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Trends and tips for Australian (and international) applicants


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It seems like 2008-2012 was a golden age for Australian students applying to top US/UK PhD programs straight out of an Honours year. Since, there appears to have been a significant fall in matriculants coming straight out of an Honours year and an accompanying increase in Australians opting to apply to PhD programs after pre-doctoral fellowships. Is this really the case?


While the below guide raises many points that remain useful, do any Australian or other international student matriculants or successful applicants have any additional advice to offer? How is the international representation in your program and do they fit a specific profile? For example, it would seem from the limited number of (public) matriculants coming out of Australia now have strong math backgrounds.


For the ambitious, prospective PhD student: A Guide – Core Economics


Looking forward to discussion and responses!

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I get to a Top30 PhD program in the US directly from New Zealand after an Honours year, so I believe I may contribute some inputs.


The Honours program at my university is the only one in NZ that is comparable to the Honours at the Group of Eight. But even so, I am placed at a significant disadvantage when applying for PhD in the US.


Here are my thoughts and I hope they could be useful for future applicants from Oceania; it would not be useful for those, say, in Canada or the US, as things are so much different down here.


1. I do have the anecdotal observation that fewer and fewer Honours students are directly admitted to a PhD program in the US and UK. Most of the Honours cohort would work in the industry after graduation.


2. RA opportunities in Honours year are very rare and the amount is decreasing every year. You need to reach out to many professors, and only a handful of which offer RA jobs. Perhaps a better way is to work as a full time RA after Honours graduation, and certainly in both Australia and New Zealand there are relatively more RA job opportunities outside university, although these opportunities are considered to be limited by the US standard as well.


3. Choose your Honours school wisely, because in essence you are choosing who will write your recommendation letters. Ideally the writers of your recommendation letters should come from top US schools, but even within the Group of Eight this is not guaranteed. Try to locate the best professor from your Honours school and do the Honours thesis with him/her.


4. In my view, the best Honours school in the region is UNSW. In fact, I think one student from UNSW get to MIT this year (from the Profiles and Results 2019 page, if I'm not mistaken). I'm not entirely surprised by that, because UNSW has the best professors in the region, they have excellent RA opportunities, and their Honours program has always been rigorous. Other than UNSW, I would recommend ANU and UniMelb (maybe Monash and UniSyd marginally), but I think they are not at the same level as UNSW.


Of course, this is only my subjective opinion, and is open to debate.


5. If unfortunately, you cannot secure a RA job because of limited availability and crappy quality, then perhaps the only way to get to a top PhD program is to try your best in Honours thesis, and become a mathematician.


There are many threads discussing the ideal preparation you need to get to a top PhD program. In general, a successful applicant should have mathematical preparation up to real analysis, with extensive RA experience and excellent thesis in economics. However, if you cannot have RA experience, then you need to do more advanced maths courses after real analysis, and of course get good grades. Such remedy might be able to get you to Top 30, but for sure not Top 10.


Without sufficient RA experience, if you only have an Honours thesis and study maths up to real analysis, you will be very lucky to be admitted to a Top 50 school.


But of course, not everyone could do advanced maths, and they are not as attractive as RA experiences in the eyes of top PhD schools...

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  • 2 weeks later...

I'm currently at a Top 5 program and I came from a GO8 Australian honours program after around a year in government (which I would bet had little impact on my applications). I don't know what the trends in Australian applicants is like. I feel like Australian students, even honours students, are just so unlikely to consider (US/UK) PhDs or know about them for a variety of reasons that there just aren't many applicants in any given year. These thin numbers means that its hard to really gauge your prospects. On the other hand, I believe that the low number of applicants coupled with the strong track record of economists coming from Australian undergrads is a relatively good thing as you can stand out more among the pool of applicants. The PhD guide is solid advice of course. My main comments below are about two big components of applying that you allude to, RA work and math.


First, RA work. RA opportunities are gold if you can get them, but they're less common or known about in Australia so you have to be proactive. Full time pre-doctoral RA work is also less common, which makes it hard to emulate the path of many applicants with weaker undergrad backgrounds, but some US RAships are open to visa sponsorship. I had some part-time RA experience, but nothing in comparison to many of my classmates (or Rachael's for that matter), many of whom have done year(s) of full time RA work. The underlying reason to be an RA is to get some serious research under your belt and have someone be able to attest to that. Another way to show this is through an honours thesis. The caliber of honours theses has been high, higher than most US senior theses and more similar to masters theses, so writing a good one will be somewhat substitutable for extensive RA work as it was in my case.


