Preparation for PhD

Preparation for PhD Program

Applications for Ph.D. programs are due early, often in Fall of the year preceding admission. There is big advantage in future success in enrolling in the best program(s) that will admit you. You should apply to a number and range of programs to hedge your bets and because a certain element of chance is involved.

Key information for admission includes:

  • Overall GPA
  • Letters of recommendation. This component is essential. A letter that says only that you have a good overall GPA is not helpful because it adds nothing to what is already in the transcript. A constructive letter says that the professor has known you for some time, and thinks you are a mature and smart person capable of independent research.
  • Major GPA
  • Any research experience (as an undergraduate or in [postgraduate employment) or substantive essays in coursework.
  • Performance on the GRE if required. Take the test before Fall. If advisors know your score, then they can give you a better idea of how high to shoot. And if you don't like your score, you have time for a retake.

To obtain the most useful recommendation letter, you need to develop a relationship with the professor writing a letter. Ways to do this include working (as a reader or TA), attending office hours often, interaction in class, taking more than one class from the same professor, and writing a term paper or honors thesis. Tell the professor about the range of schools in which you are interested. Information to give the professor typically includes: transcript (most professors will accept a photocopy, but ask first); statement of purpose; other personal information relevant to explaining your goals and parts of your past that you would like to be highlighted (or downplayed); and written work from the class, such as essays or exams that can give more information than just the recorded score. Try to give the recommendation forms to be completed by the professor in a packet rather than one school at a time.

More Information on a Ph.D. in Economics

The preceding information is relevant for Ph.D. degrees in a range of economics-related fields including Economics, Public Policy, Health Policy, Business and Finance.

Economics Ph.D. programs are oriented to people seeking careers in academia or the government. The American Economic Association website is a good reference for Ph.D. study in economics. Ph.D. students do course work for the first two or so years before moving to the thesis. If you don't go on to the thesis, you can usually get a master's degree as a consolation prize. A thesis takes a long time, and five years is a quick time to complete the Ph.D. If you want to pursue a Ph.D. degree and are well prepared coming out of UC Davis, then apply for admission to a Ph.D. program and not a master's degree program.

Admission to the better Ph.D. programs comes with four-five years of funding sufficient to cover tuition and living expenses, in return for working 20 hours a week as a teaching assistant (TA) or resident advisor (RA).

Graduate programs in economics are very mathematical by comparison to undergraduate programs, and lack of mathematical ability is a key indicator of failure. The economics section of the GRE is much less important. Consequently, a key admission criterion is what math classes you have taken.

  • A minimum preparation for a PhD in Economics or in Data Analysis is: Lower division advanced calculus (MAT 21A-D), linear algebra (MAT 22A/AL or MAT 67), probability and statistics (STA 130A-B or the more advanced 131A-B), and econometrics (ECN 140). 
  • Entry into a top 50 Economics Ph.D. is exceptionally competitive and you need some upper division mathematics. The courses to take are, in order: Abstract Mathematics (MAT 108), Real Analysis (MAT 127A-B), and Probability Theory (MAT 135A). If you take MAT 135A then you need not take STA 130A-B or 131A-C. A minor in Mathematics is 20 upper division units. Other courses to consider are Stochastic processes (MAT 135B) and Partial Differential Equations (MAT 118A). If you complete most of these math upper division courses before your last year at Davis, you can talk to the instructor of ECN 239 (only offered in fall) and see if you can be admitted to take one first-year PhD course together with our own PhD students. Satisfactory performance in a PhD course and a letter from the instructor can help with your application.

An overview of undergraduate courses at U.C. Davis in Economics, Statistics, Computer Science, and Communications especially useful for data analysis is provided here.