How to Become an Economist - Education & Qualifications

An economist studies the production, consumption, and transfer of wealth, and by putting that study into practice, they move the levers of modern society. On a political level, economics drives nations’ physical development, governments’ social reforms, and authoritarianism’s rise and fall. On a personal level, economics can feed famished populations, create green-energy revolutions, and empower consumers through new microloan products.

Economists are critical in both understanding and harnessing the power of economics. They research economic issues, conduct surveys to collect data, study economic trends through statistical and mathematical analysis, and present their research to businesses, governments, and individuals. This analysis also allows them to suggest courses of action that consider the goals of a corporation, government, organization, or an individual.

Economics lies at the heart of practically everything in the modern world. Economists may work primarily with numbers and data sets, but their findings and recommendations have the power to create change in massive and meaningful ways. Economics as a field has grown increasingly complex, and competition for economist jobs has reflexively begun to favor those with a master’s degree or a PhD.

If you’re interested in studying how the gears of modern society tick, read on to get a step-by-step guide on how to become an economist.

Featured Economics Programs
Grand Canyon University BS - EconomicsVisit Site
George Mason University Online MA - EconomicsVisit Site
Arizona State University Economics (BS)Visit Site

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN Southern New Hampshire University Online MS - Construction Management

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming an Economist

Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

After graduating high school, prospective economists must earn a bachelor’s degree. While there is some flexibility in which type of undergraduate degree an economist can have (e.g., accounting, finance, mathematics), majoring in economics is obviously the strongest option for someone committed to the subject.

Bachelor’s degrees in economics come in two main categories: the bachelor of arts in economics (BA) and the bachelor of science in economics (BS). BA degrees in economics tend to focus on theory and social sciences.

For example, the BA in economics degree from New York University (NYU) specializes in economic theory, macroeconomics, international economics, and economic growth and development. Graduates from this program go on to pursue graduate students or careers in business or public administration.

On the other hand, BS degrees in economics, such as the one offered by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, focus on applying business methods and economic theory to real-world problems, prioritizing mathematical and statistical knowledge. At the same time, neither degree is, in a vacuum, better than the other, a BS degree in economics may provide a stronger foundation for future graduate-level study.

Several economics undergraduate programs, both BA and BS, offer dual-degree options that pair with another field like mathematics or computer science. Even within a singular economics degree, many universities allow students to specialize in a particular area of focus by adding a concentration in behavioral economics, healthcare, finance, or environmental policy. Building a solid base of foundational knowledge, while exploring possible concentrations and other areas of focus through free electives, can prepare an economist to select the next steps of their journey.

Step Two: Research Internship Opportunities (One to Two Years, Optional)

Relevant work experience is the best education one can get. Full-time paid positions for people with bachelor’s degrees in economics exist, but they’re few and far between, and may not contain many opportunities for advancement.

Internships may be unpaid positions, but they’re a solid way to gain relevant experience by applying the skills you’ve recently learned. Many of today’s economist internships ask that applicants have a working understanding of Python, R, and other data visualization software. These internships also include working alongside full-time employees and working at the full pace of operations, which provides extremely valuable hands-on experience for later applications to graduate programs or other full-time jobs.

Some internships require applicants to be currently enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program, but they may also subsidize part of an intern’s tuition. While this is an entirely optional step, the final years of an undergraduate degree up to the first year of a graduate degree program are the ideal time to begin researching and applying for economist internships.

Step Three: Pursue a Master’s Degree (Two Years)

In a competitive market, differentiation is critical. And for economists, a master’s degree is now almost as standard as a bachelor’s degree. Economists have two general options here: an MBA with an economics concentration or a master’s degree in economics (either MA or MS).

Utica University

To help organizations project future growth, a master’s degree in economics specializing in finance is a major asset. For example, the online MBA in finance and accounting at Utica University prepares students to predict profit growth in various industries and organizations. Introducing students to managerial accounting, this fully online program will teach them to examine the factors that influence contemporary issues in cost management.

Made up of 30 credits, the program includes courses such as principles and practices of leadership; forensic accounting; advanced managerial accounting; financial statement analysis; advanced corporate finance; financial fluency; and data-driven decision-making.

Admission requirements to the program include a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution, a minimum GPA of 2.7, a personal statement, two professional references, official transcripts, a current resume, and TOEFL or IELTS scores for international students. GRE or GMAT scores are not required for admission.

  • Location: Utica, NY
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE); Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months

New York University – Leonard N. Stern School of Business

An MBA provides a broad and generalist foundation of business knowledge, and the specialization in economics comes as a smaller and secondary learning priority. For example, the MBA specializing in economics at NYU Stern supplements its baseline MBA program with classes in econometrics; the economics of healthcare; the economy and financial markets; growth in the developing world and the global economy; and energy and the environment.

While such a program provides broad exposure to several more nuanced directions that economists can take, it doesn’t prepare a graduate for a doctoral degree or work as a specialized economist. Graduates of this program will be able to take up real estate, global business, and finance careers, such as corporate finance, asset management, equity and fixed-income research, public finance, international finance, and real estate finance.

