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Time to give up?
April 22, 2010 4:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm 24 and I already have an undergraduate degree. Now I want to study something completely different: economics. Turns out it's a little trickier than I first thought [rant inside]

Hey MeFites,

I've been a big fan metafilter and always enjoyed reading your advice given to other people. Now I need your help!

Anyway, the story is this:

I went to high school in Australia and did really well (top 5%.) At the time I didn't really like maths and the school system allowed me to drop it in favour of advanced humanities subjects … big mistake.

Anyway I went on to do a very competitive double-Bachelor of Arts that took 5 years. In this time I more or less realised that the course content wasn't for me and I wanted something more empirical … and, y'know, the prospect of actually getting a job one day.

So I decided to get into economics. Economics appeals to me because of its intellectual rigour, potential for high paying jobs and broad applicability.

I'm living in London now so I went ahead and started researching degrees in the UK. At first I thought about doing a PG Dip at somewhere like Warwick or Nottingham in order to get into an MSc. Turns out I'm pretty much screwed without A-level maths…

Okay, what about doing a second bachelor's? Well it turns out in order to get into a decent bachelor's degree, I need A-level maths too. And the only way I can justify spending another 4 years of my life studying is if I'm going to a good uni that'll look nice on my CV (and getting a good education too …)

There appear to be standalone A-level maths courses out there, but how much is too much? I mean, I'm 24 now. How much time am I going to have to invest in order to get into an economics program at a top 10 uni? Doing A-levels and then a BSc? Can I deal with the indignity of studying among a bunch of spotty teens?

After today's run-in with reality I'm beginning to wonder whether it's worth my time and energy making the transition to economics. Perhaps I'd be better off going into law or business - at least those I can get into without going back to high school!

What are my options here? Is there something I've overlooked? Are there perhaps decent universities in other countries (anything but Australia!) that don't expect you to be Professor McMaths in the first year? Is a career in economics worth me spending all of my 20s studying? (which isn't so bad - I like studying and I've got enough money - but what about the ol' CV?) Am I catastrophising this?

Thanks for reading my rant. I'm feeling very lost right now. Any advice would be appreciated.
posted by Zen_is_Lev to Education (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Economics is a heavily quantitative subject. (Some people argue that this is to its detriment.)

I don't know how you would pursue a graduate program in economics without a strong math background.
posted by dfriedman at 4:51 PM on April 22, 2010

Why economics? You want a job, but there are plenty of credentials that lead to well-paying jobs that don't require A level maths. Do you truly have a passion for economics or are you just looking for a paycheque? (no judgment intended, nothing wrong with wanting to pay the bills and live comfortably). If you just want a credential, there are easier ways to get one.
posted by sid at 5:39 PM on April 22, 2010

Economics is actually incredibly math based. While many ideas are intuitive but at any decent university, they will force you to learn the math behind it. At my school (University of Chicago), the absolute minimum amount of math you can do and still get a degree in economics includes up to linear algebra, multivariable calculus, and econometrics. In your first year of studying economics, you do not have to be a complete math whiz yet, but they expect you to be taking calculus concurrently. The department still encourages you to take even more advanced math classes too along with statistics.

That said, math is important. However, if you do decide to pursue economics, it will definitely be well worth it. A friend of mine is graduating a year early this year because he was offered a job that would put his salary, when bonuses are included, in the low-6 digit range straight out of undergrad. My brother's in the same boat there and he did economics too!
posted by astapasta24 at 5:52 PM on April 22, 2010

For perspective, I looked at the admission requirements for the Masters program in Economics at University of Houston:
"To be considered for admission, each applicant must meet the following pre-requisites:

  • have been awarded a baccalaureate degree from an accredited institution and have maintained at least a 3.00 GPA (A=4.00) over all course work attempted

  • have maintained at least a 3.0 GPA in the most recent 60 semester hours of undergraduate course work attempted and have completed the following pre-requisite courses: ECON 3332 Intermediate Microeconomics, ECON 3334 Intermediate Macroeconomics, ECON 4365 Introduction to Econometrics and MATH 1431 Calculus I or MATH 1314 Calculus for Business and Social Science.

  • have taken the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and received a minimum score of 1000

  • All above pre-requisite courses in Economics will be offered in the spring semester as well as the first 6 week summer session of 2010. See the Math department schedule for calculus course availability.

