Is economics a science? Ask twenty different masters of this discipline and you'll get twenty different answers, ranging from "Absolutely not!" to "Yes, definitively!" Economists continue to fight to have their craft taken as seriously in scientific circles as physics, chemistry, and biology.
However, perhaps economics' status as a science, non-science, or social science isn't actually all that important. Alan Y. Wang, who stands firmly on the economics-is-not-a-science side of the argument, succinctly puts it in an essay for the Harvard Crimson: "I believe that economics is a crucial field that directly impacts most everyone on this planet, perhaps more so than any other subject. The discovery of the Higgs-Boson made headline news around the world and has been heralded as one of the greatest triumphs of mankind's collective intellect in history, but the Higgs-Boson has very little bearing, if any, on the daily lives of people."
Economics underpins many areas of business, from finance to marketing. It influences choices we make about work, play, and family. And large-scale economic trends have a huge impact on our lives. It is a complex and fascinating subject. While the status of economics as a hard science may be up in the air, studying it like one in an economics degree program can lead you down a lot of interesting and lucrative career pathways in business, healthcare, politics, and education.
Don't start planning your big move to the northeast to enroll in an on-campus graduate degree program at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or Princeton University (arguably the best graduate schools for economics) just yet, however. It's possible to earn a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Arts (MA) in economics online from colleges and universities near the top of the school rankings—a decision that, as you'll see below, can save you time and may save you money, too, as long as you're willing to put in some extra work outside of class.
In this article, we list the best online master's in economics programs and cover:
You could become an economist, but it's worth noting that becoming an economist is more like becoming a doctor than becoming a software developer. Just as a doctor might work in pediatrics, cardiology, emergency medicine, or surgery, an economist can work in the corporate world as an econometrician, for a government agency, at a think tank, in academia, or for a lobbying firm or politician. Your goals and responsibilities may differ in each of these settings, but the skills and knowledge you'll use will be the same.
You might also work in:
Generalist economics master's degree programs include core courses in microeconomics, macroeconomics, quantitative methods, econometrics, and data analysis. These subjects are essential in a variety of careers.
Some master's in economics allow students to customize their degrees based on their aspirations. Some programs let students choose from among a wide variety of electives to create a custom specialization, while others offer a selection of set concentration options, like:
Your interests and your career goals should be front of mind when choosing a concentration. Think carefully before choosing an online master's in economics program that doesn't offer any opportunities for students to tailor their academic experiences.
Economics is part of the curriculum in most MBA programs, and there are specialized MBA in Economics programs that cover many of the same core concepts as master's in economics programs. There are some significant differences between these degree pathways, however.
For example, MBA programs typically take longer to complete, are more expensive, and have stricter professional experience requirements for applicants. However, the most glaring difference is that the MBA is first and foremost a broadly focused business degree. In contrast, an MS or MA in Economics is a highly specialized field-specific degree. In online MBA programs—even those that offer an economics specialization—students take more core courses on business management topics. In online master's in economics programs, most coursework is focused on economic theories and principles.
As a result, these two degrees support different kinds of careers. The MBA in Economics will be most helpful if you want to launch a career in management. However, if you're going to spend your professional life in research, public policy, or consulting, the online master's in economics is the better choice.
The Master of Arts in Economics, Master of Economics (MEcon or MEc), and Master of Science in Economics—all of which are basically identical in terms of program content— aren't the only non-MBA options for students who want to study economics at the master's degree level. Economics is, as noted above, a field divided into many areas of specialization, and there are online master's degrees for each.
Depending on your interests and aspirations, it may make more sense to pursue one of the following degrees instead of a generalist online master's in economics:
Think of the above degrees as offering concentrations on steroids. If you want to go all-in professionally on a discipline like financial economics or quantitative economics, you may get more out of a dedicated degree program than in a full-time or part-time graduate program that devotes the majority of credit hours to core coursework.
In many disciplines, students who opt to study online are spoiled for choice. Economics isn't one of them. The list of the best online master's in economics programs is relatively short:
There are no specific educational requirements or licensing requirements for economists, which means that technically, you're an economist once you graduate with an online Master of Science in Economics. Whether you'll be an economist qualified in the eyes of others to tackle economic problems may depend on where you're looking for work.
In academic settings, you will most likely need a PhD in Economics and expertise in advanced theory before you can call yourself an economist. In business settings, you can reasonably call yourself an economist if you have a master's degree and you're doing the work of one. In government agencies, you might not even need a master's degree, provided you've taken enough bachelor's degree-level courses in economics, statistics, and calculus.
That said, while an online master's degree program can prepare you to identify economic trends and make predictions based on those trends, you might have trouble landing a job on the strength of this degree alone. Getting a master's in economics may only be the first step in your career journey. Before you can become the next James Heckman, you will probably need to beef up your resume. Even if the master's in economics program you choose doesn't require students to complete an internship, consider completing one on your own in whatever industry or industries interest you most. You'll get a chance to work alongside seasoned economists, use data visualization software, and see an economist's day-to-day duties.
You can also pursue certifications on your own after earning this degree. Look into professional certifications from the:
Finally, you may need to move. Pursuing a master's in economics online means you can study anywhere. It doesn't follow that you can work everywhere. Washington DC employs five times as many economists as any one state in the US. California, Virginia, New York, and Texas have the next-highest employment rates. Chances are that the majority of economists working in those states are at companies headquartered in major metro areas.
There are many good reasons to choose an online degree program. Affordability is one. Earning a master's in economics online may not mean paying a lower tuition rate. Still, it might save you money in the long run because you won't be paying commuting or relocation costs. You may also be able to continue working and earning money while pursuing your degree online, which can give you a substantial financial advantage.
There is one significant downside you should consider before you commit to an online master's in economics program, however. Online master's programs for graduate students cannot replicate the experience of studying on campus in its entirety. You may take classes with the same illustrious faculty, cut your teeth on the same case studies, and earn the same diploma. However, you'll step into the workforce lacking some of the resources and support that students in on-campus programs amass through connections made in the classroom, during on-campus events, and through clubs.
You can find resources on your own and build your own network of support, but you'll have to put in the work before and after graduation. The first step is to take advantage of every opportunity to connect with your fellow students and professors virtually. Make a point of getting to know your peers outside of virtual classroom discussions.
Next, start researching professional organizations. Join those that have the most to offer in terms of networking events, professional development opportunities, conferences, certificate programs, and mentorship programs. There are quite a few professional groups for economists, including:
The more you can do to bolster your career through networking and professional development, the better. With a master's in economics under your belt, you might earn around $80,000. With a degree from one of the best online master's in economics programs, you'll probably earn more. If you really want to boost your earning potential, though, you'll have to hustle. Economics is a competitive field, and master's degrees are becoming as common as bachelor's degrees in many markets—which means getting a master's in economics, whether you study online or on-campus, makes good economic sense. How far you take your career after graduation will be up to you.
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