If you listen to the news, you’ve probably heard people talk quite a bit about “the economy,” which is the major focus of economics. While many people think of money, calculators, business people in suits when they hear the term, economics is actually a complex field of study...and it’s also something you can major in when you go to college!
But what is economics, exactly? Everyone’s definition of economics varies, depending on their area of interest. It’s focused on money, yes, but its primary focus is how money is used and how it can change the world, for better or for worse. If you’re interested in commerce, financial systems, or even the history of Wall Street, economics might be a good major for you.
In this article, we’re going to give you a general overview of majoring in economics. We’ll answer many common questions, including:
- What is the study of economics?
- What is being an economics major like?
- Which schools have the best economics programs?
- What can you do with an economics degree?
Let’s dive in!
One of the things you'll learn all about bull markets and bear markets.
What Is the Study of Economics?
Like we said before, the study of economics is centered on money. But if that’s all it is, why is it any different than accounting or finance? Unlike those other two majors, economics majors study the value of any scarce resource that’s exchanged in trade, often in the context of a particular culture or social structure. Economics is more theoretical than other financial studies, meaning that economists usually study the “why” behind some of the world’s toughest problems, such as why poverty still exists or why economic recessions happen.
Economics also looks at the interaction between different players in the financial market, like individuals, companies, families, non-profits, and more. Harvard’s Department of Economics states their purpose as explaining the goals of individuals and helping them to fulfill those needs in the best way possible.
Because economics studies systems of commerce, it often intersects with other fields of study like political science and history. It’s safe to say that economics, whether we realize it or not, affects everyone every day, which is why it might be a good idea to major in it.
What to Expect From an Economics Major
Now that you know more about the field of economics, let’s take a closer look at what you can expect from an economics program. This section will give you an overview of an economics major, but keep in mind that every university has unique program offerings and major requirements. It’s important that you spend some time researching the economics programs at each of your prospective universities to make sure you’re selecting the right program for you.
An economics degree, like most college majors, take four years to complete and generally award a Bachelor of Arts degree. Unlike other financial majors, economics is usually housed in a university's school of arts and sciences, not its business school. This is because economics tends to be more theoretical than most business majors. As an economics major, you’ll study the why and how behind the economy!
Additionally, some programs offer concentrations, or a specific focus of study, within an economics major. This allows students to dig deeper into specific areas of interest, like public policy, poverty, or applied/mathematical economics. Concentrations are intended to give you expertise in a subcategory of economics, which can help you become more competitive in particular job markets after you graduate.
Economics professors, while they teach you the cold hard facts, will also shape the way you think. Through economic principles, professors will teach you how to think analytically, reason quantitatively, and recognize patterns. If you’re thinking about economics, be prepared to take many classes in math, statistics, and research methods.
Speaking of classes...economics programs also offer a unique selection of courses. As an economics major, you’ll be exposed to a lot of terms you might have only heard a little about before, like monopolies and game theory. The goal in most departments is to expose students to as many terms and theories as possible so that they are able to make informed decisions and create their own economic opinions, which you will often have to defend in class. Also, economics classes can require a lot of research, which usually translates to significant amounts of reading and writing.
Because economics happens around us every day, it is a field that is constantly changing and evolving. That means successful economics majors demonstrate a genuine interest in the topic and are willing to be life-long learners. It’s worth keeping in mind that many economics programs can be challenging and even competitive (some even requiring a separate application to be a major after you get into the college), so be prepared to work hard and put your best foot forward.
Harvard is one of the best economics schools in the United States.
(Joseph Williams / Wikimedia)
The 7 Best Schools for Economics
Like we mentioned earlier, most colleges in the United States offer degrees in economics. While it’s good that you have choices, it also means that you have a lot of programs to sift through before you commit to a university.
To help you find your dream school, we’ve compiled our own list of top economics schools in the USA to help you on your way.
- Location: Cambridge, MA
Harvard is hard not to rank as a top contender. As one of the best and oldest schools in the country, Harvard outranks any other school in terms of academic research, prestigious graduates, and top-notch economics education. At Harvard, majors are called “concentrations,” and those who want to take the economics concentration must apply for it formally with the school. Within the economics concentration, Harvard offers specialized courses of study, such as a thesis track, completed by progressing through the economics honors program.
Harvard’s faculty and graduates are continually receiving awards and publishing new findings. The student body also stays involved in the department with frequent seminars, workshops, and guest lecturers of importance from all over the world. While many other schools offer a plethora of speakers, the significance of each speaker at Harvard cannot be matched. These speakers give students a chance to dialogue with some of the game-changers of economics, bolstering their learning outside of the classroom.
#2: The University of Chicago
- Location: Chicago, IL
There’s no better way to describe the importance of society-improving research at the University of Chicago’s economics program than the fact that the program has had 27 professors and graduates receive the Nobel Prize for economics. (In other words, you’ll be taught by some of the groundbreakers of economic theory.) The University of Chicago’s economics program is so renowned that it even has its own economic theory that is studied nationwide!
The economics program’s main focus in research is data analytics, and students are taught to reason out data insights, not just understand numbers. The department also has its own research society, called Oeconomica, where groups of students work together and dive deep into a topic of interest for an entire year. The department also helps students alleviate the cost of college: in-department scholarships are given to outstanding students, with seven financial awards given out in 2018.
