For the ambitious, prospective PhD student: A Guide

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!

46 thoughts on “For the ambitious, prospective PhD student: A Guide”

  1. We need a data bank of these successes. Australia is amazing at the undergraduate honours level. UQ didn’t place anyone at harvard this year but we have MIT, Princeton, Berkeley. I think that someone from nsw was placed in Harvard.

    The Australian honours programs are just amazing. I hope that noone tries to change them into goofy masters degrees.


  2. My academic background is in the humanities, and my PhD scholarship was to an Australian university, so in many ways I am probably not fit to comment on the specifics of this. However, I would like to note that, in general, this strikes me as good advice based on my own recent experience.

    One point on which I would offer slightly different advice is in the area of the Honours thesis, where I would suggest that it would help to weight your Supervisor’s interest in the topic more highly than your own.

    The Honours thesis is a relatively short time commitment, especicially when compared to a PhD, and your own interest in the general area will be more than enough to sustain you for a short time through a topic that you find interesting and engaging on some levels but which is not necessarily utterly scintillating for you. But, as the post notes, your Supervisor’s personal academic interest in the topic will ensure you get relatively more input and guidance in the completion of what will likely be your first sustained research exercise.

    This is quite important, because any Supervisor you have identified as ideal will undoubtedly have very many demands on their time, including from multiple supervisees.


  3. Good overall advice, and not just for Australian students.

    One quibble: “never exercise this option, as the marginal letter will not raise the average quality of your letters.”

    This is only true if the marginal letter is “lower” (worse) than the average.

    If you have three good letters and a forth fantastic LOR, more good news cannot hurt.


  4. Hi teabot. You say that “If you have three good letters and a forth fantastic LOR, more good news cannot hurt.” But why would you put your expected-to-be-fantastic LOR in the fourth slot and thus deprive many programs from seeing it? The expected-best LOR should be part of your top 3! Hence, the fourth LOR should always be weakly dominated (in expectation) by the three you choose to send in normally – if you are optimising.


  5. its a good post, but does illustrate why we, like the Europeans, should have an Australian PhD institute: it is a bad state of affairs when our brightest are encouraged to go overseas, unlikely to ever return. It is a worse state of affairs for senior Australian economists to be ok with that situation. We should aim to have a PhD-education second to none so that it is American students competing to get into our programs, not the other way around.


  6. @ Rachael: You’re right.

    The average of the best three of four scores will always weakly dominate the average of four scores.


  7. Good point Rachael, however I think you could analyse it further. Lets say the 4 letters have quality level given by a real number, the higher the better. The adcoms have an expectation on the quality level of the 4th letter if it is not submitted, This expectation will be lower than the quality of the 3rd best submitted letter. But if the applicant does not submit the letter, they must believe that the quality level of the letter is less than the expectations of the adcoms. The adcoms will factor this into their expectation, which in turn the applicant will take into account in their decision on whether to send fall grades. This “process” will continue. I think it leads to a paradox or the quality of an unsent letter being negative infinity.


  8. Where is the part about the academic staff at your university talking to you about doing a Ph.D early enough for you to follow this advice?

    I was asked at the end of my undergraduate honours year why I was taking the particular graduate job I had accepted and not doing a Ph.D, which apparently I was a good candidate for – um, because I had never thought about it or even knew it was a realistic option.


  9. Sam,

    We talk to our students in first, second, and third year undergraduate microeconomics about doing PhDs.

    The simple idea is that if they work hard enough, get first class honours and good overall grades, then they can get into some of the top programs in the world.

    The amazing thing is that students who wouldn’t have gotten a look in at Harvard and Stanford at the undergraduate level can go there and do a PhD after completing an undergraduate degree in Australia; and they will even be payed by Harvard and Stanford to do the PhD.

    I have been wondering why Australian universities haven’t marketed this aspect of our undergraduate program. Rather than waisting one’s time doing a goofy masters degree “catching up on the math” in some first or second rate PhD feeder program, why not come to Australia and do an honours undergraduate degree.


  10. Hi Sam, if in your comment you meant the general “you”, indeed I agree that it would be ideal if professors mentioned the PhD as an option to all the students, perhaps in second year at the end of the semester.

