How to Become an Economist (Also: What Do Economists Do?)

How to Become an Economist (Also: What Do Economists Do?)
Many economists earn more than $100,000 a year. Image from Death to Stock Photos
Alicia Betz profile
Alicia Betz November 6, 2019

They call it 'the dismal science,' but they're probably just being ironic, right? I mean, what's dismal about supply-demand curves, cost-benefit analyses, and user-impact studies? You'll be invited to every party! Also, you'll make a good living and help improve the economy.

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Contrary to popular belief, economists do not spontaneously appear fully formed as tweed-jacketed old men muttering nebulously about deadweight loss and Laffer curves. In fact, anybody can become an economist.

Economists conduct research and prepare reports that look at the trends in the economy. As an economist, you might work with government agencies or businesses and corporations. Some of the most common job duties of economists include:

Do you think you have what it takes to become an economist? If you love math, analyzing data, and predicting the future of the economy while sitting in your study and wearing a tweed jacket (elbow patches optional), this is a profession worth considering. In this article, we’ll cover:

  • The pros and cons of becoming an economist
  • Kinds of economist careers
  • Educational commitment to become an economist
  • Licensure and accreditation for becoming an economist
  • Resources for becoming an economist
  • Typical advancement path for economists
  • Further accreditation or education for economists

Pros and cons of becoming an economist

We tend to think of economists as academics or government analysts, but you can actually find jobs as an economist in many different industries in the public and private sectors. Economists work for:

Many private companies need help navigating the market economy, and an economist is the perfect person to turn to when they need guidance. Maybe you’ll become a management consultant or an actuary. Your career path is really up to you, as there are a lot of different directions you can go with a career in economics.

Pros of becoming an economist:

  • Economists typically work normal business hours
  • Many economists earn more than $100,000 a year
  • Potential opportunities to travel, especially if you work in international trade
  • With globalization and other factors, job prospects remain steady for the foreseeable future; the BLS projects a job growth rate in economics of eight percent between 2018 and 2028, which is faster than the growth rate for all jobs

Cons of becoming an economist:

  • It can take many years of education, advanced degrees, and work experience to land a job; some top positions require a PhD, which can require eight years of graduate study
  • This can be a high-pressure job
  • Economics is known as ‘the dismal science’; you’ll need to deal with people’s preconceptions of economics as difficult and uninteresting

“I’m ready for a degree!”

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Kinds of economist careers

Majoring in economics doesn’t pigeonhole you into the job title “economist” forever. Here are some other jobs you can pursue with an economics degree:

Even within the field of economics, there are many specialties you can focus on, including:

  • Applied economics
  • Macroeconomics
  • Microeconomics
  • Econometrics
  • Public economics
  • Labor economics

Regardless of the field and specialty you pursue, you’ll need to have some of the following skills to be a successful economist:

  • Planning skills
  • Analytical skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Speaking skills
  • Writing skills
  • Mathematical skills
  • Decision-making skills

Educational commitment for becoming an economist

The educational commitment for becoming an economist is extensive; many jobs in the field require a master’s degree or PhD. As a result, it can take anywhere from four to twelve years to complete your schooling. It’s also beneficial to complete some internships and/or get some work experience under your belt, which could further lengthen the education and training stage of your career.

You may choose to study economics as an undergraduate, but it’s not necessary to become an economist. If you pursue a different major, make sure to take courses in economics so that you’ll have the groundwork laid for graduate study in the field. Since economics is heavily math-based, you may want to consider a major in mathematics or statistics. Regardless of your major, you should take some courses in these disciplines as well.

In a Master of Science in Economics program, you’ll likely take such courses as:

  • Statistics
  • Mathematics
  • Econometrics
  • Finance Theory
  • Microeconomics
  • Macroeconomics
  • International Economics
  • Machine Learning and Big Data
  • Valuation
  • Economic Policy

Most programs also require a thesis project to conclude the degree.

While not required, it’s always a good idea to continue your education even after you start working. The American Economic Association offers a continuing education program that is geared towards academics but could benefit economists in any industry. You can always take courses at local or online colleges to keep your skills sharp and your knowledge of current trends up-to-date.

Licensure and accreditation for becoming an economist

Economists do not need to be accredited, licensed, or certified. Certifications are available, however, and will certainly add value to your résumé. They include:

Resources for becoming an economist

You’re not going to get far in the workplace without resources and support, even if it’s just a colleague to vent to after a long day. No matter what branch of economics you go into—environmental economics or economic analysis, public sector or private sector—you’ll have your ups and downs. Even if you love your job, you’ll have some hard and stressful days, and a good colleague to lean on can make all the difference. Your colleagues can also be a great help when you’re stuck or frustrated on the job.

Before you get to that point, though, you need to land the job. One of the biggest hurdles to becoming an economist is the amount of time it takes to gain the required experience, education, and expertise to find a job and be confident in your abilities. Before you start down this path, make sure you’re willing to put in the time and work to make it to the end.

For students, up-and-coming economists, and/or seasoned market research analysts, professional organizations are a great place to turn. They offer support, professional development, networking, and so much more. Whether you’re working towards your bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctoral degree, or your next job, you can benefit from checking out The National Association for Business Economics (NABE) and the American Economic Association (AEA).

With your strong analytical skills as a future or current economist, you’ve probably already figured out that the path to becoming an economist is far from cheap. AEA provides funding and grants. The U.S. Department of Education also offers funding and grants for undergraduate and graduate degree students.

Typical advancement path for economists

Once you graduate from your degree program, you can start looking for work, which will be easier to find if you already have experience from internships or part-time jobs. Employers generally prefer applicants who can demonstrate experience in economic analysis, problem-solving skills, and other job-related skills and qualities.

One of the best places to start looking for a job is within your professional network, which is another reason internships can be so beneficial; they can help you build those professional relationships that could ultimately land you a job. It doesn’t matter if you have an internship with non-profit organizations, government agencies, or any type of business or corporation; always focus on building relationships and connections.

By the time you do land your job after all of your hard work and preparation, you might be in your late twenties or early thirties, but this is a stable occupation once you get there. You can expect to keep moving up through the ranks and enjoy a long career as a high-earning economist.

Further accreditation or education for economists

Once you become an economist, you can’t just sit back and rely on what you learned in school to carry you through your career. When you continue your education, you open the door for promotions and career-change opportunities. The economy is continually changing, so you should be continually learning. Some options to pursue higher education include:

  • A second master’s degree (consider an online master’s in economics program, or a local school where you would pay in-state tuition)
  • Business school (maybe you’ll study business administration at one of the top business schools—make sure it has AACSB accreditation)
  • A doctorate degree (if you start out only having your bachelor’s or master’s)

Courses and programs on the following topics will help you stay at the top of your game as an economist:

  • Statistics
  • Business
  • History
  • Politics
  • Physics
  • Writing courses
  • Any branch of economics

Even if you don’t want to pursue higher education, you can still further your education in economics by staying on top of current trends through conferences and other professional development opportunities. These also often provide great opportunities to network and expand your personal and professional horizons.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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