Graduate Degrees in Economics

Students completing an M.A. or a Ph.D. in Economics find a rich array of career opportunities.


Teaching in colleges and universities is a primary occupation of economists with advanced degrees. Positions at four-year colleges and graduate schools typically require a Ph.D.


Teachers in most four-year colleges and all graduate schools are also engaged in research. Indeed, research is often the primary activity of graduate school faculty. Research interests are varied: from pure theory to applied economics, from the discovery of something new to the testing or synthesis of the already discovered, from individual scholarship to research as a member of a team. Publication of research is desirable because it subjects the ideas and findings to the scrutiny of others. Research economists are employed outside of academia as well. Virtually every agency or department of the federal government and many departments at the state level employ economists to study and evaluate the theoretical and practical effects of past and prospective policies. Private corporations also employ economists for market research and forecasting economics trends.


Economists both inside and outside academia frequently find themselves transformed into administrators. Much administration involves setting priorities and allocating scarce resources among alternative goals. These require economic reasoning. Understandably, economists are often asked to be administrators. This is particularly true in financial firms, but it also applies to other public and private institutions.


Economists are consultants to businesses, governments, special interest groups, and public enterprises. Some economists associate with a consulting firm either on a full-time or a part-time basis. Other economists operate independently. Obviously, to be a successful consultant and individual must have an in-depth knowledge of a specialty field such as energy economics or pharmaceutical pricing or demand forecasting. Personal and professional connections count as well as knowledge. Economists with prestigious universities sometimes in effect sell the value of their affiliation in addition to the value of their services.

Undergraduate Preparation

Graduate programs in economics require a strong background in mathematics and students are encouraged to take as many courses in this area as possible. First-year graduate students in economics invariably complain about the heavy and rigorous mathematical demands placed upon them. Indeed, introductory theory courses will seem more like courses in advanced math than in economics. Be ready. Some schools will allow you to make up a deficiency in math after enrolling, but this is often a poor substitute. It is best to begin with your mathematical tools in place and ready to use.

Essential courses for students entering a graduate program in economics include:

  1. Calculus I (MATH 201)
  2. Calculus II (MATH 202)
  3. Linear Algebra (MATH 300)
  4. Quantitative Methods I (QMTH 205)
  5. Quantitative Methods II (QMTH 206)

Additional courses that should prove useful include:

  1. Calculus III (MATH 301)
  2. Differential Equations (MATH 305)
  3. Optimization Techniques (MATH 375)
  4. Real Analysis I (MATH 509)
  5. Elements of Set Theory and Introduction to Topology (MATH 522)
  6. Probability and Statistics I (MATH 541)
  7. Probability and Statistics II (MATH 542)

Building your general research skills is also a good plan. Graduate students will be expected to engage in original research, make oral presentations, and write scholarly papers. Writing-intensive classes will help you develop some of these skills, but you should seek out undergraduate research opportunities. Ask faculty members if they could use volunteer research assistance. If you do complete a research project, ask if there might be a conference at which you could present your results in a professional setting. Potential graduate schools will be impressed.

The American Economics Association has excellent Web pages describing graduate education and careers in economics.