    If in your comment you meant “you” to be me personally, I should clarify that nobody talked to me about considering the PhD. I decided to start on this path on my own, at the start of my second year at university, after reading “Reinventing the Bazaar” by John McMillan, and hanging around on Mankiw’s blog. (Back then Mankiw still had open comments!). Of course my professors were very generous with their time and attention once I elected for this path, but happily I think that is normal in Australia.

    It’s great to hear from Rabee that they are pushing this path at UQ! The honours degrees in Australia are a fantastic set-up.


  11. Congratulations again, Rach!

    I would like to comment on the need for mathematics. You don’t need a major. However even if you only plan to do honours and no further, your path will be smoothed by some first and even second-year maths.

    @Rabee The honours programs do produce a handful of amazing graduate students (as well as other strong graduates who go on to policy, consulting and other careers). However (and I can only speak from a Melbourne perspective here), universities could do a lot more to prepare their students for honours, and potentially create more success stories in the process.

    For example, honours would be far less of a struggle with a handful of mathematics units. But its rare for undergraduates to hear this prior to honours (unless they know they want to do a PhD ahead of time). Some have even done the less demanding basic econometrics stream and had to struggle to catch up later. This is not so much a failure of content as of course advice – in the chase to make economics accessible (Melbourne will probably have 400-500 economics majors each year) the message that maths can help your preparation if you do want to do further study has been lost (or at least muddled).


  12. I am currently doing my PhD at a top Canadian school, and thought I would chuck in my two cents.

    @Rabee: Comparing a top Canadian MA to a top Australian Honours I would say that the Honours gives you better depth, but the MA better breadth. The MA prepares you better for the first couple of years of coursework, while the Honours prepares you better for the research side of the PhD program. Personally, my Honours program left me fairly underprepared for the macro sequence of my PhD program.


  13. Thanks Racheal! These are very helpful and spot on advices! Being an Honours student this year, I really like the fact that the program is pushing us very hard. We could have 3 assignments and one exam in a week and we just have to go with that. It is tough, and rightly so, because it’s supposed to train tough students and bring the best out of them. I am more productive now than ever in my undergrad (and I’m forced to be more organised and focused as well). One thing I regret about the whole thing is that UQ is so strict with electives. I had in total only 3 electives during 3 years of undergrad after taking all the compulsory courses for a major and those required to enrol into Honours. I wish we were given more flexibility to choose courses.


  14. How come only a very small percentage of phd graduates in economics can do good (or simply any) research upon entering academia? These individuals are brilliant at the coursework for the first 2 years, ace their generals, and eventually pump out a thesis…but then they cannot do anything what a researcher is supposed to.
    This is especially true in the US where I have seen top places have a great number of phd students but only a very few (around 10%) that can think for themselves. Isn’t this the point of social science?


  15. Just one more piece of advice regarding the essay. This is not a college admission essay where you tell the story of your life. Don’t start with things like “I was riding the bus, I looked at the shops and it got me thinking about demand and supply….”. You need to show the committee that you know what it means to do research, possibly that you have ideas. They don’t have to be an original research proposal, but they have to show some potential. If you have done some research work or thesis, talk about that and explain how that motivated you to learn more about economics. Hopefully, the committee will infer from those words how smart you are and what is your potential to become a research economist. Good grades/GRE/math knowledge are only correlated with that potential.


  16. Very important point Paul. It’s unfortunate only a few share your view. Australia certainly has the human capital for one of these institutes. The biggest problem seems to be this view that teaching and research are substitutes rather than complements. This is a fundamentally unbalanced way to think about academic life. It may be good for the “QS” rankings in the short run but it does nothing for the long run reputation (which is the currency good universities trade in) of the school nor does it attract (or retain) top students. Attitudes toward teaching here are shameful. I reference the recent Grattan report as some empirical evidence (

    There is a serious issue re: very low quality and/or in-experienced lecturers teaching students. Of course, there are brilliant top notch academics in Australian universities…primarily or exclusively doing research. This is why RA gigs are so important, because unlike at American universities you’re unlikely to encounter many rock stars in the class room. A good first step toward making Australia a serious place for graduate study is putting more emphasis on “A star” teaching, training and mentoring than “A star” publication. This is what makes American universities so desirable..and after all, more emphasis on the first will certainly help with the second..


