Study Economics: PhD, Master's Degrees & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in an economics master's or Ph.D. degree program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of a master's degree and doctoral degree, and potential careers.
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Studying Economics: Master's and Ph.D. Degrees at a Glance

Economics is a social science that examines the methods in which individuals, organizations, and governments negotiate the tension between limited resources and unrestricted wants. Economics can be sectioned into two subcategories: macroeconomics and microeconomics. Macroeconomics is the study of the parts and functionalities of economies as a whole, while microeconomics focuses on the consumptive behavior of individuals. As an economics student, you'll train in both macro- and microeconomics and then apply these principles to the evaluation of system phenomena across disciplines as varied as healthcare, organizational development, and public policy.

The federal government is the largest employer of economists, although recipients of graduate degrees in economics aren't limited to working as economists. Doctoral or master's degree recipients may opt to work as financial analysts, research analysts, or consultants. Only Ph.D. recipients are qualified to teach economics at the university level; however, master's degree-holders may find employment as professors at community colleges. These options may be more viable for long-term earning and job-growth potential, because as of March 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted slower than average growth - a rate of six percent - in job opportunities for economists from 2010-2020. In contrast, the BLS anticipated a 23% increase in jobs for financial analysts during the same reporting period.

Here's a comparison of the graduate-level degrees:

Master's Ph.D.
Who is this degree for? - mid-career professionals seeking to increase analytical and quantitative skills
- students considering entering a doctoral degree program in economics
- students of other professional disciplines (e.g., law, public policy) who wish to round out their skill set
- students seeking to become economics professors or to engage in economics research
Common Career Paths (with approximate annual median salary) - Economist ($90,550 - not an accurate reflection of an entry-level salary; this salary is typical of more experienced professionals)*
- Research analyst ($69,000)*
- Economics professor, postsecondary ($85,310)*
- Financial analyst ($75,650)*
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time (a 1-year program typically operates at an accelerated, year-round pace) 4-6 years
Common Graduation Requirements - 4-9 economics core courses
- 3-7 electives
- Master's thesis or research project
- 6-9 economics core courses
- 6-8 electives courses (typically related to field specialization)
- Field specialization (e.g., labor economics, econometrics, public finance economics)
- Attendance at required set of seminars and workshops
- Comprehensive examinations
- Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree with strong mathematics background Bachelor's or master's degree with excellent quantitative skills
Online Availability Limited, and typically for applied economics Rare at best

Sources: *May 2011, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Master's in Economics

Across the board, students in economics master's degree programs train in the same fundamentals classes - macroeconomics, microeconomics, and econometrics. Variance across programs tends to occur with specialties, research or thesis requirements, and internships. In evaluating programs, you'll want to align your career goals with elective offerings, such as financial economics, health economics, or public policy economics. Additionally, you'll wish to consider whether a particular program offers internships or original research, both of which will provide you with professional experience that may increase your marketability to potential employers. Further, if you're considering continuing your studies into a doctoral degree program, you might find that a master's degree program in which you'll have to complete a thesis will better prepare you for developing your dissertation as a doctoral candidate. Lastly, there is some flexibility in the time to completion across master's degree programs, allowing you the choice between an intensive, 1-year program or a more expansive 2-year program.

Pros and Cons


  • More specialized than related master's-level degrees, such as the Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Can be completed in as little as a year - shorter time to completion than the MBA or the Ph.D.
  • Studying for the master's degree allows you to verify if continuing into a Ph.D. program is suitable for you
  • Earning potential similar to that of the doctorate, with shorter time to completion


  • Applying for the same jobs as someone with an MBA or doctorate
  • Related master's degrees (MBA) may have greater employment potential (more possible careers in wider range of industries)
  • Not every school provides for internships so you may find yourself to be less experienced than other job applicants
  • Some employers show preference for economists holding a Ph.D.

Courses and Requirements

As mentioned above, three topics encompass the core of most economics master's degree programs. These standard classes are supplemented by 3-7 elective courses. You'll be afforded the opportunity through your electives to study a particular field of economics - labor economics, public policy economics or international trade economics, for example. Your thesis or research project will develop out of your choice of field specialization.

