Getting into a top economics PhD programme

For many decades, graduates of Australian bachelor’s degrees in economics have been making the trek to the best PhD programs the world has to offer such as Harvard, Princeton, LSE. This is a testament to the quality of our undergraduate education. But to get into a top PhD program more is required than good training. Here are  some factors/advice I think are important:

1. First class honours in one of the top Australian honours programs; quite
often with a joint degree. If you don’t get a first class honours degree
you will probably be out of the running for a place in one of the top
ten PhD programs.

2. Letters from academics who are known at the institutions to which
the students are applying and who know how to write a  reference. It
makes sense to plan your honours degree by choosing a supervisor who
is internationally known, who knows academics in top programs, and who
has had some success  with placing students in good PhD programs.

3. Thesis Topic. You will probably need to do a solid thesis in the
honours year. Something that highlights your analytical abilities and
your potential to do research at the highest level. Don’t take
shortcuts do a thesis related to well known literature.

4. Well Written Thesis. In most instances you will be sending your
thesis with your application. Make sure that it is well written and
that the thesis is typographically appealing.

5. Top GRE scores. You’re going to have to do the GRE tests and do
well in them. You don’t usually need to do the economics GRE. You
should practice and my advice is for you to travel to Sydney or
Melbourne to do the computerized tests in November.

6. Advice from academics who are “in the know” about the US, and
hopefully have gained this knowledge from having spent time at an
international institution with a good program. When writing up an
application show it to someone who knows how admission committees

7. Send your applications to many places and keep an open mind. It’s
very unlikely that all the top places will offer you a place so you
should apply widely.

8. Offers start coming in  in early March. Stay on top of things and
check your email regularly. Some places may put you on reserve for
funding. They will need to know if you are still interested in them
and will probably contact you in April. The admissions process for US
institutions ends in early May.

9. Take the opportunity to visit. If Harvard and MIT offer you a
place, then you should try and visit them in April. This is not so
that you can negotiate a larger fellowship but it will help you decide
which institution you want to join.

10. Getting into a top PhD program is hard. You should start planning
early in your undergraduate degree.

12 thoughts on “Getting into a top economics PhD programme”

  1. Looks right.

    My experience is that places like Harvard are also impressed by a joint degree in maths (with high GPA)  or law or engineering.

    All of my students who got into Harvard or MIT or Princeton did a joint degree (three in maths (2 x undergrad, 1masters at the ANU); one  in law, one in engineering with 1st class honours)


  2. I am attempting to follow this advice! One possible change I would make to the advice: the GRE is changing format in August 2011, and the test scores for the first few months of the new test are likely to be somewhat more variable than the scores one might get in the established test. Therefore any aspiring grad students reading this might find it worth taking the GRE in July if they can, to avoid the new test. I’m taking mine at the end of June.


  3. Rachael, I advise you to do the GRE that the bulk of applicants are doing. Admissions committees will be comparing you to other applicants and will know about the changes.  I remember being on an admissions committee that questioned the veracity of GRE scores from a particular region and didn’t admit anyone from there.
    Do the one others do and there is no payoff to gaming the system.


  4. I don’t want to sound like an absurd nationalist but should we not be developing and supporting top quality PhD programs in Australia that draw on the best resources we have to offer. John Quiggin, Adrian Pagan and Rabee Tourky as well as many other strong performing Australian economists did their PhDs in Australia.

    We can’t be that bad. Is part of the devotion to US PhDs – clearly not the whole story – the ‘cultural cringe’ and the kind of standard biases that arise when those who have received a certain form of education come to endorse that as being the best?

    There should be an approach to economics that draws on Australian talent and has an Australian flavor.


  5. My view Harry is that there is no way that we can advise those who have been admitted to Harvard or MIT to stay in Australia. That just doesn’t make sense.

    However, I suspect that many of our top honours students end up in Treasury and the RBA  simply because they don’t want to leave Australia and we don’t have top PhD programs in Australia (although Melbourne and other places now have  programs with extensive coursework). By a top program I mean a program where we put effort into placing students in university jobs both in Australia and overseas and give students a broad education in economics.

    What we need in Australia is a premier Australian PhD program  taught in a consortium of universities and which aims to place  students in academia.  We need a program as good as the various European consortium  programs and where students feel like they have some hope of getting academic jobs and some hope in hell that they will get a good education.

    Presently many of our PhD programs aim at training up people for the public service  and training up public servants from various countries. Frankly, if I had my way again I would have probably gone to the ANU instead of UQ or even better the LSE or Chicago or some such place.

    I spent the first decade of my career catching up on getting a broad education in economics, which I did by teaching classes outside my field of expertise. It was very hard. In fact I remember the first time I taught game theory. I had no clue what a sequential equilibrium in an extensive form game was. I had to learn on the job. Bloody awful.   

    BTW, what on earth is economics with an Australian flavour? Are we talking about roast chicken chips? yum


  6. Actually, even those that go off to the RBA often end up at the top overseas institutions. The RBA has a post-graduate scholarship program that sends 2 to 3 of the best performers off to overseas institutions each year to undertake either masters or phd programs. I myself was lucky to have my LSE masters paid for that way. If you look at all the RBA staff at L5 and above, the vast majority have a post-grad degree from an overseas institution. Treasury is probably a bit different.

    One of the reasons students go the work route first, is that it is often easier to get into the overseas programs with the RBA on your resume. And of course, there are massive financial advantages as well!

    Harry, any professor would be mad to advise a student to stay in Australia if they can get into the top programs overseas. It isn’t cultural cringe either. The coursework is, on balance, more rigorous, you study with, on average, a higher calibre of student, and the faculty is, on average, higher quality. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do well with a domestic phd. But it does mean that you will mostly be better served with a Harvard phd. The decision also depends on what you want to do with your career. If you want to spend some part of your career in overseas institutions (whether they be universities or policy institutions) the signaling value of the overseas qualification is higher.


  7. Rabee, thanks for the feedback, but I think most people will be doing the pre-August GRE this year because the scores from the new test will only start to be released mid-November (even if you do it in August!). I think that is starting to cut it fine in terms of application deadlines (and makes it very hard to do it again if you end up doing badly!). So most of the people I have spoken with are taking it in July.


  8. I would also advise potential applicants to take the current test, if possible. Since most US institutions accept GRE scores as long as they are less than 5 years old, I suspect a large proportion of applicants will have planned ahead and already taken the test (like me!). Especially since the majority of preparatory material available relates to the current GRE test, rather than the new one.


  9. Thanks again Rabee! I forgot to mention the delay in my first comment, sorry for any confusion!

    Amaros, I am so jealous that you’ve got the GRE behind you!


  10. Hi professor Rohan!

    You did not mention grades in undergraduate years before honours, does that mean what’s really matter is just honours(as long as I can get into it) and there is no explicit standards in undergraduates grades? I am a third year Math&Econ student here at ANU, and got a few Ds in macro/emet courses I do not really like hence not involved. Does that mean I’ve already out of game? My math grades actually better than my Econ grades…



  11. Hi,
    I will be doing honours programme next year. And I have not decided which school I should attend. First, I have graduated from university of Melbourne, and I got admitted to ANU and unimelb. It seems like I can choose either one as they are two leading institutions in AU, but as I didn’t take any maths subjects (but now I’m taking distance learning courses with credit), I feel like I need to show them I can do maths. My only concern is that I got gre quant 166.
    Can anyone please give advice to me which school I shd choose?


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