What is the Best Degree Path to Becoming an Economist?

An image of an economist for our FAQ on What Is the Best Degree Path to Become an Economist

If you are naturally detail-oriented and enjoy thinking critically, analyzing information, and working with numbers, you might be interested in a career in economics. Economists are professionals–often highly-educated ones–who study how a wide range of resources are produced and distributed. Most people equate economics with money, but economists spend much of their time studying the production and distribution of various goods and services. Even how people use time can fall under the study of economics.

To become an economist, there are several steps one must take. The first step is to earn an economist degree. Below, we detail the best degree path to become an economist, and we discuss the job outlook, earnings potential, and other valuable information needed as you research the economist career.

Economist Degree and Experience

To become an economist, one must earn an economics degree. Economics degrees exist at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Which degree a student should pursue depends on their career goals. While students can earn a bachelor’s degree in economics, career options may be limited if this is their highest level of education. Some economics jobs exist for candidates with bachelor’s degrees, mostly entry-level government jobs, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), but most jobs require an advanced degree. Outside of government jobs, graduates of bachelor’s in economics degree programs may work in related industries like business, consulting, and finance. Common careers of undergraduate economics students include investment bankers, credit analysts, and market analysts.

To work within the field of economics in corporate settings or research firms, candidates typically need an advanced economics degree. Master’s and Ph.D. degrees prepare students for careers in economics that require significant research. Aspiring economists must also have relevant work experience, gained through an internship or professional experience working in a field like business or finance.

College Economics Curriculum

Economics majors study a wide range of subjects. They complete business coursework in a variety of business and economics topics. Courses may cover topics like business regulation, business and public policy, and industrial organization. In school, aspiring economists are taught various ways of analyzing businesses and forecasting economic trends. Matters like international trade and economics of developing countries fit into the curriculum alongside courses in regional and urban economics, allowing students to develop economic knowledge that knows no bounds. Students also learn how labor and taxation affect economies. The economics curriculum also includes advanced studies in subjects such as macroeconomics and microeconomics.

In addition to the wide range of economic and finance topics covered within an economics program, students must develop skills in statistics and business analytics. In graduate programs, students may specialize their studies to focus on a particular area of interest. Possible specializations include econometrics, financial economics, and political economy. Specializations are ideal for students with career goals that involve a niche area of economics. Most specializations require students to complete an additional 18 credits, or four to five courses, in the area of interest.

Doctoral degrees in economics prepare students to work as economics consultants, professors, or researchers. Completing a doctorate or Ph.D. requires time and effort. A Ph.D. in economics typically takes five to six years to complete. Depending on the doctoral program, degree candidates must pass comprehensive exams, write and defend dissertations, and complete required work.

As with any degree program, aspiring economics students should research accreditation before applying. Applicants should look for regionally accredited economics programs that meet the highest standards. Economics degrees may also be accredited by specialized agencies, such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

While in school, you might consider joining a professional association or economics organization. Nationally and regionally affiliated associations are open to accept students who are studying economics. These organizations offer valuable membership benefits, such as career development resources and networking opportunities. Some of the professional organizations open to students include the American Economic Foundation, the International Association for Feminist Economics, the National Association for Business Economics, and the National Economic Association. From job bulletins to annual conferences, these organizations offer valuable resources to economics students.

An image of an economist for our FAQ on What Is the Best Degree Path to Become an Economist

Other Important Qualities for Economists

Some skills are more intuitive than learned. They rely on an individual’s character, talent, and innate abilities. While these skills are not offered as classes in college, they can be honed through study and curriculum. Below are several important qualities that will help economists to succeed on the job.

Analytical skills: While earning an economist degree, you will likely develop strong analytical skills. The ability to analyze data and interpret information is extremely important to the role of an economist. On the job, economists must be able to draw logical conclusions based on their findings. They must be able to review and interpret data, observe patterns and trends, and perform advanced calculations. One example of how an economist uses strong analytical abilities is when a labor economist studies and analyzes the effects of labor policies on employment.

Communication skills: After conducting research and analysis, economists must convey information to others. Often, the people they are sharing information with do not have an economics background. Economists must share findings with journalists, colleagues, clients, or other parties. They must be able to deliver complex, data-rich information in layman’s terms. Economists must also be able to present information to groups of people in a clear and concise manner. Public-speaking skills are helpful for this role.

Critical-thinking abilities: An economist must be able to analyze and identify how economic trends impact an organization. To do so, the economist must possess strong and effective critical-thinking abilities. An economist uses logic and reasoning to figure out complex problems. Day-to-day tasks call for critical-thinking skills.

Writing skills: Strong writing skills are helpful for economists, as they must be able to present their findings clearly to colleagues and clients. Some economists may be called upon to write up their findings for publication in journals and news media. Depending on the audience, economists may be writing for people with different levels of economics knowledge. Being able to effectively communicate using the written word helps economics succeed on the job.