  17. I think I need to add my two cents. Rach knows who I am.

    I don’t just agree with David Marks because I know him as a wise man, but I think he has the right idea about improving economics education by encouraging undergrads to take more math.

    As someone who was a little sucked in my Rach’s awesome enthusiasm by grad school (I think others can confirm it is infectious), I have to say that an econ PhD, or PhD in anything, is not for everyone.

    I think ultimately it’s a lifestyle choice, so no, I don’t think undergrads should be encouraged to go to grad school just because they have good marks.

    A second year does not have a good idea about where they’re headed. Without conditioning on anything, an undergrad is almost certainly not going to join academia (not with probability zero, but probably something close). If we condition and consider only those undergrads who are freaking smart and motivated (like Rach) then we have an incredible likelihood they will go academic and do well there.

    THOSE are the people who should get all the above information from their econ profs, and efforts should be made to contact these people early, or get them to contact the uni’s (and many do, such as Rach). I personally got much of my information from Rach herself, and that was by third year, even though I had done quite well in much of my previous coursework.

    But I think it is important students also get familiar with what academic life and research entails. THAT is something I knew almost nothing about prior to Honours, yet I aspired for exactly the same things as Rach, and realising we are just really different people.

    Many other students are better off looking off the academic road and seeking to invest themselves in industry – internships and network-building while they’re young. That’s the way things largely work now. Why distract them with preparing for academia?

    That’s different to David Marks’ claim, I believe. Improving economics education and making the large mass of econ students appreciate the coursework more is important in building analytical skills which are frequently absent from “Commerce” graduates, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in the physical and natural sciences. If most of them will get industry jobs, should they not acquire useful skills. Economics is great at building analytical skills, as is math. I feel this is lost in many conversations about improving economics education conducted nowadays…

    Isn’t that the point of university education? Education? And THAT’S what I think is the issue in reforming economics education, not the mentality of placing one or two really good students each year in top schools. Not that this shouldn’t happen, which it should, but it should invade the education and progress of the many.

    And that’s not to say that making economics courses more analytical wouldn’t help students prepare for grad school too… I’m just saying that economics education should not be focussed on placement in grad school. Rach provides awesome advice, and it’s the kind of thing that should be kept on a blog viewed by those motivated econ undergrads with similar aspirations, and that’s not an awful lot of people, even at great universities like Melbourne where me and Rach are from.

    Zack has a really good point that plenty of people ace coursework but don’t make it in research. I do well in coursework and math, but by no means do I believe I’ll make it in research. Largely I don’t have the right mindset. Solving one A4 sheet of math problems is such a different task than writing a research paper, even if those are really hard math problems.

    I think getting undergrads in any country more exposure to research is the key to opening up their eyes and developing a research base, assuming that’s the goal. Getting them into grad school en masse isn’t the solution. If humans learn better via practice, then perhaps the goal should be to open up more research opportunities pre-Honours even for those who cannot get RA jobs. I found it hard getting exposure to research-proper pre-Honours.

    It seems to be entering conventional wisdom that PhD’s enter industry for the pay. I think it might have something to do with the fact some who get PhD’s enter the PhD not so aware of what academic life entails, and whether or not they are well-suited to the profession.

    Perhaps it’s all part of the learning experience. But I doubt people need to invest 5-6 years of their lives figuring out suitability to academia, when some of those places may be better reserved for human beings more suited to academia who don’t have as high marks.

    Almost all academics do extremely well throughout their education (I say “almost all” because off the top of my head I can think of at least one Nobel in econ who got C’s during undergrad), but many people who do extremely well during their educations never become academics, and that happens for a reason.


  18. Rachael, your article came at the perfect time for me – I’m towards the end of my undergraduate degree and have been contemplating a doctorate, but lamented the lack of guides for Australian students.

