This is a guest post from Rachael Meager. Rachael is currently finishing up her undergraduate honors degree in economics (a BA/BComm) at the University of Melbourne. Facing a lack of guides for Australian undergraduates as to how to get into a Top 10 PhD program in Economics she has taken on the task herself and the result is posted here. And Rachael should know. While she hasn’t made up her mind yet, she got fully funded offers with stipends/fellowships from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Chicago, UCBerkeley, LSE, and Northwestern. This is a must read for anyone who has a research PhD in economics in their sights.
How to get into a Top 10 Economics PhD Program (from Australia) by Rachael Meager
At the broadest level, the most important part of getting into a Top 10 program is your dedication to this goal. Unless you are very lucky, getting into a top program will take time and effort. You will benefit from starting to plan for this for a few years before you apply. I am not suggesting you become a mindless automaton who only does economics (this actually causes your grades to deteriorate). But if you want to break into the top 10, at some point you need to get invested in playing the game that is PhD admissions.
First, you need to attend to your coursework. You should be in the top grade bracket (eg. H1 at Melbourne) in almost every economics and maths class you take. The more advanced the class is, the more important it is to get a good grade in it. Now, you can definitely have a few slip-ups and still land in a top 10 program … but only a few. You need to get into honours or equivalent, and honours grades matter the most.
How do you pick which economics classes to take? Choose the intersection of the hardest possible classes and the classes you are interested in. If you don’t want to take hard classes in undergrad, then a PhD is not for you. You should also consider classes taught by academics you want to work with, either as their RA or as their honours student.
Now, how much maths should you take? It’s super useful to have maths, but you do not need to quit your BA and start a BSci (as was once suggested to me…). You also do not need to spend an extra year on a graduate diploma of maths. I got in with only two maths credits: a first year calculus class, and a first+second year “accelerated” maths class combining linear algebra and real analysis. I averaged 90 in these classes, which helps. More maths is probably good, but it clearly is not necessary as long as your grades are very good. Many online guides say you need heaps of maths – indeed, a major – to even have a shot. This is not true, at least not for Australians with honours degrees. I know of one student who got into a top 10 program with no maths at all.
If you are light on the maths like I was, you should take mathematical economics subjects. I’m not sure how admissions committees view such subjects, but in any case, they help to prepare you for grad school.
Next, RA work is absolutely crucial – and getting RA work is not easy. The earlier you start looking, the better. Take the courses of people you want to work for, or go to their seminars, or comment on their blogs. Interact with economists and be part of the world of economics as much as possible. Ask questions in class. Introduce yourself to all of your professors, tell them you are interested in going to grad school and ask for their advice. They will know that you are looking for RA work, because they know you need it.
Once you get your RA job, you must do really good work. In fact, you should prioritise your RA work above your coursework. This is because the people you do RA work for will need to write you a letter of recommendation, and those are going to matter a lot. This is especially true if you are doing RA work for someone with good connections at top programs, because their LOR will carry more weight. Also, if you work hard, one RA job leads to another. I got my first RA gig with Joshua Gans, but I made that job my top priority, and by the end of my degree I had worked with three other academics as well.
Third, your honours essay, or some other kind of thesis, is also important. This shows you can do research, which is what PhD admissions committees want to see. You should try to get the top mark in your cohort, so you need a good topic and a good supervisor. Finding a topic is not easy, and you should try to find a small but important problem that interests you and interests your supervisor (this helps keep their attention). You will undoubtedly fail to find such a problem, but the search will lead you somewhere interesting.
There is a lot of talk about whether to do a theory thesis or an empirical thesis. You should do what you like the best, because the key determinant of success here is how much time and effort you put into it. People warn you off theory theses, but if you live for theory and you know you can grasp difficult concepts, then go for it. (Scoring 90+ in theory classes is a decent signal here.) I did an applied micro theory thesis and it was pretty harrowing stuff, but it turned out very well in the end. Of course, if you live for empirical work, do that!
To find a good supervisor, you need to get in touch with students who did well in previous years (they will often be your tutors or be hanging around before heading off to grad school). They know who is good. My supervisor was great, and I heard about him from another student who had been through a few years before me. The academic grapevine can be harnessed for good!
No later than six months before you apply, you need to tackle the GRE. Doing well carries no additional benefit to your application, but if you do badly, you are sunk. Personally I found it very difficult, though I know some people who found it easy. The quant section is all that matters if you are a native english speaker. You need either a perfect score on the quant, or very close to it.
They have changed the format now, so I can’t offer you specific advice, but you should do some practice tests a few weeks before to see how you go. I had to study for several weeks to get a perfect score. One thing that I think is still true is that the GRE rewards people who have mastered the psychological aspect of test-taking in general. You need to maintain a cool head no matter how badly it seems things are going on the day.
You can take the GRE twice, but you shouldn’t plan on it, as some schools will average your score. So plan to ace it on your first go. (Personally I had no choice, I took mine in the last month of the old GRE. Also, it may give you some hope to know that I never got a perfect score on any practice tests. I had to stay relentlessly positive, and I peaked in the test itself.)
A few months before you apply you need to ask people to write you letters of recommendation. These are absolutely crucial for Australian students. But here’s the good news: if you have been working hard on your coursework and your RA work for a few years, finding LOR writers will be easy. Just remember, you need letter writers who can speak to your research abilities. Your honours supervisor must write you an LOR; I think it looks a bit suspicious otherwise. You also need an LOR from someone you did RA work for. You will need three LORs in total. Some programs allow a fourth LOR – never exercise this option, as the marginal letter will not raise the average quality of your letters.
You only need one really great LOR from a person with good connections at top schools to get you in. But you also only need one lukewarm LOR to get you on the reject pile. Never, ever push or pressure someone into writing you an LOR: even if you succeed, that LOR will be admissions kryptonite.
Last of all, when you apply, you have to write your Statement of Purpose. I don’t think SOP advice is any different for Australians, so you can get any general guide to help you here. Also, you can ask your professors for advice if they are familiar with the US system. If that’s not enough, most universities have instructions for the SOP on their online applications. If you have been diligently working in the years leading up to application, you will have heaps of stuff to write in your SOP. Stick to the professional stuff – this is not the time to wax lyrical about how a momentous childhood event inspired you to pursue monetary economics.
By the way, professors at the programs to which you apply will read your SOP. Several professors have called or emailed to ask me about things I wrote in mine, especially the areas of economics I said I was interested in. Do not just write what you think an admissions committee wants to hear; it will not end well for you.
One last bit of advice: Don’t panic! Even if you don’t get into a top 10 school, you can still become a good economist. If you have what it takes to contribute to the profession, being passed over by a top 10 program does not change that. We do not yet live in a dystopian sci-fi novel where they can suck the talent out of you. You will still get a great education at many lower ranked programs, and the work you do is what matters in the long run. But having given you that caveat, I still think you should aim high. Sure, there is a lot of noise in this process, but someone has to get into the top programs. If you do the work, why shouldn’t it be you? Good luck!