Just how dismal is this science?
April 28, 2006 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Do you have any experience in Economics?

For the past couple of years, I've gotten more and more interested in Economics; I've read a few books, followed a few blogs, and generally started framing a lot of my thoughts in terms of incentives and outcomes. On a separate track, I've recently decided that it's about damned time that I get some more education, as a BA in English and a specialization with MS Access have sort of left me in a career cul-de-sac.

So I'm thinking about taking a couple of undergrad-level Econ courses and, if I like them, trying to jump into a grad program. I'd like any AskMe Economists for their opinions on whether the field's worth getting into, if the rigorous-academic version would be a lot less fun than the Internet-dilletente version, and whether a a writer/English major (who, to be fair, did minor in physics and took a lot of math classes, although those mental muscles have lain mostly dormant for about ten years) has any business even thinking about this.

Muchas gracias in advance.
posted by COBRA! to Education (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There are more jobs in Business Admin and they pay better. Could you carve out an economics degree within the Business faculty?
posted by acoutu at 9:13 AM on April 28, 2006

email me
posted by MzB at 9:16 AM on April 28, 2006

An English major can do well in Economics, btw. If you like researching and can think abstractly and creatively, you'll be in a great position to work on economics problems. You'll need to pick up calculus and some higher math, though. FWIW, I majored in English, but got the highest marks in the class in my undergrad Econ classes. When I did my MBA, I also got the highest marks in the class in Econ. So, as long as you can pick up some calculus, you'll probably do just fine.
posted by acoutu at 9:19 AM on April 28, 2006

I personally didn't do a regular MA in econ because they are generally very math-intensive, essentially working out a lot of mathmatical proofs. Sounds like it might be up your alley, but I am much stronger at the research/writing side of things. Right now I'm working in the banking sector (and in one more week getting the hell out of it forever hopefully) but there are definately a lot of Econ MAs doing quantitative analysis for the banks, and of course in management. So if you're considering that route, it would serve you well to get in touch with some of those people. I really don't know much about where the PHD would take you other than academia. Maybe higher-level research in the public/private sector. But that's just speculation.

You need to work out what it is that interests you about this subject, and what actual daily tasks might turn you on as part of your job. I find the broad ideas of economics interesting, but when it gets down to stock forcasting, and sitting in front of a Bloomberg terminal looking up interest and exchange rates etc.......not fun/interesting/desirable whatsoever. That's why I'm heading towards the public sector, where you can get as quantitative (ie Bank of Canada/US Treasury) or qualitative (I know an economist that works at the parlimentary library doing background research for ministers) as you like.

Hope that helps.
posted by Idiot Mittens at 9:20 AM on April 28, 2006

MzB: Done.

acoutu: the thing about Business Admin is that, unless there's a side to it that I haven't seen, it just doesn't seem remotely interesting to me-- that's assuming that you mean getting a degree in Business Admin and then going on to work in business. I'm essentially thinking about getting into academia.

And, on seeing your second post, calculus is ok, at least in the sense that I was good at it 10 years ago and haven't used it much since. Differential equations are another matter, though. Do they apply?
posted by COBRA! at 9:24 AM on April 28, 2006

COBRA!: I am just finishing my PhD in Management. In many Business PhD fields you primarily work as an applied economist. This is especially true when pursuing a PhD in Finance. Even in my field a majority of the Management professors who do research in corporate strategy, use completely economic theories and methodologies. Also, acoutu is right, there are more jobs and they pay better. I have mentioned this in previous AskMe threads, so feel free to look at some of my other postings, or to send me an email directly. Most people who get a PhD in business go on to an academic career. I am starting a job at the University of Arizona this summer.

Also, you would be fine with your level math knowledge. It is not easy to get into a good PhD program, but it is possible with only a bachelor's degree.
posted by bove at 9:51 AM on April 28, 2006

Differential equations are another matter, though. Do they apply?

Yes. The maths we covered in first year (undergrad) econ is (in no particular order):

Euler's theorem (homogeneity)
Unconstrained optimisation (functions of two variables)
Differential Equations
Difference Equations
Matrices and Linear Algebra (Gauss-Jordan elimination, Cramer's rule etc)
Lagrange multipliers (constrained optimisation)
Taylor and Maclaurin series
Partial differentiation
Revision of basic calculus (integration by parts, integration by substitution etc)

My course is fairly mathematical, though. YMMV.
posted by matthewr at 9:52 AM on April 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm not an economist, but I hire a lot of them as expert witnesses. The best ones are well-spoken and able to express themselves in lay terms (a skill you may or may not have picked up as an English major) but underneath that they have a huge, deep and highly mathematical understanding of the relevant market structures.

