Math and Economics at Princeton

I was asked to contribute to a new guide for Princeton students majoring in mathematics. My section advises students who may be interested in pursuing graduate school or research in economics.

Math and Economics

I don’t know if there is a news magazine called the Mathematician, but there is one called the Economist, and it’s read by economists, policy makers, and millions of others every week (mathematicians included). The title of the magazine speaks to the crucial role that economics plays in policy-making, business, and other fields today. And though it may seem that economists simply like to bicker over arcane ideology–neo-monetarists always battling neo-Keynesians–that’s largely not the case. Instead, economics is a wide, rich, and growing field dedicated to solving real-world problems. Plus, economic theory and data analysis is driven by math. So what’s not to like?

Math majors often find it easy to study economics on the side, and a few Princeton math majors every year end up in economics graduate school or conducting economics research. Math majors who go into economics are often seen as technically competent and able to pursue interdisciplinary research.

Although Princeton does not offer a certificate in economics (finance is not the same thing), there are a few classes that graduate schools and employers will look for. Specifically, graduate schools require:

  • Econ 310: Mathematical Intermediate Microeconomics. Students can take this course without having taken introductory microeconomics.
  • Econ 311: Mathematical Intermediate Macroeconomics. Ditto.
  • Econ 312: Mathematical Econometrics.

Beyond the required courses, though, students have wide latitude in choosing their courses. Other recommended courses are:

  • Statistics: ORF 245 or POL 345. The AP Statistics test is adequate, as is self-study.
  • Probability: highly recommended for math-econ students. ORF 309 or Math 390.
  • Programming: COS 226 or COS 323. Economic research is becoming more and more technical/CS oriented.

Admission into competitive economic graduate schools depends on several factors, including your grades in the above courses. Also important are letters of recommendation, research background, GRE scores, and graduate courses.

  • Letters of recommendation: Princeton has many top economics professors, so graduate schools will want to see at least one letter of recommendation from a top econ professor. Take a class with one or get involved with research on campus.
  • Research background: Schools don’t expect math students to have significant economics research under their belt (let alone published papers), but a junior paper or summer internship in economics will only help. One’s senior thesis doesn’t necessarily have to be in economics (and choosing to work with an economics professor can sometimes backfire since they may also be advising five or more other students). Some students choose to spend one or more years post-graduation working in economic research before going to graduate school. A good place to look for such fellowships is at the NBER.
  • GRE: Take a good two weeks off during the summer to study for the GRE. A good score on the GRE will strengthen your application. If your grades in math classes are lower than you hoped, you can also take the GRE math subject test (but this isn’t necessary for most students). There is no GRE economics subject test.
  • Graduate courses: some economics-oriented math majors choose to take classes from the core sequence of the economics PhD program at Princeton (micro 501-502, macro 503-504, and econometrics 517-518). This helps for admissions but certainly isn’t required (don’t do this if there are more interesting courses you want to take at Princeton). One advantage is that students don’t have to repeat the courses if they matriculate in Princeton’s PhD program.
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