    Please note that this is a full time day only program during the fall and spring semester. The program begins with a single preparatory course in the second 6 week session of the first summer. We intend to schedule all fall and spring semester courses in the program for MWF to allow flexibility in your weekly personal and/or job schedule The program concludes with a 6 hour thesis or internship in the second summer."
    So, maybe try a university in the US?
    posted by Houstonian at 5:55 PM on April 22, 2010

    If you are just working off websites or course guides, trying ringing the admissions people at the universities. Their job is to let you know how to get in. Chances are if they will let you in if you take a couple extra undergraduate math papers or something as long as you are strong in other areas.
    posted by scodger at 6:20 PM on April 22, 2010

    If it interests you, American public policy programs are often very econ focused but geared toward people without substantial econ background. (I will be starting one next fall)
    posted by ropeladder at 6:47 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

    I'm an American, so I don't understand the British system, but I do teach and have a PhD in Econ. I agree with the above advice, the first year of PhD Econ grad school is 95% math. I advised an Econ major, who had taken no math not to try to do econ grad school and to look for something similar bur with less math. At this point it will be a long slong through math to get you to Econ. Really to do econ you have to like using math, graphs, and stats to look at things. You can do a lot of the same things but with less math oriented tools in Public Policy, Public Health, International Development Studies, and the like.
    posted by akabobo at 7:13 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

    Zen_is_Lev: "There appear to be standalone A-level maths courses out there, but how much is too much? I mean, I'm 24 now. How much time am I going to have to invest in order to get into an economics program at a top 10 uni? Doing A-levels and then a BSc? Can I deal with the indignity of studying among a bunch of spotty teens? "

    If you have the talent needed for a bachelor's in maths at a top UK university, you could easily blast through A Level Maths in a few months and crammers, private tutors or self study allow you to avoid the "indignity" of studying with people younger than you. No decent university will let you in without a strong Maths background - preferably As at Further Maths.
    posted by turkeyphant at 7:24 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

    I'm not sure you'd want to head to the States for education, given how much it will probably cost, but ....

    As I understand it, universities here are much more flexible, when it comes to admission requirements, especially for graduate school. However - if you just call up universities in the UK, you might be pleasantly surprised. Can't hurt.

    I'm in a different (but highly-technical field), and switched majors between undergrad and grad school. I think that, often, undergrad winds up being a "explore/find what you're interested in"-type experience, and grad school is where you specialize. So - if you can explain why you're interested in economics with a passion, and convince them that you have what it takes to succeed, your non-traditional background may not hurt. You'll also need excellent reference letters - these matter more than anything else.

    FWIW - I was also worried about not having met the prerequisites, but pretty much everybody I talked to told me to apply anyway. I got into plenty of excellent schools. The (top-10) department I wound up at basically said that it was up to me to determine how much catching up (if any) I needed to do, and that they'd give me plenty of rope to hang myself with.

    That said, it would be a horrible idea to start studying econ without first making sure you can stomach the math. You can do this by disciplined self-study, distance-learning courses, or community college (if there's a UK equivalent - or if you're loaded, do a gap year and take CC courses here ...). I'd recommend getting all the way through - and really understanding - Freshman Calculus. I don't know what's covered in the Australian system, so I can't guess how far beyond your current math knowledge this is. Whatever you decide to do, make sure to mention it on your applications!
    posted by Metasyntactic at 7:30 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

    If you think that you can hack the maths, it's possible for you to enter masters Economics programs in the USA/Canada without an undergrad BA in the same field.

    A BA in Econ won't get you much, whereas a masters will. If you think that you can deal with the math, apply for positions in Econ MAs.

    I have a good buddy who did something random for his BA, went to UToronto for a MA in Econ, got jobs with the Canadian gov. Got experience there, thinking of leaving for the private sector.
    posted by porpoise at 7:36 PM on April 22, 2010

    George Mason University near Washington DC is known for having a less-mathy Economics grad program.
    posted by Jacqueline at 8:46 PM on April 22, 2010

    You could try the History of Economics department at the LSE - might be more up your alley.
    posted by awesomebrad at 8:48 PM on April 22, 2010

    I mean, I'm 24 now. ... Can I deal with the indignity of studying among a bunch of spotty teens?

    I'm 27 and working on my first undergrad degree, in Civil/Geotechnical Engineering, in other words I'm taking a lot of math classes.

    I'm generally the oldest in my classes (not just math) by the better part of a decade.

    Nobody gives a shit, and most importantly, neither do i.
    posted by fore at 9:22 PM on April 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

    I hear you - thanks to the Aussie school system I had to drop science and now I want to work in public health I am really feeling the lack of a biology A-level equivalent. That said, it's not impossible to get into PH courses and I've got my name down for a few that do require science but my work/life experience has got me past that hurdle. So I second talking to those running the course.

    And seconding fore - nobody gives a toss about your age at uni! Go for it!
    posted by ozgirlabroad at 10:02 PM on April 22, 2010

    Nthing Metasyntactic - if you contact universities, they might really be flexible, considering that you already have a degree and meet the criteria for a "mature student" (which in the UK includes everyone over the age of 21, so don't be alarmed;) The admissions requirements for a masters are there as a guideline only, if you manage to prove you have relevant alternative experience, they might take you on even if you miss out on the magical A-levels and what not.

