I am currently a Senior undergrad at a small school in the US. I have pretty good grades and have yet to take the GRE. I am a double major in Accounting and Business Management. I love economics (all parts I have encountered) but I am not sure if economics programs are for me.

I have heard that PhD/Masters Economics programs are very math intense, and without the proper courses you will be lost. I am not that great at math maybe because I never was that interested in it (I do like numbers if that makes sense). I did take Econometrics this past semester and really loved it and understood it. I do like behavioral economics; I find the psychology side very interesting.

Summary: I am not great at math. I love how economists think. I love being able to explain things with data. And I like how psychology can explain irrational acts. I want to further my education.

Questions: What program(s) should I be looking into based on my interests and capabilities? How math heavy are economics programs (PhD & Masters)? Is it mostly econometric math? Is there a similar field without the crazy math but with econometrics? Is the US the best place for me (where I am now)?

2 Answers 2


Before you make any decisions, ask yourself very seriously: What do I want from a PhD/Masters in Economics?

If you want to qualify for a certain type of job, then this will inform your strategy. If you want to master certain skills, or to explore what interests you, then you may have a different strategy. If you want an academic job in Economics, then you'll have another strategy, different from the first two.

I suggest you consider three things:

First, you should understand that PhD and Masters in Economics are very different. Basically, a Masters in Economics will qualify you do to certain types of empirical data analysis. (I've never heard of a Masters that involves theoretical economics.)

Second, I believe its true that nearly all top or upper-echelon graduate programs in Economics require strong proficiency in mathematics before the will admit you. This is true even for programs that are no explicitly quantitative (e.g. Austrian). The math you need is Calculus, Probability and Statistics (based on Calculus), and preferably Ordinary Differential Equations. You'll need a high GRE math score. It's very hard to read most Econ papers with out significant math proficiency.

In my opinion, if you really want a PhD in Economics, then you'll bite the bullet and do what it takes to learn this math. It doesn't require a "gift" or special aptitude. If it doesn't come easy to you, it does require dogged persistence and diligence.

Third, given your interests, I'd strongly suggest that you investigate PhD programs that have a specialty in Experimental Economics. My University, George Mason, is one of them. There's very interesting and fruitful work going on in this area, including links to neuroscience and cognitive science, but it requires very strong skills in statistics and behavioral sciences.

  • 1
    "I've never heard of a Masters that involves theoretical economics." I think the University of Bonn does. In the EU it is quite common to have theoretical economics in a Master's program as many PhD programs require a Master's degree. Jul 6, 2014 at 9:31
  • @TheAlmightyBob - Thanks for adding that. I wasn't aware of it. Jul 6, 2014 at 17:16

Yes, a PhD program in economics is very math-intense.

To get into a competitive program, you essentially need to score 800 on the math portion of the GRE (not as hard as it sounds, since an 800 is only the 94% percentile or so). Typical minimum math requirements for admission are two years of calculus, a course in linear algebra, and a statistics course. Some background in reading and writing proofs is also a good idea, and many PhD students will have taken a course in real analysis. (If you want to pursue theoretical econometrics, you would want to learn some measure theory at some point, too. But you could do that in grad school.) You will make heavy use of multi-variable calculus and linear algebra in your first year of coursework, so hoping to "pick it up as you go along" is not a great idea. (The one piece of good news I can offer on this front is that you can safely forget all of the trig you ever learned. I have.)

The most competitive master's programs (e.g. LSE) will have similar requirements, but there are others where you wouldn't be expected to have as much preparation in math. A solid semester or two of calculus and some kind of exposure to linear algebra might be enough to start with, though you should still expect to do a fair bit of math once you get to grad school. (Basically, constrained optimization out the wazoo!) So, if you're not keen on math, an economics degree might not be a great match for you.

Here's a good site for more info about PhD programs and admissions (though be warned that sometimes there's a bit of blind leading the blind): http://www.urch.com/forums/phd-economics/

In any case, I wouldn't wander into a PhD program in any subject without a clear idea of why you want to spend 5+ years of your life as a poor, overworked grad student. It's pretty much a requirement for any good academic job (and for some not-so-good ones!), but not necessarily for work in the private sector. I would advise thinking hard about what you want to do after grad school, then talking to someone who is doing that to figure out how to proceed.

  • So what math classes should I take? Calc I & II and linear algebra?
    – user18101
    Jul 6, 2014 at 15:33
  • @user18101: For a PhD program, 2 years of calc (at my school this comprises three 4-credit courses, so "2 years" = Calc I-III), linear algebra, and 1-2 courses in stats/econometrics is the minimum. To be a competitive applicant, add at least one course that involves reading and writing proofs. (Possibly called Discrete Math or Discrete Structures, but YMMV.) You will find endless discussions about this topic at the discussion board I linked to above.
    – szarka
    Jul 9, 2014 at 20:58

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