A young student who saw my Career Advice to Economics Majors asked about his plans to study economics through the Ph.D. level. He wrote:
“I have become fascinated at the prospect of studying economics I plan to major in Economics wherever I go to college and intend to embark on a path that involves an Economics PhD program.
“I am not as gifted at math, but that is only a minor concern of mine. While I have been searching, a common conclusion online is that a B.S. (in Economics) is better for graduate school while a B.A. usually simply leads to a job out of college. Would you agree with this conclusion? Additionally, is there any advice you would be willing to give me about my intended path?
Here’s my reply to the student:
Begin by incorporating flexibility into studies. The world will change between now and when you begin your career; and will change more from the beginning to mid-career; and again through the latter years of your work life. You will also change. Guaranteed. So I recommend a dual-track approach to preparation. First, prepare for a specific career as you are doing now. Second, build flexibility into your career preparation. That means the ability to succeed in another field that you stumble across your junior year of college, or another occupation that you get a chance to enter when you’re 30 years old. Fortunately, there’s a lot of overlap between the two tracks. Math, communications, and some computer programming give you access to many areas. Understanding humanity—what drives people, what excites them, what bores them—can be gained through social sciences and humanities courses. Take some of these courses in lieu of an extra economics elective.
On the math issue, Ph.D. programs in economics are highly mathematical. The top universities admit mostly candidates with quantitative GRE scores in the 95th percentile or higher. Middling universities will dip down to the 70th percentile. Keep in mind that the population who take the GRE is much stronger on tests than the population who take the SAT. Your 70th percentile math SAT (about 600) will not translate to a 70th percentile GRE.
If you are doubtful, take the math classes and see how you do. If you love economics, the math classes may not be your favorites, but they should be the ones you try to ace. I suggest calculus through multivariate calculus, differential equations, linear algebra (very valuable), and real analysis. Statistics is usually required, and a heavily mathematical stats course would be best. Demonstrating success in these courses will be a big plus in getting into graduate school. Once you’ve done these courses, then the BA/BS issue is pretty irrelevant. Some schools do not make a distinction between the two degrees.
I personally think that the econ profession has become overly mathematical and spends too little time on real economics. But I can’t change the whole profession. If you want in, you have to accept it as it is, at least until you become a distinguished senior leader in the profession.
If your math aptitude is too weak for success in these courses, then consider related fields. A strong command of economics can help in business, law and public policy.
Looking farther down the economics career path, it seems to me that in the non-academic world (business and government), econometrics is the key to the first job, and communications skills are the key to the first promotion. So I would take classes that build public speaking and writing skills.
Finally, before you commit to college and grad school, consider alternative paths to your destination. Peter Thiel and Eric Weinstein have an interesting discussion on college education, and you should check out Bryan Caplan’s The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.