Field switching before the PhD - advice?
July 27, 2020 9:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm planning to pursue a PhD at some point in the near-ish future, and am thinking about switching fields to improve my (academic and non-academic) job prospects. Maybe there are some mefites who could help me assess whether this is a good idea?

I graduated last year with an undergrad degree in a humanities field associated with famous Greek people. I also did a lot of coursework & some study abroad in two pretty high-demand "critical languages", both of which I can speak and write well. I've just finished my first year of a master's in said humanities field.

Over the past several years as I've thought about what sort of topics I want to work on research-wise, I've realized that I'm particuarly interested in potentially high-impact or societally relevant topics - think applied ethics, distributive justice, global development, that sort of thing. Outside of academia, it seems like any of the following (or probably more) would suit my interests well: think tanks, policy analysis, working at a government agency, NGO/nonprofit sector, journalism.

There are people in my current field who have gotten jobs like that after the PhD, mostly through networking and pursuing internships during their PhD, which are things I plan to do regardless. But it is also starting to seem to me like, if I switched to economics, that might set me up even better to do those things (and also maybe increase my chances of getting an academic job as well).

I'd have to take a bunch of math classes to do that, but I don't find that at all daunting - I did calc II and calc-based physics in high school and did well at them, I just didn't pursue it in undergrad because my interests shifted.

Another relevant consideration is that, if I did switch to economics, I'd have to spend much more time doing research that is very empirical and quant. The work I'm doing right now is pretty explicitly normative and non-empirical, and I definitely prefer that approach - so this does raise the question whether, if I did go the economics route, I might end up, in the long run, having to spend most of my time doing the stuff I'm less passionate about. On the other hand, I feel like the quant stuff can be really productive and useful (probably more than the stuff I currently do, tbh), so I think I'd be happy doing that kind of work long-term, as long as there's also enough flexibility that I could pursue the more non-empirical stuff on the side.

Either way, I don't plan to apply this fall, since given the current circumstances I'm expecting that there will be big cuts in admissions. I have opportunities lined up to spend a couple years doing stuff that should make me more competitive whichever option I pick (again, just from what I've been able to find out so far), and I should be able to fit in some econ-relevant internships or research assistant gigs during that time.

So, the question is: Would it be a good idea for me, given my interests & abilities, to switch out of my current field (again, the one with the Greek guys) into econ? Are there downsides that I'm not considering?

(I should add that I do plan to pursue a PhD pretty much no matter what. I've spent a lot of time carefully considering the costs of doing so - rough academic market, looming higher ed contractions, foregone earning potential - and decided that it would still be worth it for me personally, even if a genie promised me ahead of time that I would not get an academic job at all.)
posted by myitkyina to Education (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Something I've heard from econ undergraduate students who want to get a PhD, is that it's very, very competitive to get accepted into a program. Harder than other similarly quantitative fields like computer science, since econ appeals to academic-types, and doesn't quickly translate to industry roles at the undergrad level.

To make up for a non-econ background, I don't know if it'll be enough just to take a bunch of math/econ classes. I suspect you'll also want to show serious research experience, and get strong letters-of-recommendation from professors who know you well.

Which is all to say, it might be worth exploring how feasible it is to get all of that done before applying, even for next fall. One of the potential downsides of switching is that you might not get in, or might have to settle for a less competitive program. I don't know much about think-tank hiring, but its worth asking around to find out whether its better to have a greek-guys-degree from a prestigious program, or an econ degree from a less fancy program.
posted by tinymegalo at 10:09 AM on July 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Talk to the economists at your current or undergrad institution. Ask profs you worked with if they know folks in the econ department they recommend, or look for someone doing the kind of work you are interested in (public, labor, or development, for instance; not theory, macro, or methods). Beyond giving general advice, they should know whether students from their program were successful in getting into PhD programs. If their best econ students only got into second-rate programs, you're probably out of luck. But if they had a strong record, you might have a chance.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:16 AM on July 27, 2020

Seconding the comment above about not underestimating the kind of mathematics expertise that will be taken as a given in any economics program worth attending. Those who excel in those programs tend to be the kind of people who ate, slept, and dreamed mathematics since they were kids. If you want to do serious quant work, you might want to consider a MS in mathematics just as credentials. (The Greek folks aren't going to make you jump out of the pile in those programs.). I don't say that to throw shade on your math skills. If you did two years of calc in high school, you sound a lot like me. We may both be in the single-digit-percentiles in terms of mathematical aptitude. But the quant people I've met occupy a whole different level of immersion and expertise beyond us.