Don't let the fact that you like language and think in complete sentences scare you away from the field. If the above description sounds like you you might be able to make $20,000+ a day as a testifying expert economist in antitrust cases.
posted by The Bellman at 9:58 AM on April 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Don't let matthewr scare you. You do run into a lot of models but if you understand the notation and basics of calculus most models are easy to digest. Economics can be fun or brutal. It's better if the school has more of a philosophy of economics bent (or as I like to call it, econ for lawyers).
posted by geoff. at 10:38 AM on April 28, 2006

This site has a brunch of information though it is very much aimed at undergrads looking at econ phd programs.
posted by thrako at 10:58 AM on April 28, 2006

Yeah, wasn't intending to scare.

The maths we do is used to underpin economic models. For example, in first year we use Euler's theorem as the mathematical basis for statements about constant, diminishing or increasing returns to scale of production functions.

In a less mathematical course, you might just learn the economic definitions of returns to scale rather than the maths behind them. That's fine. I guess my point is be sure to choose a school with the right level of mathsiness for you - if my list of first-year maths puts you off, don't apply to a school with a hardcore quantitative reputation, obviously.
posted by matthewr at 11:00 AM on April 28, 2006

A good foundation in English would definitely make it easier to understand economics from scratch. Economics is a great way of viewing market and social forces in a well-thought-out, cause and effect type manner, and the rigidity of structure you learn in English would be of benefit in understanding economics.

There are lots of sub-disciplines in economics, with great differences between them. I found industrial organisation easy to understand, and to apply to real-world examples. For an idea of the maths involved on an entry level course, read Principles of International Finance (Wiley) or Priniciples of Economics by N. Gregory Mankiw.

It's a great subject that sort of deserves it's nickname "The Dismal Science", but it is excellent for deconstructing the various forces that govern our financial lives.

Good luck!
posted by snailer at 11:13 AM on April 28, 2006

If you are certain that want to be an academic, do as you are considering.

If you want to work in industry, consider a finance-intensive MBA program (Chicago, Columbia, Wharton, NYU). At any of these schools you can take Master's level (and PhD level) Econ courses, though you may have to wait until the second year of the program.

The number of of people who transition from MBA to PhD is small, but it certainly can be done (I personally know two people who have done it). If you decide to work in industry instead of going into academia, you're valuable as a mathy person who can both manage databases and understand finance and economics. You could choose to be a middle-office IT monkey for a financial firm, and make $150K for a 50 hour week. If you're really good, you could sell your soul for vast riches and wind up on a structuring desk for a big I-bank.

The benefit of the MBA-then-PhD track is that if you bail from academia, you're still really marketable. The bitch of it is that you have to be a really good student to go from a practicioner program into an academic program. IMO, it's a good maximin strategy.
posted by Kwantsar at 11:30 AM on April 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Awesome; thanks for the info so far, from everybody. One of my side questions was whether there was any work to be had with just a Master's... and it looks like some answers to that have accrued. Am I reading everyone correctly, then, that Master's-level can actually get you jobs (mainly private-sector), while a PhD. leaves you pretty much locked into teaching?
posted by COBRA! at 11:37 AM on April 28, 2006

If you haven't already, you should read Freakonomics for an interesting viewpoint of the various places that economics can take you. It's all related.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:16 PM on April 28, 2006

I have a doctorate in economics. My day job is consulting, in which I provide expert analysis sometimes leading to testimony in court or in hearings. I am also an adjunct faculty member at the local university.

At first, academia was my goal. I have since found that the issues I address in consulting are much more interesting and relevant than anything I could have studied from the ivory tower.

If you want to learn economics, a masters is OK. If you want to do economics, a doctorate is almost mandatory.

You will need to know math. The program I was in administered a test the week before classes began and determined that I should take a remedial course in math. The prof was great, I learned a lot, and was a much better economist because of it.

If you are interested in macro, your likely job opportunities would be academic or with the government. If you do international macro, you would probably get to travel to conferences and such on your employer's dime.

If you are interested in micro, you have more consulting opportunities available to you. Research oriented academic positions are less lucrative, unless you are in the b-school. You get b-school gigs by focusing on issues that businesses are interested in like financial markets, competition, regulation.

As you'll quickly learn, economics is everywhere. Therefore, I advise against narrowing your field to say agricultural economics, fisheries economics, gender economics, and so on. Any decent economist can understand these issues without a degree noting such.

