Thinking of Pursuing a PhD in Economics? Info on Graduate School and Beyond

Becoming a PhD economist can provide a fulfilling and financially secure career path. However, getting started in the field can be daunting if you don’t know much about the preparation you’ll need and the available job opportunities. If you’re wondering what it means to be an economics researcher or how to become one, please read on. We’ll review how to prepare for a career in economics research, what an economics PhD program entails, and what types of opportunities it might bring. Economic education is a core component of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s mission to serve the community. To empower would-be economists, this post provides information for students who seek a career in economics research. We hope this information will be helpful to students interested in economics, regardless of their background and economic situation.  This information is most applicable to students applying to programs in the United States.  

The Breadth of Economics Research 

Academic disciplines conduct research in different ways, so it’s important to have a basic understanding of the types of questions economists ask and how they approach answering them. There are many definitions of economics, but a broadly useful one is the study of how people, organizations, and governments make decisions under different constraints, and how those decisions may affect their outcomes. 

When answering these questions, economists seek to ground their analyses in models and to be quantitatively precise about the effects they assign to any given cause. The range of topics economists can study is wide, but the accepted approaches to answering questions are stricter. Some examples of what economists might ask: 

  • How do different public housing programs affect the children who live there? 
  • Does a certain type of law encourage businesses to innovate? 
  • How will a change in the interest rate affect inflation and unemployment rates? 
  • How much does affordable health insurance improve people’s health? 
  • How can poor countries eradicate poverty? 

There are many different subfields within economics, including, but not limited to behavioral, econometrics, energy/environmental, development, financial, international, monetary, public, and urban economics. You can familiarize yourself with the latest work in economics by subscribing to working paper series, such as NBER’s New This Week or the New York Fed’s Staff Reports. To get an idea of the breadth of questions economists can answer, you could listen to Stephen Dubner’s “Freakonomics Radio” podcast. You may also want to explore the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the New York Fed’s Liberty Street Economics blog, VoxDev, or VoxEU.  

What Is a PhD Program Like?   

Economics PhD programs typically last five to seven years. Unlike masters programs, they are often fully funded with a stipend, though most require students to complete teaching assistant and/or research assistant (RA) work as part of their funding package. In the first two years, students take classes, many of which are mathematically demanding. The rest of the program can include additional classes but is primarily devoted to original research with the aim of producing publishable papers that will constitute the dissertation.  

Faculty advisors are a central part of PhD programs, as students look to them for guidance during the research process. Economics PhD programs are offered within university economics departments, but there are similar programs in public policy and business schools. You can look at their websites to understand any differences in coursework and subsequent job placements. 

What Can You Do with an Economics PhD? 

Upon graduation, students can obtain jobs in a variety of industries. Many PhD students hope to become university professors. Governments and public policy-related institutions such as the Federal Reserve System, the U.S. federal government, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also hire economists to work on policy, lead programs, and conduct research. Finally, economics PhD graduates can also find employment at a variety of private sector companies, including banks, economic consulting firms, and big tech companies. The pay for these different positions can vary. According to the American Economics Association (AEA), the average starting salary for economics assistant professors in 2022-23 was approximately $140,000 at PhD granting institutions and $98,000 at BA granting institutions. 

Programs often publish the placements of their PhD graduates, so you can look online to see specific employment outcomes. See, for example, the University of Maryland’s placements. Ultimately, economists are highly regarded as authorities on a variety of topics. Governments, nonprofits, philanthropic foundations, financial institutions, and non-financial businesses all look to economists to answer important questions about how to best achieve their goals. Thus, earning an economics Ph.D. can potentially help you to influence issues that are important to you. 

Preparing for an Economics PhD Program 

There are several components to an economics PhD program application: college transcripts, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and personal statements. Please download the Appendix linked below to learn more about transcripts and letters of recommendation. The Appendix details ways in which you can select coursework, obtain research experience, and develop relationships to position yourself for success as a PhD applicant.  

If you feel that you are too far along in your academic career to take enough of the classes described in the Appendix, this does not necessarily preclude you from pursuing an economics PhD. For example, it’s possible to take some of these classes through a master’s program, or through a pre-doctoral RA job. Some pre-doctoral RA jobs, such as the one here at the New York Fed, may enable you to take classes in preparation for graduate school. If you are concerned about your transcript, reach out to an economist at your university for advice; program standards for coursework and grades vary, and it’s a good idea to get more personalized advice. 

Research Experience  

If you’re interested in becoming an economics researcher and applying to PhD programs, it’s best to get research experience as soon as possible. Working as an RA is a great way to learn how to conduct research and get a better idea of whether it’s the right career path for you. Additionally, it can help you obtain a letter of recommendation for graduate school applications and improve your qualifications.  

All types of academic research can be enriching, but it’s beneficial to gain experience working directly with an economist. To find a position, you can reach out to professors whose work you find interesting or find an RA program at your school. Typical RA tasks may involve data collection and cleaning, as well as running analyses and creating charts to represent results. This is where coding skills become crucial; having taken math, statistics, and econometrics courses will also enable you to take on more responsibilities. 

You may also have the opportunity to conduct your own research, possibly under the supervision of a professor at your university. This research could be self-initiated or part of a course such as a thesis workshop. Self-directed research is a great opportunity to learn about all stages of the research process. It’s also an excellent opportunity to create a writing sample for graduate school applications. Ultimately, though, your motivation for conducting your own research project should be that you want to answer a question.  One thing economists have in common is a love of answering questions using data and theory. 

Research experience is also often obtained after completing an undergraduate or master’s degree. Taking on a full-time RA position before applying to PhD programs is very common and can make you a more competitive applicant. You may either get an RA job working for a professor or participate in a pre-doctoral RA program.  

Research assistant programs are more structured than positions with individual professors or projects, which could be helpful. Universities, parts of the government, think tanks, research organizations, and the Federal Reserve System are all good places to look for research assistant programs. To help you decide which opportunities are most desirable, you may want to ask potential employers: Where do people in this program tend to go afterward? Will I be working directly with an economist? How much of my time will be spent on academic research work? Will I be able to take classes as part of this program? Considering whether an economist will be able to evaluate your performance is an important factor for recommendation letters. The ability to take classes, either through tuition reimbursement or waivers, can also be an important benefit. 

The Research Analyst program here at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York is one example of these programs and you should check it out here. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors also has a large program, and many other regional Federal Reserve Banks have similar programs. In addition, the PREDOC website and the NBER post listings of RA opportunities. J-PAL and IPA also tend to recruit RAs for economic development projects. Another source of RA opportunities is the @econ_ra account on X. 

Who Should Get a PhD in Economics? 

A PhD may not be for everyone, but it is for anyone—people of all genders, religions, ethnicities, races, and national origins have PhDs in economics. Many economists majored in economics, but others majored in math, physics, or chemistry. Because economics is such an integral part of policymaking, it is important that economists come from a wide range of backgrounds so policy can be stronger and more effective. The inclusion of differing perspectives helps ensure that the contribution of economists to work in public policy, academia, and beyond effectively serves the broadest range of society. 

Kasey Chatterji-Len is a research analyst in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.

Anna Kovner is the director of Financial Stability Policy Research in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.

How to cite this post:
Kasey Chatterji-Len and Anna Kovner, “Thinking of Pursuing a PhD in Economics? Info on Graduate School and Beyond,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York Liberty Street Economics, May 31, 2024,

The views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author(s).

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