One other thing to keep in mind is that if your target is think tanks, the game is much more about prestige and reputation. Those spots go to people who *already* have a lot of profile. And those are people who have been in positions that allowed them to do research and write (often academic, at least partially), and those are usually people that came out of big-name programs. It's not logically impossible to make it to a think tank as an economic researcher without starting at Harvard, MIT or Stanford (or similar), but it's exceedingly rare. (There are also less prestigious mid-level analysts at those places, but the academic cred is just as crucial there.). Think tanks are also full of hacks with less aptitude, but that speaks to the other thing. Their missions have more to do with promoting specific policies, and more often very conservative ones at that. So if your econ research *isn't* about how much better off Uighurs are making Nikes in prison camps, or how much extra freedom is being generated by sticking Honduran kids in cages in Arizona, don't expect a call from the Hoover or Manhattan Institutes.
posted by el_lupino at 12:01 PM on July 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Pure humanities to economics/quant is a pretty heavy shift to make this late as others mention. You would likely need to get another undergrad or masters first.

Have you considered other options that are somewhere in the middle? Public Policy seems like a natural fit given your interests, and I understand it can get fairly quantitative. Various schools will have specialized variants of that like Social Policy. Or, Political Science is another field that mixes humanities, social impact, and quant.
posted by JZig at 12:53 PM on July 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

Seconding JZig's point about this being quite a drastic shift, I'd encourage you to consider PhDs in fields like International Development, Political Science, and Government. Geography or History might also be a good fit, depending on the program.
posted by dizziest at 3:49 PM on July 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you are considering economics because it will build skills that will help you pivot into what you really want to do. But, as other suggested, there are other fields with the social sciences that will allow you start working on the questions that you care about now - not 6+ years from now. While these fields may not require the level of mathematics that you see in quantitative economics, powerful skills in statistics and data analysis will not only be useful in your PhD program but also give you creditable skills for your next job move.

If you haven't had math since high school, then spending the next year upping your skills would be a great investment - one that doesn't require you to get a PhD in something you aren't passionate about but will make you better qualified for whatever you do next.
posted by metahawk at 4:19 PM on July 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think this is potentially really smart--more so if you want an academic career, in fact. But if you want to think this through like an economist, you should be able to find data on the average number of PhDs in each discipline that are able to find academic jobs and the average time to degree.
posted by yarntheory at 4:37 PM on July 27, 2020

The mathematics background you need to be a competitive candidate at the best Economics PhD programs is up to, and including Real Analysis. From your current background that probably means taking the following sequence Calculus III - Linear Algebra - Real Analysis (the sequence is not entirely standardised so different colleges may offer slightly different courses). Linear algebra and real analysis are the points at which mathematics changes from a field in which you calculate things to a field in which you work with proofs. Lots of people find that inflection point very challenging and some drop out. But it's just a different way of thinking, and you might find it easier than most if you've studied formal logic.

Completing grad school is very hard if you don't really enjoy the subject you are studying. You have time to explore a bit whether economics is for you and I really recommend you do so. You may want to think about whether, for example, a finished public policy PhD is better than an unfinished economics one.
posted by plonkee at 2:10 AM on July 28, 2020

I studied a PhD in economics, and I think you've largely gotten good advice here about the core, fundamental importance of math and quantitative analysis. The first couple years of coursework for the PhD feel a lot more like a mathematics degree with a particular focus on economic applications, than a social science degree.

Anyway, just came in to suggest that you dive into some of the conversations linked to in one of my favorite (and sadly no longer updated) sites, Economists View. The site compiles articles, blog posts, and papers from a variety of economists who are speaking about practical, real-world ideas and public policies in a tone that is less than purely academic, but which is generally meant for an audience with a strong grasp on academic-style economics (there will be equations and graphs and some sketching out of economic models). I found it really fun to follow over time - especially when one economist introduces an idea or analysis of some phenomenon, and then others weigh in with their own interpretations. Skip the easy Krugman pieces and focus on the more technical discussions - this is the kind of thinking and analysis that you'll be learning how to do in an econ PhD. If it's all a bit too abstract for you to find meaningful, then you might want to look into fields that are more grounded in practical applications, and if you find it fascinating, then maybe higher level economics could be a good fit for you.
posted by exutima at 12:35 PM on July 28, 2020

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