    A recurring question for me regards the prestige an applicant’s undergrad alma mater. Is someone like you, coming from UMelb, likely to be looked upon in a better light than someone from one of the smaller universities? If so, would it be worth taking honours at a better known institution to improve the probability of success?


  19. From this year’s job market, there seems to be quite a lot of US based PhDs who take the following approach to (mainly theoretical) research: (i) Find a famous, well-published paper (ii) change one (usually small) assumption in the model, and (iii) this becomes the main contribution / part of thesis / job market paper (after replicating the original model). I do not really see a point in such an exercise!?
    I think Zack above makes a very good argument regarding the robotic nature of most large US PhD institutions, which also may explain my issue here.


  20. Daniel,
    In a word, yes. Anyone who says otherwise better be able to cite very specific reasons. In particular, you want to see placements of your program to top US programs, if that’s what you’re aiming for and what you think you’re capable of. If they aren’t there, you need to move somewhere that has been there and done that before.


  21. Daniel – yes, try to do honours at the best institution you can. Switching to Melbourne for honours after ugrad somewhere else is not unusual! We had several people from places like Latrobe and Auckland come and do well in our honours program in my year.


  22. This strikes meas the kind of narrow academic obsessiveness that mars so much of the discipline of economics.

    Getting into a top school is no doubt a wonderful achievement. But undergraduate study is also meant to be about personal growth. How about worrying a but less about your grades, and worrying a little bit more about the sort of person you want to be, and the broader educational horizons you want to explore.

    But hey, don’t listen to me, I did my PhD in cultural studies at a university no-one has ever heard of.


  23. Ben, I’m not going to not listen to you. Not because you have a phd in cultural studies or which school you have it from. But because this is a post about getting into a good grad school, to help those who wish to do that, not a post saying thateveryone should want that, or even that every economics student should want that.

    Threadjacking a post intended to help people achieve their goal is not going to bring about a societal shift towards critical thinking and broad education (and rachael also has an arts degree, went on exchange and is willing to think deeply about any topic, none of which was impaired by her career goals).

    Funnily, I don’t disagree that academic departments often focus on an academic bubble. This just isn’t the most productive place to make such a point.


  24. This is great! I am an American, but this advice is no less relevant or encouraging. As I am entering my third year of college, I was starting to develop a looming fear that the only people who were accepted into top ten schools were groomed since they began their studies. I’m glad to know that isn’t the case. Not to say it doesn’t require dedication, but it’s a nice realization that I’m not miles behind the pack. Cheers!


  25. Hi rachel,
    First of all congrats for your outstanding achievement. I plan to do honours next year in Economics. However, how many hours did you contribute each week for Honours through out the whole year? In other words how many hours did you study daily?


  26. i REALLY GOT INSPIRED READING IT..m still n undergraduate,who was looking for a bit of torch light ….thanku


  27. Thank you for this post Rachael, and congratulations on being accepted into so many top schools. I am currently applying for US and UK PhD programs. My first preference is to attend a US school, but I am also very interested in LSE and UCL in the UK. With your acceptance into LSE, did you apply to the MSc? Or did you apply directly to the MRes/PhD? I am very interested in whether you were offered a fellowship/stipend from LSE.


  28. This is dangerous advice. How many poor souls are going to enter economics Ph.D. programs with almost no math and find themselves totally clueless because, well, Rachel Meager did it and she’s going to MIT. You and I are not Rachel Meager! The people who go into these Ph.Ds in applied mathematics (effectively) without having taken any math are quantitative geniuses! For every one of these people there are probably ten others who didn’t do enough preparation, went into a Ph.D., and failed the comprehensive exams and then didn’t bother to write contrary advice columns because they were too ashamed and wanted to disappear from sight. So, thank you for a worthless, egocentric column, Rachel-if I can’t take two math classes and then get into MIT, it’s not that you were lucky to be born with amazing gifts, it’s because I was a lazy sack of garbage and you worked harder than I did. Enjoy your program.


