Tuesday, June 20, 2006

An engineer seeks career advice

A graduate student in engineering emails me to ask for some advice about his educational plans:

Hi Dr. Mankiw,

I've been reading your blog for a while now, and since you seem to be so wonderful about responding to email asking for comments and advice, I thought I'd give this a try especially after reading your post about how you ended up as an economist and not a lawyer.

I'm an engineering student, currently one year into graduate studies. I suppose I was one of those people who applied to grad school "by default," without thinking enough about what it was I really wanted to do with my life. One semester in, I realized I'd made a big mistake, that although I was still interested in academic research, engineering wasn't for me. I almost quit, but decided to stay with it until I either finished a Masters or decided what else to do. So right now (to the unfortunate detriment of my thesis research) I'm looking at a few other options.

I've always been interested in economics, and I'm beginning to think it might be the right fit for me. I believe I naturally think like an economist, and I have a very strong math and stats background to go with my interest. I've also done a lot of reading on the subject (including your wonderful macro textbook). The only problem is I have absolutely no formal education in economics--not even a single course, since I thought the first year economics courses I had the prerequisites for in undergrad seemed a little too basic to spend my precious electives on.

Do you have any advice for someone like me who wants to transition into graduate studies in economics from another field?

Keep up the great blogging,
[name withheld]

In your situation, I would recommend applying directly to graduate schools in economics. As an engineer, you have the necessary background in math and statistics. If you have done as much econ reading as you say, my guess is that admissions committees will forgive you for not having taken formal economics courses.

Admissions committees for econ PhD programs are often more forgiving of a weak econ background than a weak math background. That might seem odd, but it is easily explained. As economists, we think we can help you catch up if you need help in econ. After all, econ grad school is all about studying econ. But if you have a weak math background, you will start behind and have a harder time catching up.

Another option, instead of applying directly to an econ PhD program, is to apply to a master's program, such as that at the LSE. With a master's under your belt, a subsequent application to PhD programs will look stronger.

I have met several students in the Harvard econ PhD program with stories like yours. They were "refugees" from technical fields like engineering and physics who discovered late in life their interest in economics. It was not too late for them to switch, and it is probably not too late for you. Your education may end up taking a year or two longer than it would have if you had figured out your interests earlier, but that is a small cost to pay compared with the cost of ending up in the wrong field.