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Preparing for Graduate School


Economics Classes

All graduate programs in economics will expect that you have successfully completed the core intermediate courses, UN 3211, UN 3213 and UN 3412. When choosing your elective courses, the top consideration should be that you take courses that will help you develop your interests as an economist. Think about why you want to study economics and choose your courses accordingly.

Here are some additional suggestions:

  • Advanced Coursework such as 4211, 4213 or 4412
  • Courses listed in Sample Programs for students interested in a PhD
  • Look for elective classes offered by research active faculty

Finally, get to know your professors. Go to their office hours. Most faculty are happy to talk about the class materials and their own research during office hours. You can find out information about their research interests on the department website.

Non-economics classes

Economics at the graduate level is significantly more math intensive than at the undergraduate level. That said, it is not necessary to major or joint major in math or statistics. Choose those majors/joint majors only if you are interested in the elective courses in those two departments.

Here is what you need to take:

  • Calculus I, 2, 3 and linear algebra are required
  • Upper level statistics (such as a year-long prob/stats sequence) is strongly recommended
  • Mathematical analysis (such as Modern Analysis) is strongly recommended
  • Programming skills are strongly recommended (but need not be from coursework).
Research Experience

Most graduate programs will expect that you have some research experience in economics. Here at Columbia, you have the opportunity to work as an RA with either a faculty member or PhD students in the Economics Department. After graduation, it is recommended that you take a full time RA position. In recent years, many if not most students from American universities have not gone directly to a PhD program from their undergraduate program. Instead, newly graduated BAs have taken positions as full-time research assistants in a variety of academic and non-academic settings. These “Pre-Doc” positions are generally 2 year positions intended to develop and strengthen the research skills of prospective PhD students.

Here are some suggestions on finding RA positions:

  • Start with the Opportunities page on this website where you will find info on:
    • Academic year positions – advertised via the listserv and the WIKI
    • Summer internships – primarily for rising seniors but some are open to rising juniors
    • Full-Time positions after graduation – 1-2 year positions
  • Check the WIKI page regularly for updated positions
  • If you have followed the advice above about getting to know your faculty then you can speak with him or her about a possible position.
Honors Thesis

It is undoubtedly true that writing an Honors Thesis is the most rewarding and most demanding experience of the economics major. Writing a thesis is not required for admission to a PhD program but it is highly recommended. More than that, the process of writing the thesis is the best way for you to gauge whether or not doing independent economics research is really something that you are interested in pursuing full time.

Here are some suggestions for writing a thesis:

  • Start thinking and talking to faculty about your ideas early – hopefully you are taking economics classes that interest you and are going to faculty office hours!

See the Honors and Prizes page on the website for details about the process, tips for finding a topic and adviser as well as examples of past theses.

Masters Programs

If you have successfully completed the economics and math courses listed above, then you do not need to complete an MA program before applying to a PhD program. Successful completion implies that most of your grades in these economics and math courses are in the A range with a perhaps a few B’s sprinkled in. The stronger is your research record and recommendations, the more leeway that you have in your academic grades (but they still need to be fairly strong). If your transcript is not particularly strong then an MA program might be the best route for you to take to get into a good PhD program.

Here are some suggestions for MA programs:

  • Look for schools that have good PhD placement records (such as Duke, LSE, Columbia). This information should be easy to find on the MA program page and if it is not then that is a red flag about the program.
  • Look for a program with regular faculty teaching the MA classes.
  • Be aware that you will need to do very well if you want the MA degree to help you get into a PhD program. You are pursuing this degree to show that your undergraduate grades were not reflective of your overall ability so you need to get good grades in the MA program.
AEA Advice

The American Economic Association’s Preparing for graduate school  has links to resources online including information on:

  • Graduate Degrees in Economics
  • AEA Summer Training Program
  • Math Preparation for Graduate School
  • Program Rankings
  • Considerations for Prospective Graduate Students

It is highly recommended that you review some of the advice ranging from how to determine whether or not a PhD is a good option for you to how to prepare for a PhD to how to be successful in a PhD program on the Considerations for Prospective Graduate Students.

1022 International Affairs Building (IAB)
Mail Code 3308  
420 West 118th Street
New York, NY 10027
Ph: (212) 854-3680
Fax: (212) 854-0749
Business Hours:
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1022 International Affairs Building (IAB)

Mail Code 3308

420 West 118th Street

New York, NY 10027

Ph: (212) 854-3680
Fax: (212) 854-0749
Business Hours:
Mon–Fri, 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
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