I'm currently a rising sophomore (just wrapped up my first year) at a top US university, and time has come for me to start taking decisions about major classes, now that I'm done with required introductory classes. I don't really know what I want to do after college yet, but one possibility is definitely getting a PhD in economics, which is something that combines all my interests really well. At the same time, I'm very very interested in pure math as well. I've heard people say that your math education is more important than your economics education at the undergrad level if you're interested in going to grad school for econ. Is this true? Should I focus on taking the hardest math classes I can, or should I balance the hard math ones with the hard econ ones (though I'll admit that the math ones are generally considered to be way "harder"). Do I need an economics major at all, or is it sufficient to become as good at math as I can?

  • 1
    I took the liberty of changing your title a bit; people love to downvote/close questions that seem like personal choices, whereas you're really asking about the career implications of this decision.
    – cag51
    May 23, 2019 at 22:47
  • Just pick up real analysis and the like on the side. The amount of math needed in a graduate econ course is not beyond what a good sophomore math major is learning. You don’t need four years of math to get to it.
    – knzhou
    May 23, 2019 at 23:23
  • But what if I want to major in pure math over econ? I really enjoy pure math (and so I’d love studying it for 4 years), but I honestly don’t see myself doing it as a career. So what I mean to ask is whether the additional 2 years of pure math (over just the 2 years’ worth of experience you’re saying is required) will make me a more competitive applicant.
    – gtoques
    May 24, 2019 at 0:55
  • Have econ grad school applicants typically done undergraduate research or learned how to program? If so, that could affect your choice.
    – cag51
    May 24, 2019 at 2:15
  • Think about where you might like to go and look at their admission requirements/comments. Some want a substantial writing sample, one wants calculus, another wants probability, statistics, etc (advanced), and so on.
    – mkennedy
    May 24, 2019 at 17:43

3 Answers 3


I've heard people say that your math education is more important than your economics education at the undergrad level if you're interested in going to grad school for econ. Is this true?

Yes, it is definitely true. Almost everything in graduate level economics involves real analysis and optimisation conducted at quite a high level of proficiency. Now, obviously there is a trade-off here, but generally students who come in with a solid mathematics education are at an advantage, even if this additional mathematical knowledge comes at the expense of an absence of previous exposure to economics.

One of the difficulties that most students encounter in graduate level economics courses is that they have to learn two things at once. Most students struggle with the mathematics, and so they are trying to learn real analysis and various optimisation methods. At the same time they are trying to learn the economic reasoning and intuition for the material they are studying. Often the difficulty of the mathematics obscures economic understanding of the material, which creates learning problems. If you are one of the lucky students who finds the mathematics easy, you will be able to turn all your brain-power to the task of understanding the economic principles and intuition of what you are being taught, and that is a major advantage.

  • At this point, I’m pretty certain that I’m going to do pure math as one of my majors. What I’m confused about is whether I should do an econ major along with it as well (which is very possible at the school I go to), or whether doing an econ major at the undergrad level doesn’t really help me. If I don’t do econ, I’ll have much more space to take harder math classes (maybe even grad level), stat, comp sci, and so on. Which of the two approaches would you recommend?
    – gtoques
    May 24, 2019 at 1:09
  • You should take enough Econ classes to get a recommendation from an Econ professor and to have some idea of what economics topics interest you for your statement of purpose.
    – Dawn
    May 24, 2019 at 1:52
  • 1
    Another advantage of doing some economics is that you will at least find out if it is a field that seems interesting to you. Almost all the math for econ is either real analysis or statistical modelling.
    – Ben
    May 24, 2019 at 2:41

Before you make a final decision, note that different economics doctoral programs in the US have a quite different focus. I think that U Chicago and Princeton, for example sort of exemplify the difference. Some programs are very heavy on modeling, in which case a math background might be useful. Others are not like that at all.

So, investigate the range of possibilities through their curricula and some papers that have come out of them to see what you want your focus to be. The two schools of thought are called "freshwater" and "saltwater", which might give you the basis for a search.

Outside the US it may be the same or not, but I can't help with that.


Both for US and outside of US, some maths classes are way more important than those of economics. But that does not certainly mean that you need a maths major, but means that you should absolutely have a notion in maths thinking. Other than that, those majored in engineering or maths can perform better in economics grad school as it relies very much on theory and modelling classes etc. but this is something you can achieve by having serious maths classes while doing an economics major too.

If I were you, I would take primarily core math classes for sure together with intermediate economics classes. Not mentioning Linear Algebra, Calculus, Real Analysis to name only a few along with their advanced versions. If time permits, you may also take graduate level economics courses to put them in your transcript as they strengthen your applications if you pursue a rigorous PhD programme in Economics.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .