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Economics | Plan Your PhD

There are several different types of programs that offer the PhD in Economics. Choosing the right one for you is not always easy and will take research and some soul-searching. If reading this page does not dissuade you from pursuing your PhD, make an appointment soon to talk to your favorite economics professor.

What can a person with a PhD in Economics do? Almost anything. The world is run by PhDs in Economics. Well, that’s a little bit of an overstatement, but not that much.


PhD economists are employed in research, policy development, policy evaluation, and regulation in the public sector in many state and federal agencies, including (but not limited to) the

Department of Treasury

Department of Commerce

Department of the Interior

Department of Labor

Department of Education

Agencies within the cabinet-level departments employ economists—for example, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Census Bureau all have large numbers of PhD economists on staff. The Federal Reserve Board and Banks employ economists in both research and regulation.

PhD economists are employed in a wide variety of positions in the NGO/non-profit sector at think tanks, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

PhD economists are employed in the private sector in business and consulting, doing a very wide range of jobs.

And, of course, with a PhD in Economics you can teach and do research at a college or university.

The graduates of the PhD program in economics at American University mainly work in government agencies in the U.S. or in their countries of origin and in NGOs. A relatively small number of AU PhDs hold academic positions in colleges and universities, especially at schools where a heterodox (not exclusively a mainstream economic) approach is appreciated.

Admission Criteria

The criteria for admission to economics programs are straightforward. They will ask:

(1) How high is your quantitative score on the GRE?

(2) How good are your recommendations?

(3) How thoroughly do you understand advanced mathematics?

PhD study in economics requires training in mathematics that goes well beyond what is necessary for the BS or MA in Economics. Three semesters of calculus plus linear algebra (MATH-310) are the bare minimum. That’s minimum. Students without terrific grades in these math courses should not expect admission to most PhD programs. Top PhD programs require proof-construction and courses using math in applied work (including graduate courses in economics or technical courses in other related fields).

The BS in Mathematics & Economics is designed to begin to prepare you for PhD-level work in Economics, among other fields. If don't have enough time before graduation to complete this major, aim to complete including three semesters of calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, and proof construction (MATH-503).

If you didn't do well in calculus or think it was fun, neither an MA or a PhD in economics is right for you. You should consider taking your love of the economic way of thinking and your interest in economic questions into professional study (such as a Masters in Public Policy, Public Administration, or Business Administration). Development studies programs and area studies programs are also good choices for many AU undergrads who enjoyed economics courses but did not enjoy formal mathematics.

Top-ranked PhD programs attract applications from around the world, including from schools where the offerings of technical courses are far broader than they are at AU or similar schools. While AU alums have recently admitted to the University of California at San Diego and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, all well-prepared AU students should apply to a wide range of programs. Recent alums have done well at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University, for example.  

A final word on graduate programs and money: most undergraduate students are aware that professional programs (law, medicine, social work, business administration, etc.) are expensive. A PhD program, however, is a little different. Most PhD programs in economics (and many other disciplines) offer fellowships and assistantships. A fellowship is when you get paid a stipend to go to school; being a student is your job. An assistantship is a job at the university (usually in your department) helping with teaching or research. Fellowships and assistantships generally come with tuition waivers. That is, when you choose a PhD program for which you are adequately prepared, you should incur no major direct costs. (Sizable opportunity cost still exists. Fellowships and assistantships, even including a tuition waiver, are not likely to be in the neighborhood of the salary you will forgo for the joy of study.)

In general, if you are admitted to a PhD program, but the program does not make an offer of a fellowship or an assistantship, you should consider it a signal that you are one of the weaker students admitted to the program. There are important exceptions, however. Some of the most highly ranked programs (for example, the University of Chicago) do not provide funding for first-year graduate students, no matter how promising the student may seem. Students who do very well in the first year are offered funding for the second year. Many programs offer only small assistantships to first year students, so they have “skin in the game”. Again, more funding is often available later for students who excel in the first year.

Graduate School

This Planning for Grad School presentation and podcast includes information on all of the options, including how to pay for grad school and what to do now to prepare.

If you are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in economics, read the articles in this newsletter, which includes a description of the admissions process at a top PhD granting university.

The American Economic Association also put together this informational video, titled "A career in Economics ... it's much more than you think." The film makes an effort to dispel entrenched misconceptions about who economists are and what they do.

Learn More