely indicative of the type of education or training that you’ll receive, nor does it solely indicate that your placement is better from #35 vs. #22 vs. #43. Be sure to investigate placement-of your field and other fields that the program places that you might become interested in-and compare them to other programs that you are interested in or have been accepted into. Because rank is so tied to research, and because professors retire, people leave, etc., rank is not an end-all be-all. It’s relative. Many people choose a lower-ranked program because it is “better for them” in some way. In my case, short of receiving a fellowship, I wouldn’t accept Ohio State (#27) or Maryland (#22) over Purdue (#42). Purdue is that good of a match for my field, they generally place almost exclusively into academia (my interests), their best placements are in my fields of interest, and compared to even programs in the 20s they generally place their students (stars and median) better.
Practical Advice: Make sure you understand and have well-defined priors. Going in with full information, and a comment on relationships and applying to graduate school. Relationships are often hard with graduate school-moving is difficult, and it can mean that someone (or both people) have to make concessions. All of this can be minimized by having accurate priors. Discuss every contingency plan-not just those that “appear” relevant.
My Real Life Example: Reaches are often thought to be a lost cause. Don’t only plan your potential decisions around your targets and safeties. My wife and I did this. We said that we’d only go where we were both accepted. The problem with this is that I knew my wife would get into her top ranked choices (T10 in her field), while she did not. Because she did not, she foolishly disregarded it (not verbally, but mentally), and internalized her desire to live away from me because it “wasn’t an option.” Not only was it an option, it became an option-she was accepted. Then she suddenly was willing to live away from me. Why is this a problem? Because we both applied to only programs where we could be together. If we weren’t going to live together anyway, we shouldn’t have restricted our decisions to apply to only programs where we could.
Only apply to programs that you will attend. This might sound like obvious advice, but think about it long and hard. My wife applied to a whole but load of programs that she had no intention of attending (partially because she felt that she had no business getting accepted to the best programs in her field). Similarly, I applied to a couple unranked programs. Truthfully, I would have attended if It had been my only option. But it was extremely depressing. It wasn’t just a safety for me-it was a last-ditch effort to get a Ph.D. I would have been restricted in what I could get my Ph.D in, and what my job prospects were after the fact. I would have been better off applying to more programs that were at the low-end of my range, but still able to produce tangible jobs afterward. Really, really, really think about this.
Congratulations to everyone that was accepted this cycle, and best of luck to all those applying in the future.