  • Location: New York City, NY
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months

Duke University – Trinity College of Arts and Sciences

A master’s degree in economics, either a master of science (MS) or a master of arts (MA), is a deep and purist approach to graduate-level study for economists. Any school’s degree program and curriculum must be evaluated against one’s personal goals for a future career as an economist.

There may be an industry bias towards the MS degree being more rigorous. Still, many MA programs take a sternly quantitative approach, such as the MA program from Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, which includes several classes in advanced microeconomic and macroeconomic analysis, applied econometrics, and both time series and financial econometrics. The program comprises 30 credits.

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four semesters

Drexel University – LeBow College of Business

An MS or MA in economics is the ideal time for prospective economists to choose which sub-discipline of economics they wish to work in. For example, the MS in economics offered by Drexel’s LeBow College of Business allows students to pick one of three tracks for their degree: public policy, for those who want to work in government or nonprofit sectors; industry, for those who wish to work in the private sector; and academic research, for those who intend to pursue a PhD in economics.

Comprising 45 credits, the program includes courses such as mathematical economics; microeconomics; econometrics; introduction to econometric data analysis; and time series econometrics.

Applicants to the program must have a bachelor’s degree either in economics or another discipline, a minimum grade point average of 3.0, GRE or GMAT scores, a personal statement, two letters of recommendation, and TOEFL scores for applicants whose native language is not English.

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE); Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Part-time (24 to 36 months); full-time (18 months)

Purdue University – Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business

Purdue University’s online master of science in economics is ranked among the best online MS in economics programs. The program teaches students the quantitative and analytic methods they need for evaluating, optimizing, and forecasting key business and economic outcomes such as product prices, stock markets, growth, production, inflation, welfare, and employment.

Taught by dedicated and leading economics faculty members, this program allows students to choose from four available specialization options: business and data analytics; financial economics; public economics and policy; and advanced theory.

Consisting of 30 credits, the program includes coursework in statistical analysis for economists; mathematics for economists; econometrics; game theory; financial econometrics; behavioral economics; industrial economics; and wage discrimination.

  • Location: West Lafayette, IN
  • Accreditation: The Higher Learning Commission (HLC); Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 20 to 36 months

American University – Kogod School of Business

American University offers an online master of arts in Economics specializing in applied economics, preparing students to analyze data, apply their analysis to economic policy, and translate its meaning for a wide audience. Taught by esteemed scholars and economists, students in this program will be prepared to quantify and analyze organizational and human behavior, interpret economic models, test hypotheses, apply mathematical and statistical theories, and know the financial system.

The program comprises 30 credits, including courses such as introduction to mathematical economics; microeconomic theory; macroeconomic theory; applied econometrics; labor economics; survey of economic development; and public economics.

To get accepted into the program, applicants must have an undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university, a completed application, a statement of purpose, a current resume, official transcripts from all academic institutions, and letters of recommendation.

  • Location: Washington, DC
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 20 months

Step Four: Gain Work Experience (Timeline Varies)

After earning a master’s degree, the training wheels are off, and it’s time to enter the workforce. Your specializations and academic arc up to this point should suggest which type of employer you’ll be seeking out.

Those interested in working for the private sector will be looking in major metropolitan areas for opportunities with employers like oil and gas companies, utility companies, large financial institutions, and real estate firms. Those more ideologically aligned will seek out work with green energy businesses, think tanks, governments, universities, and nonprofits.

Economists of all sorts spend the majority of their time behind a computer, working with data analysis. But they also work side by side with policy experts, statisticians, and executives to dictate economic strategy. A central and organized platform, Job Openings for Economists (JOE), run by the American Economic Association, exists to help economists build their careers.

Step Five: Consider a PhD (Four to Seven Years, Optional)

For highly dedicated economists who aren’t afraid of academia, a PhD is an option to consider. Some schools don’t require a master’s degree, while others, such as the PhD program at Stanford University, offer a reduced course load for those who have already completed a master’s.

Classes, seminars, and workshops in a PhD program will entirely depend upon one’s selected area of focus. But in every case, it’s incredibly important to have a solid mathematical ability, generally scoring better than the 90th percentile on the quantitative portion of the GRE.

In an economics PhD program, you can select what to research from a wide range of options, and you’ll be given relative autonomy in completing your studies and dissertations over the intervening years. The most popular focus areas for economics PhD students are macroeconomics, labor economics, microeconomic theory, industrial organization, and development. Despite the autonomy, you will most likely be required to teach at the university for some time while completing your PhD. This means an intensive work and study schedule that you may need to take authorship over. Disciplined, self-starting multitasking is a must.

The good news is that for all this work, you are practically guaranteed a job; those holding a PhD in economics have a very low unemployment rate. Those with an economics PhD can teach at the university level and are considered experts in their field. Outside academia, economists with PhDs work for some of the biggest and highest impact organizations: the International Monetary Fund, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, RAND, and the World Bank.