I'm sure I've left you with more questions than answers. Feel free to email me. Email is in my profile.
posted by GarageWine at 12:40 PM on April 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

COBRA!: The economics experts I referred to above are typically PhDs who teach at major universities when they aren't consulting. Credibility is everything in a testifying economics expert witness. Firms like Bates White and Charles River Associates (to name just a few I have worked with) make an exceptionally good living in that field.
posted by The Bellman at 12:41 PM on April 28, 2006

First thing I thought of when I read your question is Life Among the Econ (you'll probably have to do a 'save as' on the pdfs)

There's a lot of econ PhDs in the private or just non-academic sector. Look at almost any department's graduate placements and you'll see jobs in investment mgmt, the Fed/IMF/World Bank, policy research, or a consulting firm.
posted by milkrate at 12:49 PM on April 28, 2006

if the rigorous-academic version would be a lot less fun than the Internet-dilletente version

Totally "lot less fun". But if this is for you, you'll learn to enjoy the rigour in economics. In the beginning, I didn't get the connection between economics and the real world. I struggled in the maths for two years until the true *aha!* experience came when ruelle met econometrics, the bane of many undergraduates, my personal little bliss. Then graduate school(s) happened - did two different fields one after the other, I didn't want to specialize so early - and it was pure joy. The Dr.s see you as their peers, you bullshit about economics in the cafeteria, you email famous guys for like, help on getting data, and find yourself in a heated debate with folks like freakin' Blanchard at MIT.
I recently emailed the three authors of two of my favourite papers atm and got their advice and words of support for my current thesis. Then publications happen and you enter the frivolous world of googling how often others have cited you. One day when you're a TA, you recognise in the back of your class the "mini-me" person that you once were, you assure him/her not to worry, that there will come a time when they will do these simple differentials in their heads, and you sit back as you correct their tests, marvelling on how the wheel of life has revolved.
A good blog by a budding economist - and frankly I think "budding" is even insulting, he's a first rate thinker doing a PhD, I wouldn't be surprised if we see him winning major awards in the future - is The Incoherent Economist. Check out his archives for another fix of Academia meet Real Life.
[Side note: a PhD doesn't lock you into "teaching". More than anything it demonstrates that you can do original and independant research which is what a PhD is all about. Check out the jobs at the ECB. They mostly want "An advanced University degree in economics or a proven ability to perform the tasks required by the position. A Ph.D. and a sound research and publication record in [blabla] would be an asset."]
posted by ruelle at 1:01 PM on April 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I didn't get the connection between economics and the real world.

Heh. That's the thing. Since I'm coming into this fairly late, I feel like I can (in a very uninformed and non-rigorous way) see some of the economic underpinnings of the real world, and I'd kind of like to learn to be more formal about it.

Thanks again, everybody. One more question: would taking undergrad-level classes be the best way to grease the skids on starting the process/seeing if it's for me?

One other thing that I'm gathering, and I'd love to be corrected if I'm wrong on this, is that the world of graduate Economics is very different from the world of graduate English; I've heard pretty much nothing but horror stories from friends who went on with English, particularly MFA programs. Am I right in thinking that you're much less likely to wind up unemployed with tens of thousands of dollars of debt after going into Econ?
posted by COBRA! at 1:33 PM on April 28, 2006

Euler's theorem (homogeneity)
Unconstrained optimisation (functions of two variables)
Differential Equations
Difference Equations
Matrices and Linear Algebra (Gauss-Jordan elimination, Cramer's rule etc)
Lagrange multipliers (constrained optimisation)
Taylor and Maclaurin series
Partial differentiation
Revision of basic calculus (integration by parts, integration by substitution etc)

With a few exceptions, this reads largely like the content of the first 2 semesters of calculus at my university. Certainly nothing a physics minor would likely be afraid of.

Differential equations are another matter, though.

Passably bright high school kids are not infrequently taught their discrete analog, difference equations, in pre-calc. Depending on the depth of examination and needed breadth (and whether your instructor speaks english), differential equations needn't be particularly spooky.

If I were trying to get my feet wet mathematically again, and looking at college coursework, I'd probably see if a school would let me sit in on a two-semester engineering mathematics set. They build on a reasonably firm knowledge of algebra and calculus and give a grounding in applying some of the most useful math around (including most of the list above).
posted by weston at 7:39 PM on April 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

COBRA, Business Admin doesn't have to be boring. There are lots of econ profs in Business Admin faculties. You might also want to look at certain areas of marketing, knowledge management or government policy. What is it about economics that appeals to you? I've seen some pretty creative stuff in the Biz faculty. I met a prof whose PhD had to do with how people make decisions about what condoms to buy -- all sorts of interesting models there. I had a prof who was really interested in people's orientation toward capitalism. Another prof was into modelling public works projects in Bangladesh. My own interest is in technology adoption, diffusion of innovation and knowledge management.
posted by acoutu at 10:42 PM on April 28, 2006

BTW, Berkeley's publishing their Econ 100A course lectures on iTunes, which might give you a taste of what to expect. More here.
posted by matthewr at 8:46 AM on April 29, 2006

So, I came very, very close to applying to the U of MN MBA program on the basis of this thread. And then I stopped short; essentially, I alternated in picturing myself two years later, either finishing an MBA or finishing a graphic novel project. And the difference in how excited I felt about each outcome made the choice pretty clear. I guess financially that's pretty dumb, but you are what you are, you know?

I'll just settle for being a comics-creating guy with a dillettente's interest in Economics.
posted by COBRA! at 2:47 PM on September 5, 2006

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