Economic Woman

Econometrics, gender, equity and more.

Advice for Economics Undergraduates

with 9 comments

Economics bloggers have posted a lot of advice for graduate students and young faculty, but not much for undergraduate students interested in economics. I’m something of an undergraduate expert – now heading into year five, I’ve studied at two different universities on two different continents: the University of Toronto and the University of Edinburgh.

This advice is written with a younger me in mind. I’m thinking of students who are motivated and looking for a challenge, but perhaps not quite sure where they want to end up.

1. Take more math

In high school, I enjoyed and excelled in math. But when I decided to pursue social science in university, I figured a bit of statistics was all I could make time for. In first year, I wanted to take Linear Algebra as an elective, but I held off. Now I know that a few tough quantitative courses look great on your transcript, even if you’re a history major. I should have had more confidence in my unusual interests – as it happens, a late switch to economics means that I do need that linear algebra course, so four years later, I’m picking it up over the summer.

2. Be interdisciplinary

If you go on to graduate school, studying outside your discipline will be nearly impossible. That’s too bad, because the best academics often draw on more than one area. This is your chance. Pick up some intro classes in political science, sociology, biology, or psychology; you’ll experience a different world view, and one day that background might make you a more innovative economist.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask

Don’t be afraid to ask professors to waive prerequisites or make room for you in a full course. At some universities and in some departments, profs are happy to make exceptions for bright, motivated students interested in their work. In later years, don’t be afraid to ask a favourite professor to do a reading course or independent study project with you. Don’t be afraid to ask counselling or psych services for help if you’re overwhelmed. Unless you’re rude, you won’t end up any worse off.

4. Talk to your professors

One day, you will need references from these people. Make sure they remember you. Approach them at the end of class or during office hours with an insightful question or a relevant magazine article. Ask for further reading on something that interests you. Good professors wish they could spend less time answering stupid questions (“Will this be on the test?”) and more time chatting about ideas with their students.

5. Switch majors (if you want to)

An extra year might feel like a long time right now, but over your lifetime, it’s nothing. Program switching can be taken too far – eventually you do want to pack up and graduate – but in moderation, it’s a small price to pay for a degree you can actually use. Don’t assume that scholarships and bursaries can’t be extended – it doesn’t hurt to ask.

6. Make time for other things

If you go to graduate school, you won’t have time for most extracurriculars. Again, this is your chance. University is about more than linear algebra. Take some time to build social networks and explore your interests.

Now it’s your turn. What have I missed?


Written by Allison

14 May 2008 at 11:11 pm

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9 Responses

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  1. All excellent suggestions! I’d add that students should get some work experience – do an internship, especially if your school offers course credit for doing one. It’s not only a great way to try out a company or job, but if you decide you like either, you’ve already got your foot in the door. While employers look for a solid academic record, relevant work experience or a recommendation from someone already in the company is often worth a lot more. Even if you are thinking about graduate school, you should try to work in the real world at some point – actually, if you are thinking about grad school, I think it’s even more important to take a year off and go work first. Not only do you need the break (grad school sucks and a lot of people drop out because they are simply burnt out on school), but if you end up staying in academia your whole life, you will have more credibility with your students in the future if you have some work experience.


    15 May 2008 at 10:02 am

  2. Excellent advice for economics undergrads. Excellent advice for all undergrads. I’m going to share it with my students. I’m sure most will ignore it, but occasionally there will be one whose life is made much better by your ideas.

    James Hanley

    15 May 2008 at 5:36 pm

  3. As an scientist who double-majored in economics, and briefly toyed with the idea of econ grad school (for about 2 seconds), I think there are some good points here. Especially the first.

    I did not take linear algebra until my senior year — and immediately wished I had taken it in my freshman year! How much it would have helped in differential equations, vector calculus, and most of all, in econometrics!! If I could go back in time to re-schedule my coursework that would be on the top of my list.

    For the life of me I can’t understand why they made linear algebra a 400-level (senior level) course! Can anyone explain that?

    C Brown

    16 May 2008 at 5:39 pm

  4. No idea – at U of T it’s a 200-level course, with no university-level prerequisites, so you could take it in first year if you could get a spot and felt inclined. I think most students put it off a year or two though.