    1. To make sure this goes in as a reply:

      @johnsmith501566996: Grad school admissions (as most of life) are a zero-sum game. Someone wins and someone loses. Formal credentials are signals of your ability to do economics research and everything that it entails and presumably reflect a combination of raw intelligence (whatever you take this to mean), determination and hard work, discipline, good choices, and good fortune. Certainly, there’s tons of noise in the process in how these signals are received and interpreted, and every admissions decision is a bet in a sense. But remembering that the signal that credentials send (presumably) have a basis is critical. Choose your classes in a way that maximizes your ability to do real economics and your credentials will send a signal that’s roughly monotonic in the level of your success. If you think that you have what it takes (including a significant level of ambition and desire) to be a good economist then you should [follow Rach’s advice and] look for ways to [prepare yourself for it and] convince the world of this. If, indeed, you believe yourself to be an ungifted sack of garbage (even if not a lazy one), then someone more gifted than you, for whom this guide *is* helpful, probably deserves the spot you’re pseudo-coveting


  29. ” … didn’t do enough preparation … failed the comprehensive exams”

    I just like to point out that it is not 100% correct. Sometimes … yes … But There is also an occassion where the students know more than their supervisors …. There are also other reasons “inside” the academia that is not visible from lay-man that never even embarked a PhD … For example, they are “paid” to do their job … and the “students” have surpassed their so-called “research” ….

    There are two sides of the same coin … Simplistic generalization can prove to be fatal …..


  30. There are several types of education:
    1) education for personal growth. At the purest sense … Like a baby that grows … It learns to talk … It seeks improvement on its surrounding … be it scientific or social.
    2) education for personal gratification. This is the case for families, reputation, seeking for challenge etc
    3) education to fulfill requirement of a system. This is the case for believing that it will get into an exclusive club, for example to get a tenure-job in an University or some other variants.

    Every single “researcher” has their own research-interest and/or personal agenda … It is a matter of choosing which belief-system (in social science) or paradigm (in science) you want to open your eyes on …

    At the end of the day, it is a publication BUSINESS in a human world with “gatekeeper” and certain interest-group. In whatever field that is, you will deal with money / research grant, spreading the “belief” to “lower-form” of humans in that specific field, fighting of ideology …. and …. paper-to-be archived …..

    Like anything else, some are really good in terms of their understanding of the topic, some are good but flaw in character, some just simply follow the band-wagon hiding behind their entity brand name … some of them …are just “free rider” of unfortunate students …. In other words, education starts within one-self and ends with one-self … It is not constrained by whether you go to MIT or xxx university although I think you are more likely to meet higher-form peers at MIT than the other way around.

    Both “teacher” and “student”, too, are humans …. living in an economic, socio-political world …. constraint by all of its perfection and flaw … Feel free to criticize.


  31. I just stumbled upon this post after reading some other posts by Josh Gans. I completed my Honors in Economics in Australia back in the early 2000s, and went on to do a PhD at a top-10 US school. I concur with Rabee that Australian honors programs generally prepare students well for the rigors of a PhD in Economics in the US. They prepare students incredibly well from the core PhD microeconomics sequence, but they could do better in preparing students for the PhD macroeconomics sequence. During my honors year, my macroeconomic theory class consisted of reading some rather dated papers and some chapters from Romer’s “Advanced Macroeconomics”. This did not really prepare me well for the PhD macroeconomics which used Bellman equations, Real Options and extensive Matlab programming.


  32. First of all, thanks Rachel for this excellent guide. I agree with everything here.

    One thing does need to be qualified though.

    There is definitely a bias in top US schools against Australian applicants, precisely because in our Honours programs we don’t do formal mathematics, as the mathematics is incorporated into the economics material. Rachel seems to underplay this a little, and perhaps it does not apply to her because she is so obviously a superstar. But this is a real issue, and you need to watch out for it.

    I can only use my experience as an example of this. I got into two top 10 U.S Phd programs this year, after Honours at an Australian Go8 uni and with almost no formal math on my transcript. At the first, my uni had sent several people there over the past few years, so they already knew our program prepared students well. At the second, my admit was put on the auto reject pile for lack of mathematics, and was only rescued by one of my supervisor’s contacts at the school.

