Last year I applied to several economics PhD programs at elite universities and business schools. I applied to twelve programs (nine in economics and three in business), was accepted by three, and chose to study at Stanford. This post describes my experience with the application process and offers some advice to future applicants.
The programs I applied to accepted applications between late September and early December. However, these applications depended on tasks completed earlier: earning a degree, gaining research experience, completing the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and choosing where to apply.
Every program required that I held the equivalent of a four-year bachelor’s degree or higher. Most stated explicitly that a master’s was not necessary. Some stated explicitly that applicants need not have a major in economics, but some prior coursework (e.g., intermediate microeconomics) helps to signal interest and familiarity. Most stated explicitly that applicants should be comfortable with undergraduate-level calculus, linear algebra, and probability and statistics.
While not required explicitly, my impression is that most successful applicants to top programs have some research experience. Such experience helps demonstrate that you know what research is and can conduct it successfully. Moreover, everyone applying to top programs has stellar grades, so having research experience helps you stand out.
Thankfully, there are many ways to gain research experience. I have four recommendations.
First, write an honours or master’s thesis. Doing so provides early evidence that you’re interested in research and can work independently.
Second, work with professors while studying. The University of Canterbury (UC), where I completed my bachelor’s degree, offers scholarships to work with professors during summer breaks. I won one to work with Richard Watt on a theoretical project related to insurance pricing. Completing the project gave me experience to discuss in my statement of purpose and gave Richard something to discuss in his recommendation letter.
Third, work at a research-oriented organisation after finishing your bachelor’s or master’s. In New Zealand, the best place is Motu or the Reserve Bank, depending on whether you’re more interested in microeconomics or macroeconomics. Working at Motu has improved my technical and research skills, and given me experience working with respected economists on substantive research projects. It has also helped clarify what a “research career” looks like and whether it’s something I want to pursue.
Finally, consider completing a pre-doctoral fellowship at an elite university. These fellowships typically last one or two years, and involve assisting professors with their research. Pre-doctoral fellowships deliver similar benefits to working at places like Motu. However, some fellowships (e.g., those offered by Opportunity Insights at Harvard and SIEPR at Stanford) allow you to take graduate courses while working, further strengthening your profile. Moreover, working with well-known economists at elite universities (and impressing them) helps you gain strong recommendation letters.
All programs required official scores from the (general) GRE, a standardised test comprising three sections: quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, and analytical writing. The test can be attempted multiple times. Programs consider only your highest score on each section.
I sat the GRE once, in 2018. The test took about four hours. The quantitative and verbal reasoning sections each comprised two sets of 20 multi-choice questions. The quantitative section was mostly high school-level mathematics. (New Zealanders: think NCEA Level 1 or 2.) The verbal section tested reading comprehension and vocabulary. The analytical writing section comprised two short, typed essay responses to prompts given during the test. I think anyone who recently earned a bachelor’s degree in economics could do well on the test with 2–4 weeks of study.
Jones et al. (2020) survey graduate admissions coordinators, who report placing more emphasis on quantitative reasoning scores than verbal reasoning scores when evaluating applicants. Both scores are less important at higher ranked programs because applicants to such programs tend to have higher scores, leaving less variation for identifying applicants’ relative abilities. For example, Harvard’s economics department states that admitted candidates’ quantitative scores range “in the 97th percentile.” I scored in the 94th percentile and would have resat the test if I had scored any lower.
I applied to most programs in the “top 10,” and a few more specialised programs that matched my interests and geographic preferences. I figured that if I was going to move overseas, away from my family and friends, then I better go somewhere excellent. If I had a weaker technical background or less research experience then I might have aimed lower.
Beyond this “aim high” strategy, I have two recommendations.
First, apply to as many programs as you can afford and would attend. The marginal effort cost of applying to each program falls quickly after preparing your first set of application materials. Moreover, although the application fees can sting, they are small compared to the expected gain in life satisfaction from being admitted.
Second, apply to programs at business schools as well as economic departments. Chicago, Harvard, Northwestern, NYU, and Stanford’s business schools all offer excellent economics-focused PhD programs. They provide similar technical training and faculty access to “traditional” programs. However, business schools tend to offer larger stipends and require less teaching than economics departments. Business schools tend to make fewer offers, but they also tend to receive fewer applications.
All of the programs I applied to required the following materials:
Overall, it took about a month to prepare my application materials and about a day to tailor them to each program. To track my progress and help manage my time, I maintained a checklist of form sections to complete and materials to upload.
Stanford asked for official copies of my academic transcripts. All other programs accepted “unofficial” copies. I ordered a digital copy from UC, which set up a My eQuals account with my transcript uploaded as a PDF and certified by the UC registrar. I shared this certified version with Stanford, saving me about 190 USD worth of third-party certification fees. I downloaded the PDF version from My eQuals and used it as the unofficial copy for my other applications.