    16 May 2008 at 5:43 pm

  5. Wait, Allison, are you from University of Toronto (U of T)? If so, ahhhhhh finally somebody from my school who blogs!


    16 May 2008 at 10:47 pm

  6. Happy that you mentioned the importance of interdisciplinary studies as well.

    Critical theory-postmodernism is an/one interesting theory. Check it out.

    Here is my take on the interdisciplinary nature of economics.

    Alex M Thomas

    18 May 2008 at 6:46 am

  7. As someone who deeply considered going for a PhD in economics, I of course consider myself an expert, perhaps wrongly…

    Point 1 is well-publicized on any graduate school entrance guide but woefully under-emphasized by undergraduate advisors and even econ professors. You will not have a chance at the top graduate programs without sufficient math background. A double major is probably the best thing you can do for yourself.

    Point 2 I disagree with, with a caveat. Of course you should take the time to enrich yourself, and if you are interested in social science there are many texts that might be considered required.. but if your intent is to become a researcher in economics, you should focus your coursework on classes that are directly relevant, where your grade will show an aptitude for further study. An A in political science 101 won’t mean much to graduate admissions officers, whereas a solid performance in another math or statistics class would be better. You also don’t want to end up like me, getting an A- in an intro philosophy class because you didn’t feel like showing up to all the pointless lectures and getting docked for attendance.

    As far as not knowing what field you really want to be working in, you will be severely disadvantaged in the admissions process if you didn’t make your mind up until late (I was).

    Zac Gochenour

    20 May 2008 at 1:55 pm

  8. Great post. And I agree with much of what was said by Jennifer and Zac.

    An internship during the summer, especially during your early undergraduate years (right after freshmen year) can be extremely helpful. You’ll get a better sense of your preferences. And, if you have academic inclinations, it can help you see that. That’ll help you plan the rest of your undergraduate courses if it really seems like a PHD program is in your future.

    Regarding Zac’s comments…

    You’re absolutely right that an A in philosophy won’t mean much to an admissions committee for a PHD in economics. But from my experience an A- or a B won’t matter too much either. They just totally discount those grades entirely.

    The things that seem to matter to admissions committee for top econ programs are:

    1) Recommendations (you need to have rec’s from people who do serious economics research)
    2) Research expereinces/publications (this can tie in with the first)
    3) Math courses and grades in those courses

    At a certain level, your GPA is almost completely meaningless except to the extent which it reflects your math grades. If you have a 3.5 and all As in math, that’s really about the same to them as a 4.0 and all As in math.

    Why do I say this?

    Because I’ve seen quite a few people get into top programs with totally subpar overall undergraduate grades, great recommendations and great research experience. I’ve also seen people with Phi Beta Kappa and 4.0s get into mediocre programs because they lack research or recommendations that are impressive.

    For the best results in the PHD game, you really need to have all three of the bases above covered.

    This is pretty hard for most undergraduates outside the Ivy League where research is rare. If you can’t get attached to a professor who actually publishes, you’re going to find it extremely tough to get into a top program. Great grades are not sufficient for entry to a top program. A few bad or mediocre grades also won’t keep you out (unless it’s in a key quantitative course like econometrics or analysis).


    21 May 2008 at 1:15 pm

  9. Coming a bit late to the party but from a UK perspective references from an economics researcher who publishes aren’t quite so necessary. You don’t need an economics background at all, but what you need to survive (if not to get in at all) is a strong mathematical background. Of course the econ background helps an awful lot, but on my course we have people from a range of disciplines (maths, physics, engineering, international development, finance, philosophy).

    I recommend taking at least one maths/stats/econometrics course a year while you’re an undergrad if you want to go on to grad level economics, and if you’re serious about a career as an academic economist, I’d do all the quantitative units I could (I regret not taking some during my first degree). And even if you don’t, it’ll look great to employers (certainly in the UK everyone moans that graduates aren’t numerate enough).

    I think Econ departments look on philosophy quite kindly, although it probably depends what kind. Econ departments are interested in logical rigour, and philosophy can provide plenty of that.

    Harriet (aka geekyisgood)

    24 March 2010 at 2:16 pm

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