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I'm planning to apply to phd programs in economics and I'm hoping to eventually work in academic research on economic theory, social choice theory, welfare economics or related areas. I'm wondering if doing a masters in math before applying to economics phd would be worthwhile? Seems like it might be nice to have the math stuff down really solid, so I can focus on economics in grad school.

By the time I finish undergrad (in U.S.), I will have taken the following math courses (one semester each): Multivariable calc, linear algebra, abstract algebra, real analysis, topology, optimization, probability-statistics, basic numerical analysis with matlab programming. Econ courses that I'll have taken: year of micro, year of macro, year of econometrics, year of graduate micro.

  • "Should I get a master's in maths...?" yes. :p – gented Jul 27 '16 at 14:44
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The main problem with taking a course/major/degree in a subject like math, in the hopes of it improving your ability to perform at some other field, is that the math program will most typically not have been designed to cater the curriculum to the tools that will be most helpful to you in your future career. So effectively a 2 year degree program in math might be equivalent to 3-6 months of "math for Economists", or whatever degree program you might seek. While math is useful in many fields, exactly what specific kind of math is useful varies tremendously!

A simple example of this is statistics. Most math programs may only require 1-2 classes in any kind of statistics (Northeastern's Applied Math program, for instance), and beyond introduction to statistics the methods used in one field are often very different than one taught in another. Depending on how you choose your electives, you could very well come out of the program with little more than the equivalent of "I took some extra math classes as an elective" during your undergraduate degree, as far as actual ability to perform useful research at a PhD level is concerned. I'm not going to say it's a total waste of time - but it's kind of a weird "side quest" to go on.

Its not that you wouldn't learn anything useful - it's just that the time would not be spent very efficiently if "being a great non-mathematician" is your end goal. In comparison, you might instead take advanced math classes or an independent study while still an undergraduate (especially if you can identify someone with advanced knowledge of math useful to economists).

You would also do well to look at prospective PhD programs and see how they handle classes. Many PhD programs in the US require you to take advanced classes catered towards your degree, while also allowing/requiring you to take some advanced classes in an area outside your key classes - and you could use those slots to work on improving your relevant mathematical knowledge.

I would only remind you that everyone contemplating high level research - even mathematicians - wishes they had a stronger background in math, because there's always more math to learn and you'll have long died of old age before you learned all that might be of potential use to you. But if you plan to use math as a tool to aid other goals, then you can expect to pick it up like any other tool as you progress in your work.

  • I agree, I was once had the pleasure of meeting Jeffrey Wooldridge (a famous econometrician) and asked if he sometimes struggled with math, indeed his answer was yes – Repmat Jul 27 '16 at 9:00
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My father, a retired Civil Engineering professor, used to say that it was easier for a good undergraduate math major to succeed in a graduate economics program than for an economics major (without heavy math). His idea was that "math" was the most critical part of advanced economics, and the math students had a head start. This advice would apply to graduate math majors as well.

  • I disagree completely with this, what good is the ability to compute a horrible Riemann integral of a function if you do not understand why, say, consumer surplus is a measure of welfare. Math in economics is tool to describe the world... It's not the actual goal of any analysis – Repmat Jul 27 '16 at 8:56
  • @Repmat: My father (the civil engineering professor) said, "The concepts are easy for most people, the calculus is hard." (for indifference curves, elasticities, etc. – Tom Au Jul 27 '16 at 15:00

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