Thursday, June 01, 2006

Love Econ, Bad at Math

A student emails me seeking advice. To paraphrase a long letter, he asks:
I love economics and my economics courses, but I struggle with my math courses and am not doing particularly well in them. What graduate school and career path would be right for me?
I have met Harvard students with similar questions. This spring I talked with a Harvard senior who, because of a weak math background, was rejected by every econ PhD program to which he applied. At the same time, he had a strong academic record overall and was accepted by several of the very best law schools.

There are two possible paths for such a person.

1. Make extra effort to get a stronger foundation before applying to a PhD program in economics. One possibility is to spend a year or two at a master's program, such as the one at the LSE. Although one can go directly from an undergrad degree to a PhD program (such as Harvard's), some students get a master's degree first, and that background gives them a leg up when they start a PhD.

2. Stay involved in economics but through a different channel than graduate school in economics. Many people involved in economic policy are trained as lawyers rather than economists. Two examples that come to mind are Gene Sperling and Brink Lindsey. I don't know anything about their math backgrounds, but I imagine that a person could follow their admirable career paths without having studied all the math you need for an econ PhD. There are many areas of law that are filled with economic analysis, such as tax and antitrust. A person who loves economics can find many courses that would interest him in law school. (The same could be said about schools of business and public policy).

To decide which of these two paths is right for you, you have to look hard at your own tastes and aptitudes to figure out your comparative advantage.

I spent 1 1/2 years in the early 1980s as a student at Harvard Law School, and I think I could have forged a happy career with a law degree instead of a PhD. In the end, I decided that my comparative advantage was in economics rather than law, so I suspended my law studies. But I can always go back and finish the law degree if this economics thing doesn't work out for me.