Advice on entering a US economics PhD from the UK with a non-quantitative background

We asked someone with a philosophy undergraduate degree from the UK who was applying to economics PhD’s in the US, for advice on how others with a similar background might be able to get into a US economics PhD program (which are much more highly respected than PhD programs in the UK).

Here is what they said (quoting):

  • If you have done an undergrad that is not economics or maths, the switch won’t be straightforward. US PhDs require a lot of demonstrated mathematical ability / university courses, and like to see some economics courses (as you’d expect).
  • Realistically you’re looking at minimum 1 year transition; most likely 2 year transition; possibly 3 year transition before you start a PhD.
    • The most straightforward route is to do either the one year economics diploma at Cambridge or the two-year masters at LSE (which has a year diploma at the beginning). These courses are designed for people who have done other subjects for undergrad, and if you do well in the first year you can progress on to do a masters. If you perform highly in the masters program, and line up some good references, you stand a shot at getting into a US PhD program at the end (and an even better shot of getting into an UK PhD).
    • The Oxford 2 year masters could work, but it’s not designed for people who have done other undergrads. This means it is much harder to get in, and would probably be quite difficult to start cold.
    • Transitioning in one year is quite hard, and would require either (i) starting the diploma at Cambridge and ambitiously applying that year to PhDs, or (ii) doing a fellowship in the US like I am, where you cram lots of econ, and applying that year. My impression is that (i) would be extremely speculative: you would have to take it upon yourself to get to know a professor in the department very quickly, and probably weasel your way into doing some work for them (which would be difficult, given that the course-load of the diploma is quite intense). Even (ii) is very speculative, though it has the benefit of you knowing professors in a US school by the time you apply. But I’m not that optimistic about my own case — I think it’s just very hard to do the transition in a year.
    • The three year path would be doing a masters and then a year of research with a professor who can write you a stellar enough reference that you can get in somewhere good. Lots of people in the current Harvard class have done something along these lines; demonstrated research track record is a plus for sure.
  • If you’re not good at maths then it’s probably not worth getting your hopes up when it comes to the US. It would be better to try and get into a masters program in the UK, which are in general less obsessively mathematical, and progress to a PhD in the UK from there (or not, if you decide against it).

Another philosophy undergraduate commented on this advice with the following observations (paraphrased by us):

  • The route of taking the one year economics diploma at Cambridge as a basis for getting into a US PhD is speculative – I don’t know of anyone who has done this.
  • If you are aiming for a one year transition, it will be very hard to get convincing academic references or demonstrate strong maths ability from your marks by December/January.
  • I know someone who got into the Oxford MPhil in Economics with a philosophy undergraduate degree.
  • Funding for post-graduate study in the UK is highly uncertain at each stage even if you are really good.