Possible core master's-level classes:

  • Macroeconomics
  • Microeconomics
  • Econometrics

Online Degree Options

Online master's degree programs in applied economics are available. However, applied economics is less theoretical than traditional economics. An applied economics degree could be considered to be a business degree that focuses on utilizing economic theories and principles in addressing and analyzing small, discrete policy problems. You should investigate the curriculum of these programs thoroughly as well as researching the accreditation of schools prior to commencing an online applied economics program.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

As noted above, when planning your education it is imperative to have a clear sense of what you want to achieve through your prospective degree program. If you're a mid-career professional in another discipline, you may find that an accelerated year-round program is the best fit for your needs. If so, find a program that best fits that criteria in your area. If you're considering continuing your education, you might want to ensure that the college or university where you prepare your master's degree has an economics doctoral program in order to provide you with a smoother transition into the Ph.D. degree program. Due to the breadth of the available programs, it is best if you have a clear idea of what type of specialization you are interested in, and find a college or university that has at least one subject matter expert in that field.

Degree Alternatives

If you suspect that you might wish to work in the business world, you may consider the pursuit of an MBA to be a viable alternative to the pursuit of a master's degree in economics. Most MBA programs allow students the opportunity to focus on the subject of their choice, and so this would be an opportunity to study economics, and yet also acquire a more general business education. Further, most MBA programs place an emphasis on professional training, and they tend to have internships embedded in their curricula, which is less common with economics master's degree programs. A generalist MBA degree provides you with exposure to economic principles while bolstering your skills in management, communication, and negotiation. Even with an MBA, you can still opt to pursue a Ph.D. in economics, since most doctoral degree programs have no specific requirement that applicants hold undergraduate degrees in economics.

Doctorate in Economics

You can enter an economics doctoral degree program without having a master's degree in economics. Space is limited; therefore, competition is high for available spaces. Those students without master's degrees will need to have stellar test scores and an exemplary academic record. Your first year will resemble an accelerated master's degree program, as the foundational courses are the same. Some doctoral programs confer a master's degree at the end of the first year. Prior to commencing second-year doctoral-level studies, you must pass comprehensive examinations based on your first year of coursework.

Pros and Cons


  • Most programs don't require applicants to have undergraduate degrees in economics to enter Ph.D. degree programs
  • Dissertation research topics can be interdisciplinary, vast, and varied
  • Unlike niche doctoral degrees, there are options for employment other than postsecondary teacher
  • Options for field specialization in several economics subtopics


  • Competition is stiff for spaces in economics Ph.D. programs, particularly top-tier programs
  • A 2011 survey reports that entry-level pay was comparable regardless of degree-level.*
  • Opportunity cost: the long-term commitment to degree completion takes time away from building professional experience
  • Could be competing for business positions with master's degree candidates with more professional experience

Source: *National Association for Business Economics

Courses and Requirements

Some Ph.D. programs require specific prerequisites before beginning the first year of the program, such as required reading and an orientation class. The core economics courses are the same as the master's degree - macroeconomics, microeconomics, and econometrics. Field specializations are required, and they comprise the program electives. Additionally, you must attend a specific number of seminars and workshops during your tenure as a doctoral candidate. Once you have completed your coursework and passed your comprehensive examinations, you'll commence work on your dissertation, which could take several years to complete. You'll defend your dissertation twice: first, you'll defend your dissertation proposal, and then after completing your dissertation, you'll defend your conclusions. You'll engage in original research in support of your dissertation.

Examples of elective course topics and their related field specialization offered at the doctoral level:

  • Game theory (advanced microeconomics)
  • Development policy (advanced macroeconomics)
  • International trade theory (international economics)
  • Natural resource economics (environmental economics)

Online Degree Options

Online options are rare. Although there may be a few online options available, school accreditation may be a problem. Additionally, online options deny you the possibility of working as a research assistant or a teaching assistant, both of which provide you with invaluable experience towards your professional career. Online options may also limit your options for dissertation topics of study by limiting your ability to conduct original research.

Stand Out With This Degree

In pursuing your doctoral degree, field specialization typically indicates your chosen career path. The field specialization dictates the career path, and opens up many possibilities for future employment beyond that of college professor. Recent graduates have taken positions as senior financial analysts (financial economics field specialization), healthcare researcher (healthcare economics field specialization) and environmental research analyst (environmental and resource economics field specialization). The details of your research and dissertation dictate future career paths, and therefore you aren't limited only to positions as a postsecondary teacher or an economist with the federal government.

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Saint Leo University

  • DBA: Business Administration

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Liberty University

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West Virginia University

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