Is a PhD right for me? Navigating the PhD admissions process

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This post is the first post in a series offering advice for prospective PhD students. This post lays out a series of questions and tips to help potential candidates decide whether to pursue a PhD in the first place. “Applying to PhD programs: Advice from J-PAL affiliates” covers advice on how to write a great PhD application once the decision to apply has been made, and "Choosing a PhD program: Advice from recent PhDs" offers advice on on factors to consider when choosing which PhD program to attend.

Deciding whether to pursue a PhD is a major life decision. Navigating the PhD admissions process can be stressful and uncertain, especially with limited information available to prospective applicants and admitted students. Implicit biases and uneven access to mentoring, networks, and resources can make it especially difficult for foreign applicants and applicants from underrepresented backgrounds to gain admission to top PhD programs in the United States and Europe. 

As we approach the end of this year’s PhD application cycle, we thought it useful to share some considerations for readers thinking about applying next fall. 

This blog synthesizes advice from a variety of sources, such as the American Economic Association, economics faculty members, and the authors' own experience, on deciding to apply for PhD programs in economics and related disciplines (e.g., political science, public policy, agricultural or applied economics, etc.) and how to craft a competitive application.

Is a PhD right for me?

PhD programs are designed primarily to train academics, but most PhD graduates end up working outside of academia. Many PhD students decide to pursue jobs outside of academia because jobs in industry or policy can offer higher salaries or opportunities to work on more applied projects without teaching responsibilities. Others end up in non-academic jobs because they are unable to secure a tenure track position at the type of university or in a location they desire. Accounting for academic and non-academic opportunities, PhD economists have higher rates of employment than PhDs from other disciplines.
I don’t want to be a professor. Should I still consider a PhD?

There is a big opportunity cost associated with pursuing a PhD. PhD stipends at top US programs are generally around $20,000-$40,000 per year. The median time to degree in US economics PhD programs is 5.8 years, and having a master’s degree doesn’t always make it shorter. A PhD may not necessarily improve competitiveness for non-academic jobs. For example, a new PhD graduate going into consulting would likely start at the same level as a new MBA graduate. 

However, skills developed in PhD programs can be valuable and applicable to non-academic jobs. For example, graduates of top PhD programs in economics and political science often develop high level data science skills, which are appealing to big tech companies like Google and Meta and some government agencies and multilateral organizations like the World Bank. In addition, while PhD programs are longer than master’s programs, many are fully funded, allowing students to graduate without significant graduate student loan debt.

The stress, workload, and lack of regular structure that PhD programs entail can make it difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Therefore, general interest in research and the PhD credential alone may be insufficient to maintain the motivation and focus required to complete a PhD program. Before applying to PhD programs, applicants should be confident in their ability to manage their time and stay self-motivated on complicated, slow-moving projects. It is also worth noting that perceptions of PhD research often differ from reality. For example, some students may spend more time on tasks like managing foreign research permits and data cleaning than on tasks like data collection, analysis, and writing. 

Will a PhD from a top program make me competitive for a tenure-track professorship at a top-tier research university?

Not necessarily. Top PhD programs produce far more PhDs than the number of open tenure track professor positions in these departments each year. Consequently, PhD candidates from top departments are more likely to find assistant professor jobs at lower-ranked departments, which makes the job market even more competitive for graduates of lower-ranked departments. 

What do I need to be a competitive candidate?

Should I do a predoc or a master’s first?

In the United States, master’s degrees are not required for admission to PhD programs. However, particularly for students who completed their bachelor’s degree abroad or whose undergraduate grades may not be stellar, master’s degrees can make applicants more competitive even though completing a master’s degree prior to a PhD does not necessarily shorten the time it will take to complete the PhD. 

Predoctoral research assistant positions (predocs) have become increasingly common (mainly in economics) in the past few years and can be an alternative to completing a master’s degree. Predoc programs are generally designed as an apprenticeship model, where predocs work directly with professors on research projects. Predoc programs also offer a more hands-on sense of what PhD research entails, which may help prospective applicants make a more informed decision about applying to PhD programs. Additionally, the supervising faculty member may be able to write a more compelling letter of recommendation, reflecting on the applicant’s demonstrated research skills from working on research projects. 

For individuals interested in pursuing a PhD in economics, predocs can be a more attractive option than a master’s because predoc positions are paid, whereas master’s students are not paid and need to pay tuition (which can be very expensive in the United States, and most master’s programs do not offer full scholarships or stipends). Some predoc programs also offer the opportunity to take classes during the predoc. More information about predoc programs including practice tests can be found at PREDOC (Pathways to Research and Doctoral Careers). 

