Preparation for Graduate School

Several essential steps are involved in preparation to apply to graduate school.


Applications for graduate programs are due early, often in fall of the year preceding admission. You may gain a big advantage in future success in employment by enrolling in the best program that will admit you, especially for Ph.D. programs. You should apply to a number and range of programs to hedge your bets and because a certain element of chance is involved.

Key information for admission includes:

  • Overall GPA
  • Performance in specific courses — especially prerequisite and other relevant courses
  • Performance on key standardized tests (notably, GRE, GMAT, LSAT). Take the test before Fall. If advisors know your score, then they can give you a better idea of how high to shoot. And if you don't like your score, you have time for a retake.
  • Letters of recommendation.This component is commonly overlooked. A letter that says only that you have a good overall GPA is not helpful because it adds nothing to what is already in the transcript. A constructive letter says that the professor has known you for some time, and thinks you are a mature and smart person capable of independent research.

To obtain such a letter, you need to develop a relationship with the professor. Ways to do this include working (as a reader or TA), attending office hours often, interaction in class, taking more than one class from the same professor, and writing a term paper or honors thesis.
Tell the professor about the range of schools in which you are interested. Information to give the professor typically includes: transcript (most professors will accept a photocopy, but ask first); statement of purpose; other personal information relevant to explaining your goals and parts of your past that you would like to be highlighted (or downplayed); and written work from the class, such as essays or exams that can give more information than just the recorded score.
Try to give the recommendation forms to be completed by the professor in a packet rather than one school at a time.

Ph.D. in Economics

Ph.D. students do course work for the first two or so years before moving to the thesis. If you don't go on to the thesis, you can usually get a master's degree as a consolation prize. A thesis takes a long time, and five years is a quick time to complete the Ph.D.

If you want to pursue a Ph.D. degree and are well prepared coming out of UC Davis, then apply for admission to a Ph.D. program and not a master's degree program. Admission to the better Ph.D. programs comes with four years of funding sufficient to cover tuition and living expenses, in return for working 20 hours a week as a teaching assistant (TA) or resident advisor (RA).

Economics Ph.D. programs are oriented to people seeking careers in academia or the government. The American Economic Association website is a good reference for Ph.D. study in economics.

Graduate programs in economics are very mathematical by comparison to undergraduate programs, and lack of mathematical ability is a key indicator of failure. The economics section of the GRE is much less important. Consequently, another admission criterion is what math classes you have taken.

A minimum preparation is:
Stat 13, Math 21A-21D (or 16A-16C with very high grades), Math 67 and Econ 140
To be fully prepared for a top-ten program, you also should take:
Statistics: Stat 131A-B or 130A-B. Mathematics: Math 25 and then Math 125A-B.
Ability to demonstrate research ability through Econ 194H can be very beneficial.