Economics has long been derided as “the dismal science" (for a variety of reasons, some surprising and revelatory), but thanks to theorists and researchers (like Daniel Kahneman and Steven Levitt) who have found wider and more appealing applications for economic principles, the field has gained wide attention and even pop cachet. At its core, economics explores the incentives that drive human behavior. How could that not be fascinating?
Depending on the conferring institution, a master’s in economics can be a Master of Arts (M.A.) or a Master of Science (M.S.) degree, or neither; some schools offer a Master of Economics (M. Econ., M. Ec.) with no arts or science distinction. The degree classification has more to do with how the school categorizes economics (Is it an art? Is it a science? Is it sui generis?) than with the program content.
Regardless of the degree designation, an economics master’s typically builds around a core curriculum of microeconomics, macroeconomics, quantitative methods, econometrics, and data analysis. Most programs offer a selection of specializations. Because your specialization will impact your post-degree career options, you should pay careful attention to the range and strength of concentrations at each program you consider.
The primary difference between a Master of Economics and an MBA with an economics concentration is the intensity of focus. The MBA provides a general business education with some higher-level courses in economics; in all but the most flexible programs, economics courses will make up less than half of your curriculum. A Master of Economics program, on the other hand, concentrates primarily, if not exclusively, on economic theory, analysis, and practice; forget operations, business communication, supply chain and the rest, except as they relate specifically to economics. A master’s in economics typically requires stronger analytical and STEM skills than does the MBA.
Another significant difference is that, unlike top MBA programs, most top economics programs admit only Ph.D-track candidates; they do not offer a terminal master’s degree. If you do not want to progress beyond master’s level and you want to attend a top-ranked school, you will need to take this into consideration. Fortunately, there are some excellent schools that offer terminal master’s degrees in economics (see “Master’s in economics programs worth considering," below).
If you want to be an economist, the Master of Economics is the degree for you; give serious thought to continuing to the Ph.D., as you may need it to achieve your ultimate goals. If you want to apply your expertise in economics to a broader range of business applications, the MBA might well suit your purposes.
Economists work as analysts and consultants for businesses, nonprofits, the health care sector, think tanks, nonprofits, governments, and NGOs. The opportunities in the field have broadened concurrently with the scope of the discipline: think Freakonomics, which applies economic theory to such nontraditional subjects as health, education, and athletics.
Some economists stay in academia, teaching and/or conducting research. Many academics also sideline as consultants, earning significant fees while accruing experience that further enhances their teaching and research.
According to a 2015 Georgetown University study, a graduate degree in economics was worth a 43.6 percent salary increase over a bachelor’s degree in economics, with a median salary of about $110,000 for advanced degree holders.
The obvious question: how does a particular program’s degree serve your career ambitions? If your goal is a seat on the World Bank Board of Governors, the answer is going to be a lot different than if your dream job is in local government or the insurance industry.
Specializations and electives shape your degree, and different programs offer vastly different choices. The M.A. in Economics at Columbia University offers no specializations and only six elective courses (of which you can only take three). Likewise, Duke University offers no specializations, although it does offer significantly more choice in completing distribution requirements.
Purdue University, on the other hand, offers four specializations, while University of Michigan-Ann Arbor allows students to declare any concentration (they call it a major) that the program director will approve. Some programs, like American University’s, focus on a particular institutional strength (at American, it’s policy).
Remember that a school’s strengths will be reflected in its alumni network; a degree from American could be very helpful in finding a policy job, but probably less so in finance. You’ll need to do some digging to find out which program best fits your interests and ambitions.
The cost of these programs varies widely as well, and should be weighted significantly in any ROI calculation. State universities are typically much less expensive than private universities, but they can still be pricey, and only some offer significantly reduced tuition rates for in-state residents. In-state tuition for North Carolina State University’s program is about 40 percent of out-of-state tuition; at University of Texas-Austin, it’s about 75 percent; at University of Wisconsin-Madison, there is no in-state discount. Annual tuition can range from approximately $10,000 (North Carolina State) to over $50,000 (Duke, Johns Hopkins, Columbia).
Although academic ranking systems have been frequently and thoroughly discredited, they still exert a powerful impact on how universities are perceived and thus on how their degrees are valued. U.S. News & World Report and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) are the most frequently cited rankings of graduate economics programs. You’ll want to know the rank of any program you’re considering.
Cutting-edge research and theory distinguish the nation’s top economics programs. The following programs are among the highest ranked, but they do not offer a terminal master’s degree; these are Ph.D. programs: Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University, University of California-Berkeley, Yale University, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago.
Fortunately, some top institutions offer a terminal master’s degree:
Online options are fewer but include some leading institutions: Johns Hopkins University, Purdue University, University of North Dakota, and American University all offer robust, well-regarded programs that can be completed anywhere there’s wifi.