For applicants with gaps in their undergraduate transcript (e.g., less than stellar grades or a major  in a different discipline) and for students who completed their bachelor’s degree at a lesser known university (e.g., a small university in a foreign country), a master’s degree could significantly improve one’s chance of admission. For more perspectives on the merits of pursuing a master’s before a PhD, see posts by Professors Dick Startz (UCSB) and Miles Kimball (Colorado).

Coursework and GRE

Admissions committees will look closely at undergraduate and master’s (if applicable) transcripts, particularly courses that focus on quantitative skills, such as multivariate calculus, linear algebra, real analysis, and statistics. An applicant’s undergraduate major does not need to be the same field of study as the discipline of their PhD, especially if they can demonstrate strong skills related to math and statistics and an understanding of what research in their PhD discipline entails. Experience with software or programming languages used for statistical analysis, web scraping, and data cleaning, such as Stata, R, and Python is very helpful for completing PhD coursework and research and may make applicants’ more competitive for admission. In addition, most economics PhD programs still pay attention to GRE scores despite their known limitations. In order to be competitive for top-ranked economics programs that accept GRE scores (even if they are optional), applicants may need to score in the 90th percentile or above in the quantitative section (see advice from Professors Chris Blattman and Dick Startz). 

Letters of Recommendation

Professors who can speak to applicants’ specific interests, experience, and research potential beyond their performance in class can typically write the strongest and most compelling letters of recommendation. All else equal, letters of recommendation from more well-known professors carry more weight. However, how well the professor knows the applicant and how detailed and specific of a letter they can write is more important. So if choosing between a well-known, senior faculty member who does not know the applicant well versus a junior faculty member who can speak to one’s specific strengths and research interests, choose the latter. Ideally all (or at least two) letter writers should be tenure track (or equivalent) faculty members in the same discipline who publish in top journals, and no more than one should be a professional recommendation (e.g., from a supervisor at an unrelated job). See further advice on letters of recommendation from Professors Susan Athey (Stanford) and Chris Blattman (Chicago).

Statement of Purpose

The statement of purpose is an opportunity to highlight the applicant’s research experience and research interests. It can describe research topics and methods completed in an undergraduate or master’s thesis or a research assistantship and plans to apply skills from such experiences to one’s doctoral research. Many programs do not accept separate writing samples, so the statement of purpose is also a way for the admissions committee to assess the quality of an applicant’s writing. Writing in the statement of purpose should be clear and professional. It should not be poetic and does not need not be highly creative. However, it is not advisable to simply follow templates that can be found online. 

Statements of purpose should demonstrate familiarity with the recent scholarship in the applicant’s area of interest and show that the applicant can identify potential research topics that are appropriate for the context of doctoral research. Research at the doctoral level is quite different from research applicants may have done for term papers at the undergraduate or master’s level. To get a sense of what cutting edge research in one’s field looks like, it is helpful to read articles published within the past five years from top journals in the discipline. 

Applicants should also tailor statements of purpose to specific programs for each application by mentioning relevant faculty members and research centers or institutes. For US programs, applicants may mention several professors who would be good advisors for different aspects of one’s doctoral study. For example, a student interested in conducting field experiments related to political economy in Southeast Asia might mention faculty members who do field experiments (regardless of topic and region), faculty who do research in Southeast Asia (but with different methods or topics), and faculty who study political economy (but with different methods or in a different region). Doing so does not commit the applicant to working with any of the faculty members mentioned but can indicate to the department that the applicant has done their homework and may be a good fit.

It is advisable to begin drafting statements of purpose early to allow time for feedback from professors and friends in PhD programs and multiple rounds of revision. J-PAL affiliated professor Chris Blattman (University of Chicago) offers more advice on writing statements of purpose here. More advice can also be found in this guide to applying to PhD programs in economics.

Weighting transcripts, letters, and the statement of purpose

Each component of the application serves a different purpose. Particularly in economics, coursework and GRE scores indicate to the department whether an applicant possesses the technical (and especially math) training necessary to get through first year theory courses and should be thought of as a necessary but not sufficient condition for admission. That is, insufficient math preparation, low grades, or low GRE scores can keep an applicant out of a program but on their own are not enough for admission.

The letters of recommendation and statement of purpose should speak to the applicant’s research potential, i.e., creativity, focus, and passion for doing research. The letters and statement of purpose may also speak to self-motivation and ability to pursue self-directed work, highlighting relevant soft skills and experiences that may not be obvious from only reading the applicant’s resume and transcript. 

Where to Apply

How many schools should I apply to? 

