What do non-academic economists do?
February 28, 2012 10:05 AM   Subscribe

What is economics? What do non-academic economists do?

I am exploring a career change, and I would like to learn more about what economics specifically is like as a field, and what non-academic economists do.

I am currently working in public health research support, and I have a great deal of interest in the socio-economic side of the research I have been helping with (occupational structure, social and economic inequality) as well as in economic development in general. I have done research into economic development, but I do not have a background in economics at all.

I was wondering whether I would enjoy applied economic research (non-theoretical, non-academic), and I realize that I would have to do some serious re-training if I wanted to move into that field (about 8 semester-long courses, for a minimum, before applying for a masters). But I before I get seriously exploring that and wondering whether I can revive my calculus (had a A-, but it was 15 years ago) and master statistics, I wanted to find out whether there were any people here who might be able to tell me more about the work-world of non-academic economics.

(I keep saying non-academic, because I would be looking at only a masters at most, and because I am interested in working in analysis and policy research, but not theoretical research).

What kinds of organizations hire people with Masters in Economics?

What is the job market like - tight, normal, open?

What kinds of work do professional economists do - what kinds of questions do they look at? What kinds of skills do they tend to use most? Do they work closely with other people? Is there a place in professional economics to marry qualitative methods with the quantitative?

My interest would be in working for the government or a non-profit organization, and my particular interests are in economic development, occupational and social structure, relations between labour and capital, resource and agricultural development. These are issues I have studied before through historical methods of research.
posted by jb to Work & Money (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
[helpful answers to sincere questions please?]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:18 AM on February 28, 2012

Have you read Freakonomics? It's a bit controversial but it explores a lot of how economic theory can be used unsocial contexts.
posted by bitdamaged at 10:32 AM on February 28, 2012

You might be interested to look at a Masters in Development Economics?

I work in International Development, for a nonprofit. I haven't had the time to get a degree in this field though I do have some economics background at an undergraduate level. I have found reading the work of Duflo, Banerjee, Easterly, Sen, Ray (massive tome, Development Economics) and others very helpful in my work so perhaps check out some of their books to see if this field appeals to you.

Who employs? Development agencies, other NGOs, government.
posted by wingless_angel at 10:37 AM on February 28, 2012

You can get an outline here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outline_of_economics.
posted by lungtaworld at 10:40 AM on February 28, 2012

I am aware of economic theory, though a bit vague (what with it often not matching up to the historical reality). I have attended seminars in economics departments, and I know what academic economists do and how they work (a lot like academic historians, but with more maths and a different theoretical approach).

I'm really more interested in learning about the day-to-day worklife of non-academic economists and what sorts of skills they are asked to use in their profession.

I am interested in development economics, but family responsibilities will probably preclude my working overseas. I am currently in Canada, and I'm quite interested in occupational structure changes and economic development at home as well.
posted by jb at 10:40 AM on February 28, 2012

Government and banking. My father is an economist (with an MA), he spent almost his entire career in government (started with StatsCan if I remember correctly) and then spent most of his career with Finance. He left Finance to work as an economist for one of the Big 5 banks, but is now back with government.
I couldn't begin to get into what he does on a day to day basis, although much of what he did before rising to his current position is projections of economic performance for the country on a fairly macro basis (from what I understand).
posted by smitt at 10:44 AM on February 28, 2012

My ex-hubby got an M.Sc. in Agricultural Economics. Stalking him online for you (since we're not on speaking terms)... he is employed as a research analyst for a program evaluation and market research firm in Canada. The firm's clients appear to be predominantly all kinds of government & public service branches, from healthcare to energy to city planning etc., and then there are other ones like retail chains.

My own experience in engineering consulting and knowing what his academic is, I would speculate that his job entails working with the clients to determine what knowledge they're after, organizing surveys or otherwise finding information sources, and then analyzing the collected results. I would expect there to be a lot of interaction with clients, team members, researchers, and surveyees (your test groups). And tons of report writing, presenting, etc. I would definitely think there would be some marriage of qualitative and quantitative assessment - from what I recall, an economic study sometimes has to take into account more than just numerically quantifiable, easily categorized info, since it's dealing with how humans live their lives.

Memail me and I will send you the link to his company's website for further info.
posted by lizbunny at 10:47 AM on February 28, 2012

Many economists I have known are either into Government agencies. I am told that firms like Yahoo, Google and Microsoft and many others from the private sector have recently started to recruit economist (with major applications in Market Design).
posted by godugu at 10:48 AM on February 28, 2012

There are economists who work at government agencies, banks, non-governmental organizations, management consulting, technology companies, pharmaceutical firms, lobbying firms, etc.

Check out Hal Varian, an economist who works for Google.

Other economists like Nouriel Roubini set up their own consulting shops.
posted by dfriedman at 11:01 AM on February 28, 2012

I know economists who work in regulated markets for both government agencies and consultancies commissioned by government agencies. In either case, they try and design market rules to make sure that companies can't exploit monopolies in ways that disbenefit consumers.

I think they are more report-writing than data-crunching, although there is a mix of both. And that the ability to write well and explain technical information to non-specialists is essential. They all seem to find it interesting, and their pay is good. In my part of the world they find it easier than average to get work.
posted by plonkee at 11:03 AM on February 28, 2012

I have a masters in public policy with a focus in economics and work for a government agency in DC. There are probably tens of thousands of us with similar backgrounds in DC working in government, think tanks, and related companies. I entered the graduate program with virtually no background in economics and a year later was taking classes in the econ PhD program, so it's a good way to get into the field without having to do the prereqs. (I did have a strong quantitative background. You don't need to be a math major - I never even took statistics - but you do need to be really comfortable with numbers and formulae.)

