I am currently getting my masters in Public Policy and considering getting a PhD in the near future. I'm looking for advice on whether to pursue a PhD in public policy or economics. I've heard that public policy phds are not as well received as econ phds on the job market. My fear with applying to the econ phd program is that I have not taken the advanced course work in linear algebra, matrix theory, real analysis and the other standard econ prerequisites. I will say though that a majority of my courses in my masters program have been quantitatively focused, having passed the equivalent of calc I and II, but my concern is that they are not in depth enough to make me a competitive candidate for admission.

Would something like coursera or MIT open courseware math courses in these subjects be sufficient? or should I take something for credit at a local college?

Appreciate the advice!

  • 3
    You should do a PhD in a subject you really care about, not one which you think might enhance your career prospects. Jun 2, 2018 at 7:10
  • 8
    @astronat Are you serious? Doing a PhD is a significant investment of time and foregone wages. Not being forward thinking about this investment would be totally illogical.
    – Dawn
    Jun 2, 2018 at 21:31
  • 2
    @astronat Furthermore, these degrees are VERY closely related. There is enough overlap that you could have the same committee and dissertation and be accepted for either degree.
    – Dawn
    Jun 2, 2018 at 21:42
  • You can take courses for credit at a local college, or online (e.g. state university). You can even audit. You might be able to find linear algebra at a two-year college but be careful, sometimes they prune the topics covered. To decide where to take what, consider cost, schedule, distance, etc. Also check the syllabus carefully and figure out whether the instructor will be a good fit. Basically, choose the format based on what you think would be best for you. Jun 3, 2018 at 4:46
  • Also, if Harris is your pub policy school, you should be able to get great advice from the faculty there. Specifically, many did their degrees in Econ departments so they have a clear picture of both sides of your question.
    – Dawn
    Jul 3, 2018 at 14:47

1 Answer 1


This type of preparation would be required for both an economics PhD and an econ-focused Public Policy PhD (one with a substantial number of courses in Econ department or co-listed). You would probably get admitted to a Public Policy PhD without real analysis, but you would then struggle in the courses if they were taken in the Econ department. Another area you would want to focus on is proof-writing.

I would suggest taking these courses at a 4-year institution if at all possible. You want the grades you receive to be reliable signals of your learning. The goal is to give the admissions committee confidence that you will succeed in the coursework. Many Econ and some Public Policy programs will force you to leave at the end of year one without satisfactory performance on qualifying exams.

You are correct that you can do similar work in both degree programs. In an Econ department, using the most flashy new methods is weighted more heavily, while in the Public Policy department, useful questions and answers are more heavily weighted. But if you find a dissertation topic with the right combination of questions and methods it would likely be acceptable in either degree program.

You are also correct that the Economics degree is more valued on the job market and will earn you a higher salary for the same position. I have a Public Policy friend who was told that he would have received a $10K higher starting salary if his degree had the word Economics in the name.

  • Thanks for the input! In regards to signaling math skills for econ PhDs, do you have a suggestion for sequence of math courses? Also, I don't have any official Calc I and Calc II on my transcript, just the fact that I did my current masters' program equivalent of those classes, but it certainly wasn't as formal as a college class, should I retake those classes?
    – Harris2018
    Jun 3, 2018 at 16:09
  • I would not be as concerned with the sequence. Just be wary of prerequisites. Also, if you passed higher level courses I would not not be very worried about formally seeing Calc I and II.
    – Dawn
    Jun 3, 2018 at 19:08
  • +1 for the practical answer. To @Harris2018, please read this question on Math SE. Pick one of the two books, start reading it. If you can finish half of it and do many of the exercises, you're okay. You don't have to take Calc I and II. But, if you have real trouble reading it, then follow the advice in the first paragraph, I would suggest taking these courses at a 4-year institution if at all possible
    – Nobody
    Jul 3, 2018 at 4:05

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