The average acceptance rate at top-25 ranked economics PhD programs is approximately 10% among an already self-selective group of highly qualified applicants. Given the abundance of qualified applicants, admissions decisions can be quite idiosyncratic. Departments seek balance across subfields and faculty advisors, so applicants' particular research interests can make them more or less competitive in ways that are difficult to predict. In addition, different professors and PhD students serve on the admissions committee each year, and each committee member may evaluate candidates and weigh criteria differently. Given the levels of competition and unpredictability, candidates often apply to a large number of programs (10-20), especially if targeting highly ranked schools. Most universities offer application fee waivers for applicants from low income backgrounds. 

How do programs in Europe and North America differ?

There can be substantive differences in program structure and application processes for PhD programs in Europe and North America. While there are also differences across different PhD programs within Europe and the United States, the following differences are common when comparing many (but not all) European versus American doctoral programs: 

  • Application processes: European doctoral programs often require master’s degrees and a dissertation proposal as part of the application package. Some European universities offer doctoral tracks for 2-year master’s programs, which allow successful students to continue directly into the doctoral program in the same department. Although some North American PhD students complete master’s degrees before the PhD, this is typically not required. US programs do not require a full dissertation proposal as part of the application. Instead, applicants to US programs describe their research interests more broadly in a statement of purpose. 
  • Coursework and dissertation: In North American programs, PhD students spend the first two years focusing on coursework and exams. In these programs, students typically only develop their dissertation prospectus in their third year after completing coursework. By contrast, in many European programs, PhD students begin research right away and are therefore expected to have a more detailed sense of their research agenda, and in some cases, their specific research question and design, when they apply. Most European PhD programs also have some course requirements (e.g., advanced microeconomics and econometrics) but these requirements are often smaller for the shorter programs, and sometimes they are not contained to the first year. However, some European PhD programs, such as the Zurich Graduate School of Economics, follow the US model with two years of coursework in a five-year program. 
  • Program duration: Many European PhD programs are 3-4 years (though average completion times are longer for top programs) while US programs are typically 5-7 years. Entering US programs with a master’s degree can sometimes shorten program duration, while collecting original data or conducting fieldwork often extends it.
  • Advising: In North America, PhD students are advised by a dissertation committee of 4-5 professors, of whom one or two is a chair or co-chair. As a result, in North American programs, it is less important to have one advisor with perfectly aligned research interests. Instead, a student may have one committee member who specializes in the same methods, another who focuses on the same region, and another who studies the same topic (but with different methods or in a different context). 
  • Funding: Most top-ranked US PhD programs offer a full funding package, e.g., five years of guaranteed tuition plus stipend (usually with some teaching assistant or research assistant requirements) to all admitted students (including international students). In some European countries, especially in Scandinavia, PhD students are treated as employees with salaries and benefits. However, top-ranked PhD programs in some European countries such as the United Kingdom and Italy do not automatically offer funding packages along with admission, requiring students to apply for separate fellowships to cover the cost of living. Some US PhD programs also do not guarantee full funding packages to all admitted students so it is advisable to check tuition and stipend arrangements for each program individually.

Regardless of whether applying to PhD programs in North America or Europe, if one’s goal is to become a tenure track (or equivalent) professor in a top-ranked university in either region, it is advisable to pursue PhD programs in top ranked universities with a strong track record of placing PhD students in such positions after graduation. Many PhD programs feature their “placement record” from recent years on their department website, which can be informative for prospective applicants seeking traditional academic careers.

We hope the information in this blog post helps you consider whether pursuing a PhD is right for you and helps you craft a competitive application should you decide to apply. We encourage prospective applicants to explore the additional resources listed below, including mentorship programs for underrepresented groups and advice from professors on applying to PhD programs.

Mentorship resources

Several organizations offer mentorship resources and programs for aspiring PhD applicants from underrepresented groups: 

Applicant Mentoring Program (Cambridge, LSE, Oxford, UCL, Warwick)
Application Assistance and Mentorship Program (MIT, Harvard)
Duke University Graduate Mentorship Program
GAIN (Graduate Applications International Network for African scholars)
Research in Color
AMIE (Association for Mentoring and Inclusion in Economics)
The Sadie Collective
The Women in Economics Initiative

Additional resources

AEA: Considerations for prospective graduate students in economics
Applying to PhD Programs in Economics: An Extensive Guide
Association for the Advancement of African Women Economists: Applying to Graduate Schools
Chris Blattman (University of Chicago): Frequently asked questions on PhD applications and Writing your statement of purpose
EconThaki resources (and guide for applying from Peru)
Aplicar Desde México
Aplicar Desde Argentina
Guia para futuros doutores (Brazil)
Guia dos economistas (Brazil)
So you want to go to graduate school? Factors that influence admissions to economics PhD programs
Shanjun Li (Cornell): Resources
Dick Startz (UCSB): Advice
Susan Athey (Stanford): Advice 
Chris Roth (University of Cologne) and David Schindler (Tilburg University): Resources
Greg Mankiw (Harvard): Advice

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