An image of an economist for our FAQ on What Is the Best Degree Path to Become an Economist

Earnings Potential for Economists

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), economists earn a median annual wage of $108,350, but earnings are contingent on experience and other factors, like geographic location. The highest 10% of earners working as economists, according to BLS, earned an average annual wage of $198,230.

BLS reports five top-paying industries for economists. Four of the five top-paying industries offer earnings that are higher than the average wage of $108,350 for this occupation. According to BLS, the highest-paying industry for economists is finance and insurance. In this industry, economists typically see a median annual wage of $129,060. The second-highest-paying industry for economists is the federal government, excluding the postal service. Economists working for the federal government earn a median annual wage of $125,350. Scientific research and development services is the third-highest-paying industry for economists. In this industry, economists see an average wage of $122,220. Management, scientific, and technical consulting services offer a median annual wage of $111,340 for economists. While the fifth industry offers lower-than-average wages for this occupation, state government is still considered a top-paying industry for economists. In this industry, economists can expect a median annual wage of $73,510.

Pay for economists varies not only by industry, but also by geographic location. The Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics published by BLS reports five top-paying states for economists. According to the most recent published data, economists earn the highest wages in New York, the District of Columbia, California, Maryland, and Vermont. In New York, economists earn an annual mean wage of $150,160, which is over $40,000 more than the average for all economists. The District of Columbia also pays favorably high wages for this occupation. In D.C., economists earn an annual mean wage of $144,110, as reported by BLS. The other high-paying states of California, Maryland, and Vermont offer average wages for economists of around $125,563.

Certain cities also offer top earnings for economists. According to BLS, top-paying metropolitan areas for economists include New York, Newark, and Jersey City. In this metro area, economists earn annual mean wages of $153,610. The San Francisco, Oakland, and Hayward metro area also offers high mean wages. In this California location, economists earn annual mean wages of $148,980. Other top-paying metro areas for economists include D.C., Arlington, and Alexandria ($142,580); Baltimore, Columbia, Towson, Maryland ($137,200); and Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Anaheim, California ($132,430).

Some non-metro areas also offer top earnings, as reported by BLS. While these areas offer lower-than-average annual mean wages, the cost of living offsets the difference. If you’re interested in seeking employment as an economist in a non-metro region, you might consider one of these top-paying areas. In Alaska non-metropolitan areas, economists earn an annual mean wage of $105,280, which is the highest pay for non-metro areas. Other top-paying non-metropolitan areas include Northwest Oklahoma ($99,390), Northwestern Ohio ($93,000), and Southwest Montana ($77,320).

An image of an economist for our FAQ on What Is the Best Degree Path to Become an Economist

Job Outlook for Economists

In addition to the career’s high earnings potential, work as an economist has other benefits. The job outlook is favorable, with the BLS expecting a 13 percent increase in economics career opportunities over the next decade. Economists also have the opportunity to guide businesses and governments in making important policy and financial decisions that affect matters like healthcare prices, tax and interest rates, and energy costs. For candidates who are as interested in how and why resources are used in certain ways as they are in the numbers behind those trends, economics is a worthwhile subject of study.

In 2020, economists held approximately 18,600 jobs, according to BLS, but the bulk of these positions were held by economists working in five major industries. The largest employers for this occupation include the federal government (excluding the postal service); management, scientific, and technical consulting services; scientific research and development services; state government (excluding education and hospitals); and finance and insurance. 25 percent of economists were employed by the federal government, according to BLS. The federal government is by far the largest employer for those in this occupation. About 17 percent of economists were employed by management, scientific, and technical consulting services. Another 14 percent worked in scientific research and development and 11 percent in state government jobs. The remaining seven percent of economists were employed in the finance and insurance industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 1,600 job openings for economists are expected each year. These jobs will mostly be filled by individuals with an economist degree. Over the next 10 years, workers will transfer to different occupations and exit the labor force. As a result, economists will be needed to replace these individuals. BLS also reports that the bulk of economist jobs will be found in firms and organizations that specialize in consulting and research services.

With an increasing complexity of global economy practices and a more competitive business environment, a rise in the demand for economists to analyze and interpret data is expected. Employment demand is particularly strong for workers in organizations that utilize economic analysis and quantitative methods to analyze and forecast market trends and sales. As a result, skills in these areas of analysis will be needed. Also, in the future, we will see organizations turn to economists for help in interpreting and analyzing big data for advertising, marketing, and pricing, as well as for other pertinent areas of business. Overall, the job outlook for economists over the next 10 years is highly favorable. Now is an ideal time to pursue an economist degree that will set you apart from your competitors and put you on the road to a successful and rewarding career.

BDP Staff
November 2021

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