Step Six: Join Professional Societies and Achieve Certification (Timeline Varies)

Once you’ve collected your degrees, it’s time to mix with your economist colleagues through professional societies. These organizations host conferences, talks, and think tanks that keep the academic rigor alive well into the late stages of an economist’s career. They also act as a broker of standards for professional excellence.

For example, the National Association of Business Economics (NABE) offers professional certification as a Certified Business Economist (CBE). Applicants with at least a four-year degree, two years of work experience, and membership with NABE are eligible to take the multiple-choice CBE exam with 137 questions covering applied econometrics, statistics and data analysis, economic measurement, managerial decision-making, macroeconomics, and microeconomics.

The three-hour, 15-minute exam is offered monthly, and applicants can either self-study or enroll in some of NABE’s preparatory courses. While not a requirement, holding such a certification cements an economist’s authority as an expert and acts as a mark of distinction. The exam fee is $250.

Occupational Demand and Salaries for Economists

Jobs for economists are projected to increase by 6 percent nationwide between 2022 and 2032, which is faster than the average across all professions (3 percent) in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2023). However, economics as a field has grown increasingly complex, and competition for economist jobs has reflexively begun to favor those with a master’s degree or a PhD.

The fact that Washington DC employs significantly more economists than any individual state in the U.S.—and roughly six times as many as any other metropolitan area—is telling. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2023), the Federal Executive Branch is the largest employer of economists.

Economists have a wide spectrum of pay. The 16,240 economists in the country earned an average annual salary of $132,650 with the following percentiles (BLS May 2023):

United States
Number employed in the U.S. 16,240
Average Annual Salary $132,650
10th percentile $62,520
25th percentile $82,330
50th percentile (median) $115,730
75th percentile $166,070
90th percentile $216,900

An economist’s employer and geography play a significant factor in determining where one places on that spectrum. Economists earn the most in monetary authority, a fact reinforced by BLS data which shows the District of Columbia, New York, and Illinois as the areas with the highest average salary for economists.

Helpful Resources for Economists

Economics is an ongoing conversation between differing worldviews and theories. Economists must continue their self-directed education long after they’ve finished school by staying up-to-date on where the global conversation is heading.

More perfect understandings of economics evolve through the competition of rigorously peer-reviewed theories and studies. To this end, many economists join professional societies and engage with academic journals. If you want to eavesdrop on where the economic conversation is headed at this very moment, check out some of the resources below:

  • American Economic Association (AEA)
  • Association for Social Economists (ASE)
  • National Association for Business Economics (NABE)
  • World Economics Association (WEA)
  • Job Openings for Economists (JOE)
  • Journal of Political Economy
  • Journal of Financial Economics
  • Cambridge Journal of Economics
  • The Review of Economic Studies
Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about how new and aspiring business school students can best plan their education and careers. In the Two Views series, he conducts detailed interviews with recent business school alumni, with a particular focus on the choice between in-person, online, and hybrid learning models. His Femme-BA series highlights business schools that not only excel academically but also take unique and robust steps to support a diverse and inclusive learning environment for women.

Related Posts

  • 29 November 2023

    List of MBA Associations and Organizations (2024)

    Students should not limit themselves by relying exclusively on their school’s clubs for networking opportunities. Compelling arguments exist for joining local chapters of global, national, and regional professional organizations while students are still in business school.

  • 12 November 2023

    MBA Salary Guide: Starting Salaries & Highest Paying MBA Concentrations (2023)

    Specializations amount to critical choices in an MBA student’s career. They permit students to immediately deliver highly marketable skills to an employer upon graduation, the value for which most employers will gladly pay handsome salaries.

  • 19 April 2022

    Y Combinator & Other Seed Funding Basics for MBA Student Startups

    At some point during business school, many MBA students will have an opportunity to join a startup company, and some will even launch startups as founders. For many students, launching a startup is the objective that drives their applications to business school.

  • 2 September 2021

    Are Banking Careers for MBAs Obsolete?

    The banking industry is in trouble. The record profits recently posted by some blue-chip players are illusory because they mask grim, extinction-level challenges ahead. While banking faces severe threats from skyrocketing costs, the sector also faces disruptive competition from aggressive Silicon Valley fintech firms that enjoy overwhelming cost and technology advantages.

  • 18 July 2019

    UNC’s Kenan-Flagler: Two Views, One Business School

    In the nascent years of online MBA programs, there was a clear hierarchy: on-campus programs were considered the premier option, while online programs were considered second-rate. That hierarchy doesn’t exist anymore.

  • 10 July 2019

    Femme-BAs: How the Foster School of Business Wins with Women

    Many business schools still have demographics in the student body and faculty that seem pulled from the previous century. In Foster’s eyes, however, the concepts of diversity and inclusion aren’t a sidebar but rather they’re core tenets of what it means to be an innovative and contemporary business school.

  • 8 July 2019

    Why Older Professionals Enroll in MBA Programs

    In some cases, age comes with benefits. And when applying for an MBA program, work experience matters a lot. Acceptance rates at top business schools can be higher for older professionals.