    Another thing to consider in terms of getting the maths prerequisites - not so much for admission purposes, but to make life easier for yourself once you do get the degree, are the Open University courses - you could go for the Diploma in Economics or any of their intro maths courses to brush up on your skills before you say go to a masters: I'm currently doing a diploma in statistics with OU so might be biased, but absolutely love it and the best thing is that you can fit it around work, which I'm doing as a full-time academic researcher.

    Finally, have you considered Birkbeck and their Graduate Diploma in economics? - looks like it's tailor-made for you!
    posted by coffee_monster at 2:04 AM on April 23, 2010

    I don't have the details, but I have a friend who has an undergraduate in music, took a lot of extension school math classes here and then ended up going to BU for a masters in economics and then a 2nd one in Finance. I think so, anyway.
    posted by sully75 at 3:26 AM on April 23, 2010

    The best advice I can offer is to contact the school of economics, and tell them your background, and see what they would suggest in order for you to be considered. That's exactly what I did, and led me to do the perfect course for me to get into, in the end, Nottingham. Totally different field to you, but same advice applies. If you do have to go and get A level maths, there are a few correspondence courses you can do it via, so you don't have to go to school with kiddies.

    Oh, and I would absolutely recommend Nottingham :-)
    posted by nunoidia at 5:49 AM on April 23, 2010

    Economics appeals to me because of its intellectual rigour, potential for high paying jobs and broad applicability.

    I get the impression that before commiting to anything you should interview or intern people who work in economics-y things and make sure you really know how they spend their time, what they are earning, and how the job outlook is faring in their domain.

    (I am not an economist, but I took a lot of econ classes for one of those policy degrees mentioned up-thread. Policy may indeed be a good place to look for an alternative direction.)
    posted by whatzit at 12:59 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

    If you decide to switch to law, you should see whether your BA qualifies you for the GDL. I'd imagine it would. It's essentially a one year course where the seven core subjects are taught. It's how non-law undergrads get into law (so you don't need to do a three year course at uni). The GDL is offered by loads of providers - City Law School and BPP being the main two in London, but you can Google around.

    However, I would recommend against financing it yourself and hoping to find a job,

    Your route would be to apply for a vac scheme (or better, apply to lots, do two or three - unlike banking, they tend to only be two weeks long) with a law firm (or just apply for a training contract, but it would be hard to show that you're drawn to law without any relevant experience). On the back of the vac scheme, you'd get an interview with that/other law firm(s), and then a training contract offer. Which would mean that they would pay your GDL and LPC course fees, and also give you a maintenance grant. The downside of this is that you'd have to wait a year - you apply for vac schemes over Christmas to do them in the summer (but check firm websites for non-law application dates, they might be different).
    posted by djgh at 6:34 AM on April 24, 2010

    Wow ... so much awesome advice. This is why I love metafilter!

    Thanks everyone. I was clearly letting myself be blinkered by what I read on university websites and the like.

    @sid & whatzit: Admittedly I'm still examining my motives for wanting to study economics. The paycheck certainly has a lot to do with it. But one of my biggest fears is being stuck in a job that doesn't stimulate me. I found the menial administrative tasks that I had to do in internships mind-numbingly boring. I figured a 'profession' (i.e. something you more or less need a postgraduate degree to do) would be better, in that I'd be called on to use skills I'd acquired and, y'know, my brain. I tend to enjoy things with a high degree of abstraction anyway.

    I'll check out policy too. I'm embarrassed to say that I hadn't looked into it at all...
    posted by Zen_is_Lev at 9:57 PM on April 25, 2010

    Note: my answers apply to the US, but I understand that the "economics profession" works this way around the world. Caveat emptor and all that.

    Careers in "economics" are extremely broad, so you should nail down what work specifically interests you. There are public, private, and academic economists, and each area has unique responsibilities.

    As an academic economist you will mainly publish research. Teaching college courses will be secondary, but you mainly want to publish so you can obtain tenure or some kind of job security. The majority of economists are academics...I'd guess about 60-75%. You must have a PhD in Economics to work as an academic.

    As a public-sector economist you will (probably) on policy. Publishing research isn't as important here; instead, your research will support various policy decisions and you'll also analyze various proposals. You don't need a PhD to become a public-sector economist. Pay is the lowest of the three, but you're getting great benefits. I'd guess about 15-25% of all economists work in the public sector.

    Finally, private-sector economists are involved in a variety of projects. Policy analysis and research are both expected here. You get paid VERY well in the private-sector (best out of the three), but you'll work longer hours and have fewer resources available. About 10-15% of economists work for private companies.

    There are also micro/macro distinctions -- Freakonomics-type work is microeconomic research, while analyzing economies and policy decisions are usually macroeconomic-based. If you're interested in microeconomic questions you'll have to do so in an academic setting--public and private institutions don't care for micro.

    If you have any other questions, feel free to message me.
    posted by achompas at 1:03 PM on April 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

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