    So if you can, make sure you do take at least a few mathematics units (linear algebra and calc) in your B.Com or B.Ec . It will make things so much easier and less stressful for you.

    And follow the rest of Rachel’s advice to the letter!


  33. @johnsmith501566996: Grad school admissions (as most of life) are a zero-sum game. Someone wins and someone loses. Formal credentials are signals of your ability to do economics research and everything that it entails and presumably reflect a combination of raw intelligence (whatever you take this to mean), determination and hard work, discipline, good choices, and good fortune. Certainly, there’s tons of noise in the process in how these signals are received and interpreted, and every admissions decision is a bet in a sense. But remembering that the signal that credentials send (presumably) have a basis is critical. Choose your classes in a way that maximizes your ability to do real economics and your credentials will send a signal that’s roughly monotonic in the level of your success. If you think that you have what it takes (including a significant level of ambition and desire) to be a good economist then you should [follow Rach’s advice and] look for ways to [prepare yourself for it and] convince the world of this. If, indeed, you believe yourself to be an ungifted sack of garbage (even if not a lazy one), then someone more gifted than you, for whom this guide *is* helpful, probably deserves the spot you’re pseudo-coveting ?


  34. This post was a long time ago, but perhaps people are still reading!

    Several years into my professional career, with a honours degree (1st) in arts and a coursework. Masters, I have decided I want to pursue economics. I’ve always been strong at maths (though no tertiary study) and it is the quantitative aspect that interests me as much as the conceptual and theoretical. To get started, I’m going to do the Graduate Certificate in Economics at University of Sydney, which USyd seems to recognises as equivalent to a Bachelors major in Economics for the purposes of entry into further postgraduate studies. I’d like to get any views on how to plan for the future after that. As I said, I already have a broad education in the arts, and postgraduate including management, information systems etc. My goal is being a professional economist (most likely in government, but the finance industry is also of interest). I haven’t ruled out PhD but academia is not my intended path (I know my limitations!)



    1. 1). no one really cares about your 1st class honours. I know a student who had a gpa of 7 (undergrad) and first class honours (with a thesis mark of 95/100), but she could not answer the question: if y=x whats dy/dx? She loved to suck up to the academics and make them feel sorry for her. So forget about that non-sense. It does not work.
      2) the noted training in management is useless for economics, very useless. Usually, in any decent economics department, the management students are asked to leave the course by telling them that they will fail if they stay.

      Thus, my advice is simple: stay in your professional career as it would be hard for you to contribute much to the field of economics.


      1. Hi Peter

        I’m doing the grad cert as an undergrad equivalent: my question is, what to focus on from there to give myself the best shot at being a professional economist. After completing it, I may stay on the same career path and the mean time I will continue my current role. So far, my career has had me working directly with economists and financial analysts so I do have a good idea of what the work itself involves. However, they were senior and studied a long time ago: its very difficult for me to relate their experience to mine. (Yes, its hard for the hoardes of graduates to distinguish themselves enough to get a job, even less make an enduring contribution)

        1) My honours itself means nothing to my study in economics, other than the USyd’s requirement for an undergraduate degree with good marks in any discipline to get into some of their programmes. You seemed to miss the part of my comment where I said that I back myself quantitatively: I am good at calculus and stats, though very unpractised

        2) I realise management has little relevance to economics per se: what I mean is that I don’t want to pursue a generic masters programme in management with a bit of intermediate economics thrown in here and there (I’ve had that suggested before elsewhere).


  35. Hi Pete, a starting point for a career as a professional economist for a new graduate is an honours degree. If you were at the institution I am at would be able to advise you on the course that would provide an equivalent to this. The Graduate Certificate sounds like the equivalent to a starting point for this that we have though! The best thing to do is to chat with the course advisor or an interested lecturer who knows about the range of courses at Sydney as they will be able to tell you more about the best courses that will replicate this. In addition, because you have previous experience there might be other options available (particularly for combining work (after or while completing the certificate) and study – I know of at least one student here who did this) and so another thing to think about is to chat with anyone working in the field that you know or join the local branch of the Economics Society as this would be a good place to get to meet and chat with active economists in the public and private sectors.


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