Creating a Career Plan: Becoming an Economist

Ambitious students conduct research and develop plans for their undergraduate years to ensure that their careers and personal goals are met. Learning to write well and communicate effectively, along with securing meaningful recommendations from professors, are probably goals included in many plans. Yet, beyond setting goals, there are other reasons to plan. As Dwight Eisenhower noted, “plans are nothing, planning is everything.”  The action of planning, and the research it requires, unveils the requirements and paths to certain careers. This alone makes planning worth the effort.

How do you start? Let’s say your plan involves majoring in economics. You might first go to the College Board’s Careers and Majors site The site mentions recommended high school courses: AP Calculus AB and BC and, AP Microeconomics and Macroeconomics are all listed. (I was surprised that AP Statistics was not, but no list is perfect.)  The site then has a series of useful questions that a student would want to ask the economics departments of prospective colleges: do you offer both a BA and BS in economics? What is the math or foreign language requirement? Do you feature courses in specific areas of economics such as labor economics and public finance? The College Board site mentions major courses, related majors, and careers. It also provides you with a list of colleges with economics departments and allows you to compare your credentials with those of applicants recently admitted.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics also supplies information to get a better sense of what economists need to be successful. The Bureau highlights two significant points: aspiring economists who gain advanced degrees have the best prospects for advancement and strong quantitative skills are critical in all the economic specialties. These observations are borne out by a British website,   highlighting the most important qualities needed to gain a place in an elite graduate school in economics. This site notes that gaining research experience as an undergraduate is of utmost importance: “…the research experience serves as an excellent primer for the research that PhDs in economics are going to participate in for the rest of their lives.”  Next in importance is math. It’s probably better to major in math or statistics than economics as an undergraduate. (Does this conflict with what you’ve heard elsewhere? Fine, that’s the nature of research.) Economic theories and history can be readily picked up, but developing key math skills takes time. Lastly, obtaining stellar Letters of Recommendation (LOR) from faculty respected in the field are critical.

Another thing you might want to research, beyond the list supplied on the College Board site, is which undergraduate schools best prepare you for the rigors of a PhD in economics? The top five universities who produced the most students who eventually earned a PhD. in economics from a US graduate program, over the 5-year period of 1997-2002, were: Seoul National University, Harvard University, National Taiwan, University of Delhi, and UC Berkeley (Siegfried and Stock, The Undergraduate Origins of PhD Economists, 2007). If we ‘normalize top American sources of eventual economics PhDs’ (take the number of undergraduate economic degrees awarded by an institution and then figure out the number that eventually gained a PhD in economics) the top five, during the period 1997-2003, were: Illinois Wesleyan, Swarthmore, Bemidji State University (MN), Earlham College (IN), and Reed College . The process of planning and research certainly might uncover unexpected information. It does in this case.

Plan out your university years in light of whatever goals you might have. You might not ever look at the final plan again, but the effort of making a plan serves as a guide. If you don’t actually reach your loftiest goal, such as becoming a PhD in economics, falling short will still land you opportunities aplenty. It will certainly help you apply yourself to your studies with a greater passion. That, in itself, makes it worth the effort.