In addition to transcripts, some schools asked for more information about my prior coursework. Harvard and MIT asked for comprehensive lists of course codes and titles, dates completed, grades obtained, and textbooks used. Other programs asked for similar information but only for the handful of “most advanced” courses I’d taken in economics, mathematics, and statistics. Stanford asked me to match the courses I’d taken with courses offered at Stanford. The matching took a while because the courses I took at UC often matched Stanford courses in different subject areas and at different degree levels.
New Zealand universities use a nine-point GPA system, whereas the universities I applied to use a four-point system. Some programs asked me to report my GPA on its original scale, some asked me to convert it to the four-point scale, and some asked me to leave the GPA field blank. Overall, the difference in systems didn’t seem to be problematic.
All programs asked for official GRE score reports. The testing fee (205 USD) covers the cost of sending scores to up to four institutions, nominated on test day. Sending scores to additional institutions costs 27 USD per institution. I didn’t nominate any schools on test day because I wasn’t sure whether I would need to resit the test, or whether sending low scores would hurt my admissions chances even if I resat the test and performed better. Once I sent my score reports, most programs confirmed receipt after about a week.
All programs asked me to nominate three recommendation letter writers. I arranged my recommenders about two months in advance. I gave each a list of programs I was applying to, a description of each program, and the due date for their letters. I also provided copies of my CV, transcript, and draft statements of purpose.
Whenever I nominated a recommender, I was asked whether I wanted to waive my FERPA right to view their letter upon admission. I always waived. I wasn’t concerned that my recommenders would change what they wrote if they knew I could read their letters. Instead, I was concerned that admissions committees would observe that I chose not to waive access, assume that my recommenders responded by providing stronger-than-truthful recommendations, and subsequently discount the quality of those recommendations.
All programs asked for a statement describing my preparation for graduate study, my research experience and interests, and my career goals. The statement I submitted to Stanford contained
I focused on my research experience because I felt that it was my comparative advantage over other applicants, whom I assumed were well-trained technically and had more prestigious alma maters.
Most programs asked for a writing sample. Some programs required at least 15 pages; some required at most 10 pages. In both cases, I used an excerpt from my most recent journal submission. For long samples, I excluded figures and tables, which happened to leave 15 pages. For short samples, I included only the first eight pages, which contained the introduction, literature review, method, and data sections. I always included a cover page describing the excerpt and stating the full paper’s abstract.
I could have submitted my honours thesis, which analysed a theoretical model of insurance and saving. However, I felt that my academic transcript signalled my technical skills adequately. Instead, I wanted my writing sample to demonstrate skills not demonstrated by other application materials: identifying interesting and important research questions, and synthesising literature.
Stanford and Yale asked me to explain how I would contribute to diversity on campus. My response to Stanford read as follows:
I grew up in Wakefield, a small rural town in New Zealand. I have been fortunate to attend university, to discover my passion for research, and to collaborate on research projects with economists from Europe and North America. These projects have benefited from the diverse ideas and experiences of my collaborators, which have increased the quality of our work.
I am excited to continue engaging with ideas in an inclusive research environment as a graduate student at Stanford. I am also excited to share my cultural experiences in New Zealand with my Stanford classmates, and to learn about their experiences in other countries. Doing so will increase our understanding of how different cultural values shape economic and social outcomes. This understanding will enhance our ability to conduct globally relevant economic research that considers a range of perspectives.
Clicking “submit” on the online application forms began the long—about three month—wait for responses. In two cases, those responses were invitations for interviews; in most cases, they were admissions decisions.
On waiting for responses, I offer three pieces of advice.
First, take a break. Applying to PhD programs takes many years of effort earning a degree, gaining research experience, building relationships with recommendation letter writers, completing the GRE, and preparing your applications. Make time to acknowledge and celebrate that effort.
Second, realise that there is nothing you can do (except, if invited, prepare for interviews) to change your admissions decisions. Worrying is futile. Instead, try to find fun and engaging ways to spend your time that take your mind off your applications. I ran a lot and worked on some blog posts.
Third, try to stay off Urch and TheGradCafe. In late January, people will start using those fora to share their anxiety and admissions results. You will, after months of waiting, be hungry for news. However, if you’re going to get good news then you will receive it from the program first. Programs generally send all acceptances at the same time (or, at least, on the same day). Thus, online fora can only deliver bad news: others received acceptance notifications but you did not.
As far as I know, only business schools conduct interviews. I interviewed for the business programs at Harvard and MIT, in late January and early February. Both interviews comprised discussing my research experience and interests, and why those interests are best pursued at a business school. The interviews lasted about fifteen minutes each and took place over Zoom.
Most programs sent admissions decisions in late February or early March. They were either acceptances, rejections, or being placed on a wait list. The program for which I was wait-listed was weaker than my best offer at the time, so I declined them promptly to help the market clear.
See here for more resources on economics PhD admissions. I found Susan Athey’s professional advice, Chris Blattman’s FAQs on PhD applications, and Abhishek Nagaraj’s guide to business PhD applications particularly helpful.