I'm not that familiar with career paths for people with masters in pure econ. I know that in DC, places like BLS, Census, and BEA are probably good shots. They do more pure number and data creation and less on the policy side.

Health policy is booming. If you are interested, have experience, and can get a degree in health policy or even public policy with a health focus from a decent school, you should have employers chasing you.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:03 AM on February 28, 2012

I build macroeconomic models to explain changes within our business. I build LS models for optimization of our business plans, ARIMA models for forecast results, gravitational models to understand proximity and the interraction of geolocational data, I built a nice riot theory model to show the upside risk if the "best case scenario" didn't occur. I do a little CRM modeling. I've done a decent monte carlo implementation with another guy I work with, but it wasn't for work - it was for our fantasy fantasy football league (we let a group of models pick their own teams and watched how last season played out)... Basically, I'm responsible for answering quantatatively what the large scale impact of a decision is. I generally don't care about the little stuff - that stuff is explained in the error term.

I've had a few come to jesus moments, because at the end of the day, I'm just running numbers and making recommendations for small tweaks (but still basically maintaining the status quo). My models help people make decisions with as much information as possible. I start with the premise that my model is wrong, that it will be mis-interpreted or over-applied and that as such, there are some kid gloves handed over to the powers that be along with the model.

There is a lot of mathematics rigor involved in what I do, but mostly that stems form having to answer questions about what someone can or can't do - not really the mathematics of what I'm doing. The math that I do do, well - that's just an output from SAS or EViews, and I spend some time checking the summary statistics against what I would expect. Asides from building a specification, the art is in teasing out the a version of the truth using economic theories. I really like to look at it as the sceintific method of guessing, but scientists build a theory that is repeatable and verifiable; my models are re-estimated on an annual basis.

The big challenge is in data. You have to be ready to work with messed up datasets. I get a few feeds from internal sources, but they mostly look at things from a financial perspective (what the books look like) and I look at the world from a demand planning standpoint. Add to that several custom datasets, some of which we pay for, and others which we build from what the census, and the bls put out. That means, I wind up having to pull a lot of my own data and whatnot. I would describe my time as 15% requirements and specification, 60% data, 25% model and analysis.

If anyone's life was on the line with the decisions I was making, well, I'd quit - mostly because I can recognize the ways in which I am asked to malign the data - and I'm cool with maligning data to remove decision paralysis, less cool with maligning data that would hurt someone. I'm far from public policy. I'm far from your money. So, I'm good with shoehorning data.

My background is in engineering and math. I took econ 101 in college, but that was the extent of classroom economics for me. Since I moved into my position about 2 years ago, I've recieved a strong refresher in applied statistics, a strong introduction to economic theory, a very thorough forcefeeding of econometrics, and built enough models that I feel pretty comfortable now saying that I work in economics. I've worked through some nice graduate level economics texts and emerged unscathed.

I don't feel comfortable calling myself an economist because I don't know the where with alls they attend to in the realm of public policy and finance. I know my corner of the world *very* well, and my disparate background from my peers gives me the ability to leverage and re-apply some of that knowledge. As such, when we got called to build the same infrastructure for Canada as we have for the US, I built it/am building it. I've learned enough about GIS that I can make some GIS professionals groan, but I can move data between the world of economics and GIS with ease. With my (now) economics background, I am at least a business research analyst on steroids.

I also have a small side gig consulting with data manipulation, validation, and attribute augmentatition.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:38 AM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

The big challenge is in data. You have to be ready to work with messed up datasets.

I can't imagine that the datasets are more messed up than historical datasets from before 1800. We have more proxy data than actual data.
posted by jb at 11:42 AM on February 28, 2012

I'm a land use economist with a wide behavioral streak who looks at how people's decisions about ways to spend leisure time affects real estate development/operations at both micro and macro scales. My consulting practice is pretty specific to cultural attractions, tourism destinations and community/economic development agencies. I build financial models (at scales ranging from single buildings to regional economies), create strategic plans and facilitate public-private partnerships. Re: education I came at the field via masters degree coursework in urban planning and real estate development.

The principle requirements of my field remain curiosity, communication skills, creativity regarding analysis with uneven data, and the ability to use numbers to tell a story. Consulting is awesome because you can triangulate from your original field as your interests and expertise evolve. However, the lifestyle isn't for everyone and some people chafe at the unforgiving relationship between work, time and money inherent in the profession.
posted by carmicha at 2:49 PM on February 28, 2012

I'm an economist working in economic development. I have an economics degree from a small Canadian school and a masters in public policy, along with a couple of professional designations.

I primarily write these days, to be honest. A lot of the modelling that is done at this level is farmed out or automated (i.e., I cobble together what I need from reports I receive from Statistics Canada or specialized tools I pay for. I do a lot of government relations work, project development, developing funding proposals and corporate strategy.

I have a research team of two who support me, crunch numbers and provide analysis. One is heavy into modelling, the other more qualitative.

The one thing I can say about being a non-academic economist is you're only really limited by your personality and your ability to see the forest from the trees; it's a well-respected foundation in and out of government for providing strategic direction, project design and understanding virtually anything. If you've the flexibility and the will, you can change directions in a heartbeat.

The job market, in my experience, is pretty well wide-open if you are. Two years ago, I was developing pharmacare policy, today I am working on solutions to ensuring our area has the immigration it needs.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 6:22 PM on February 28, 2012

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