Strong math backgrounds are always great but I did not formally have one. While honours is a fantastic intro to the math tools you'll be using later, and Australian econ courses tend to incorporate the math that might be separate in the US, I was definitely not as mathematically well-equipped as the majority of my cohort. Because of the way Australian curricula are typically set up, I had never taken a math course in university. I hadn't even taken the mathematical economics course. That being said, I took a lot of econometrics courses, and I did very well in my honours courses. I get the feeling that professors in Australia will attest that honours is good enough preparation for PhD coursework, which has actually been pretty true (not that I'm planning on going into anything highly theoretical). A lot of (generally good) advice on this forum is about taking more math, but Australian applicants should understand the difference in education systems and expectations for math courses. I managed to make it without formal math courses in real analysis/linear algebra/etc, and this lines up roughly with Rachael's advice. However, you might need to be near the very top for your honours courses, especially micro. Of course, if you can take actual math courses, it'll be only to your benefit.


In general, I get the feeling that Australian applicants are probably treated a little differently to US (and European, etc.) applicants because admissions committees are aware that the education systems are different. In particular, how well you did in a top honours program is much more a sufficient statistic for admissions, rather than necessarily how well you did in real analysis, how many years in a pre-doctoral RAship, etc, which are more for US applicants. So I think a relatively weak math background or RA experience, while obviously not ideal, is not as fatal as you might think, but you have to really stand out in honours coursework and thesis, which is to say ideally get the university medal or very close to it. Of course all of this is my opinion on an extremely small sample.

Edited by metricsandtips
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I am glad my somewhat gratuitous reference to 'the best university in NSW' has been correctly deciphered.


I agree with all of the above. I just want to make a few points.


1. It is a non-trivial choice as to whether to move to Melbourne/ANU/UNSW for Honours from a weaker department. First and foremost, you need to do well in the courses. And if your undergrad was at a lower level than your desired Honours program, or just in a different style, then a few poor marks in the coursework can easily wash away any advantage from more reputable letter writers. Take this n=1 sample lightly (that applies to basically everything in this thread) but the few Honours students who moved from to UNSW for honours typically did not thrive. Honours is as much about the culture and camaraderie, and so there is another benefit from staying at your original undergrad institution.


2. I expect going to the US to do full time RA work for well-connected professors to increasingly be the highest probability avenue into the top departments. I don't think this trend has yet taken off for Aus/NZ applicants, but I think it will. It is not only Americans who currently take this route, but applicants from other countries that historically have had success sending people directly from that country to a US PhD are increasingly going down the US RA route. Think France, Italy etc. Although I guess such countries send more students to the US in general, and so competition within the pool of French applicants can more easily drive this than within the pool of Aus/NZ applicants, given the very small size of the latter. If the pool of Aus/NZ applicants were to increase in size, I would expect US RA's to become the primary mechanism of discrimination. That doesn't invalidate the usefulness of the advice about finding well-connected LOR writers, since getting such an RA'ship in the US would be much easier given those connections.


3. I am also hesitant to endorse the view that lots and lots of maths is the optimal way to get into a top department for most people. If you have a math degree (I do) then it might help if your marks are sufficiently high. But given the gap between US grading and Australian marking, and sometimes the difference in grade distributions between faculties in a University (combined Law students are typically on the wrong end of this, for example), it's quite hard to properly judge the effect of more maths. It seems to be neither necessary nor sufficient for the top departments. Overall, if you want to sell yourself as potential theorist, then probably the maths is needed. But it's not clear that you should sell yourself that way, even if you actually want to do theory. Aptitude for theory is more closely correlated (although still not that closely) with math ability than aptitude for empirical work. And, ex ante, even if my comparative advantage with other Australians was math, I am not sure it was with the applicant pool in general. But again, I don't know what was in my LOR, so who knows. Conversely, if you want to go in with the standard empirical and/or vague idea of what you want to do, then Econ Honours is probably enough. Australians (and I think Australian education) seemingly have a comparative advantage in econometrics. I am not sure about NZ, for which clearly the small sample problem is even more pronounced.



4. Finally, certainly RA is very important if it is attainable. I will point out only that doing good RA work is a substitute for high grades in Honours courses to some extent at least, and funding limitations generally reduce the number of full-time RA positions available that could be taken after the Honours year. Perhaps this will change, but it speaks again to the importance of taking into account my points (1.) and (2.).


If only at UNSW, there does seem to be increased interest in pursueing international graduate study recently. I hope this trend continues and that discussions and information such as these are of use.

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