Answers about majoring in econ.

I contacted four of my former students regarding the questions in the previous post. Here’s what I sent them:

“A few of my students have asked about majoring in economics (what sort of careers are open to them, what sort of coursework does it entail, what sort of master’s work can it lead to, what would be an ideal minor, what if I’m not so good at math, blah blah blah). I gave them some answers, and offered to put them in touch with former students of mine who’ve majored in econ. That’s you. May I give them your email/facebook address? Or would you mind answering some of the above questions so I can pass the info along?”

And here are their responses so far:

From Former Student 1:

yeah id be happy to help them out! feel free to have them email me […] as for those questions, ill try to give general answers: Careers – Usually it depends on degree level and program. Most of the econ majors I know have gone into a variety of business positions (management, marketing, etc). The finance industry is very receptive of bachelors in econ grads. A masters and PhD degree open you up to a variety of economist positions and research analyst positions. Econ course work is becoming more mathematical, especially with new models being developed after the recession. Course work is broken down my macro, micro and mathematical econ (econometrics, math econ etc). I was terrible at math, but now I really enjoy it so im sure if a student isnt good at math, they can learn the skills (especially since its put in the econ setting which is exciting). as for the ideal minor, that usually depends on the individual’s preference. Some do political science, some statistics, some finance. It all depends on where you want to be after the program. And tell them theyre making an awesome decision if they major in economics, yet as a grad student preparing for a final tomorrow, it requires some sleepless nights, being considered the nerd on campus, and studying on Friday nights.

From Former Student 2:

Definitely! […] I’ve written some answers to some of those questions before, I’ll forward that along when I find it. Honestly, after all of my classes so far, if they want to become an economist, majoring in math and computer science is much more useful than a major in econ. A minor in econ would suffice as long as you read stuff on the side. But the most useful classes to what I’m working on currently are probability, linear algebra, and micro theory.

Forwarded answer from Former Student 2:

The following responses are more geared towards the students interested in an econ Ph.D. program and careers that result from that.

A little bit about me (so you can see my biases): Currently a Junior at [some lame university that isn’t Clemson] majoring in Mathematics and Economics with a minor in History. I started as a History and Business Econ major, after working as a research assistant (RA) and taking more math, I decided to try and become an academic and my goal is to get an economics professorship at a research university. I work as a research assistant and an undergrad TA.

Careers : What can’t be a career? You can do anything with economics. I think it’s an excellent door opener. I know people who currently work as: actuaries, investment bankers, working on econ Ph.D., and a transfer agent. Research economist, you get to become a complete expert in your niche, you’re always learning higher level stuff, the downsides include long hours, working in isolation (even when you’re part of a research group), and you need a high tolerance for setbacks and rejection.

Coursework (personally, I believe that the following list of courses will open the most doors. The following should allow you to pursue graduate level econ, grad work in any other social science, make you a very attractive job applicant, and teach you to “think like an economist.”):

  • Principles, Intermediate, and Advanced Microeconomic Theory (some schools call it Price Theory)
  • Principles and Intermediate Macroeconomic Theory. Feel free to take more macro courses if you wish, but since macro varies so much from school to school, what you learn in undergrad may very well be the polar opposite of what you end up using.
  • Econometrics
  • Game Theory
  • Math: Bare minimum: Calc I-III (don’t take business calc, I can tell you more about this if you wish since I’m a business calc TA.), linear algebra, intro to proofs, probability, statistics
  • If you want econ grad school, take the above and these: real analysis (this is the big one, if you had to take a class that wasn’t already listed above, take real analysis!!!), topology , differential equations (this stuff is trivial, it’s not necessary per se, but important enough to get mentioned) http://www.urch.com/forums/phd-economics/
  • Try not to take “Mathematical Economics,” I hear these courses tend to be watered down mathematics. See http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2006/05/which-math-courses.html
  • If you want law school, take the “Law and Econ” elective and ask some professors or your academic advisor about a pre-law track for econ.
  • Any class you find interesting! I believe that you should take a class with professors who are experts in their fields, ones that know what they’re doing. You can pick up a lot of stuff on your own, you can do that whenever. But you won’t have another chance to take a class with Professor XYZ if you pass up the opportunity. Plus it could lead to extremely valuable career advice and mentoring.
  • If you’re considering applied economics or economics, take some computer science courses. I don’t really have any advice on that since I haven’t taken any and everyone I know learned it on their own (they, like me, figured out that comp sci is needed for econ too late). But something on data mining, programming, and software would be helpful.

Master’s work: I personally know/have heard of students who have gone into: econ, math, computer science, physics, history, political science, public policy, law, Russian, accounting, international business, and finance.
Econ is extremely versatile.

Ideal minor: Math, Computer Science, or Econ.

What if I’m not good at math? Allow me to refer you to what I’ve been referred to several times:

Now some advice and a personal story. At Paxon I hated math and science; I was convinced I couldn’t differentiate even the most basic equations. I can pin-point the exact moment at Paxon that made me despise math (it was in Algebra II). But now, I love it! I took business calc my first semester at [some lame university that isn’t Clemson], when I was told I needed real math to become an economist I was scared. But there was no other route. Luckily my Calc 1 professor hated teaching undergrad so she made the class extremely difficult (no other Calc 1 prof wanted students to write proofs on exams!) and I saw what higher level math was like and I love it.

What I’m trying to say is that you’re probably not “not good at math,” you’re just approaching it with the wrong attitude and inefficient study habits. It’s not entirely how many hours you put into studying; it’s about how you spend those hours. Don’t be afraid to fail!

Let me close with a quote from John Maynard Keynes:

“… the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher–in some degree.  He must understand symbols and speak in words.  He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought.  He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future.  No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.”

From Former Student 3:

I’d be happy to answer those questions! […] There are a lot of careers open to Econ majors, depending on what you want to do. Yo can use it as a foundation for international relations, politics, law school – which is what I’m doing – and go in with an understanding of why and how the country runs the way it does and how the economy is so integrated with legislation. You can go on to graduate school in economics and end up doing research; I know someone who is getting a PhD in Economics, and is just doing studies with his professors, some of his recent work relates to the effects of incarceration crime rates on the economy, and the wealth gap. You can also teach, at whatever level. And economics is just knowledge that is useful always, regardless of the field you end up in. The coursework at [some other lame university that isn’t Clemson] is all I can talk about with any confidence in what I’m saying. You need to take Principles of Micro and Macro (which can be covered with AP Micro and AP Macro), Intermediate Micro and Macro – neither of which are that difficult, but that could be because I enjoy what I’m learning. And then you need to take upper division electives to complete the major requirements. There are a lot of opportunities for research or volunteering to help professors here with their research, which doesn’t necessarily have to be in Economics. A minor with Economics could be Business, or you can double major with Economics pretty easily. And it’s not that math intensive, though you will basic calculus. […] I hope what I’ve written has answered the questions, somehow at least. I hope I’ve helped at least a little!

This is why I teach: so others will write my blog posts for me.

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