(Benjamin Kraft / Flickr)
#3: New York University
- Location: New York, NY
Sure, NYU is known for producing talented artists, but their economics program is also one of the most recognized and internationally-invested programs in the world. Part of the school’s appeal is its six centers for research and focused study. The most unique of these is the NYU Africa House, where students and professors partner with native Africans to examine the economy’s strengths and weaknesses in the African continent. One of the scholars in residence just so happens to be the former president of Tanzania!
NYU’s faculty and curriculum are very clear about their areas of economic study, too. Theory, international economics, economic growth, and macroeconomics are listed as their specialties...so if you’re interested in those fields, NYU would be a great school for you. NYU also offers a program called “joint majors.” Joint majors graduate as if they had a double major, but each degree program is designed to complement each other.
For example, your B.A. in Economics at NYU would open the opportunity to get your M.A. in any department of the School Arts and Sciences with only one additional year. Basically, NYU is a great place for those who want a customized economics experience.
- Location: Nashville, TN
As the largest major at Vanderbilt’s largest school, the economics degree is popular, and with good reason. Vanderbilt knows how to get students interested in economics and keep them involved. There are frequent workshops and seminars to learn everything from government policy on economics to predictions of financial outcomes based on current events.
These resources supplement students’ in-class learning and keep their knowledge of the ever-changing market fresh. And if you’re an honors student, you get even more hands-on experience: the honors program of economics allows students to study independently with the guidance of a faculty member!
One of the hallmarks of Vanderbilt’s economics degree is its emphasis on original research. The school keeps a running archive of working papers from graduate students and faculty, openly displaying the department’s history of research. Their website states that two-thirds of economics grads go on to complete their Master’s of Business Administration (MBA), and that one-fifth go to law school. If you’re interested in international opportunities, Vanderbilt is a good pick. While in college, half of Vanderbilt’s economics majors study abroad in programs that focus on international economics! If you’re looking for an exciting and upbeat take on the typical economics degree, Vanderbilt is your place.
(Fcb981 / Wikimedia)
#5: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
- Location: Cambridge, MA
If you’re taking your facts from The Big Bang Theory, you might have the wrong impression of MIT. They do actually teach more than technology and science! In fact, its economics program is one of the oldest (over a century old!) and most influential in the world. That’s not a huge surprise, since technological and scientific advancements have the potential to transform economies. If those aren’t strong enough credentials for you, check this out: many standard textbooks used across the United States are written by MIT economics professors or graduates.
MIT’s economic emphasis is in metrics and what the real-time numbers mean about the economy around us. There is an Undergraduate Economics Association so you can make friends with other people in your major and stay up-to-date on all the news from around the department.
On top of that, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) plugs you directly into a research project being conducted by faculty and lets you experience it first-hand. MIT’s economics department offers a long-honored and traditionally important program that, can you manage to get in, provides name recognizability and value to your resume and academic transcript.
#6: University of California, Berkeley
- Location: Berkeley, CA
Like Harvard, UC Berkeley’s economics program requires its majors to apply to be in the program, with certain requirements for GPA in prerequisite classes. UC Berkeley loves having speakers and events, and economics is no different. Often, they invite faculty from other top-tier universities to come and speak about their research findings, which lets you “sit in the classroom” with some of the best minds in the industry. This opens a dialogue that exposes students to ideas beyond that of their professors and peers.
At Berkeley, economics is considered a STEM major, meaning there is a scientific slant to classroom learning. The department as twelve centers, most of which center on policy change and income equality. According to their 2018 economics graduate survey, most students go on to work as analysts for places like Amazon, Deloitte, and Nielsen. If you’re more scientifically minded, you might find this program a better fit than more theoretical ones. And as a last, added perk: UC Berkeley sits just outside of San Francisco, making for a fun but academically rewarding college experience.
#7: The University of Pennsylvania
- Location: Philadelphia, PA
Where other departments get students involved in theory, UPenn gets students involved in the practice of economics. Since 1960, Penn economics has published the IER (International Economic Review), a collection of research and essays from both outside and inside the department, supplemented by an online archive of working papers. UPenn also offers the unique opportunity for students to participate in a student exchange. With this program, you can travel to Milan, Italy and take economics classes (in English, of course) at Bocconi University, one of the best economics schools in all of Europe.
UPenn is also included in the Philadelphia Federal Statistical Research Data Center Consortium, which is a partnership between UPenn, the Census Bureau, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Drexel University, Temple University, and Pennsylvania State University, allowing students to partner with economics professionals and other majors in the area. Such a hands-on major is supplemented by classes focused on spending, decisions, and strategy. At the University of Pennsylvania, economics is more than a major, it is a way of life.
7 Great Jobs for Economics Majors
What can you do with an economics degree? The great thing about economics is that it’s not tying you down to one career forever. Beyond understanding the economy and how trade works, economics teaches you how to think critically and analyze. This high-demanding type of job is perhaps why the average starting economics major salary is around $48,500.
While there are tons of opportunities out there for people with degrees in economics, we’ve put together a list of seven of the top jobs for economics majors. These jobs not only require you to use the knowledge you learned in school, but you’ll also lean on your critical reasoning and analytical skills, too.
- Median salary: $102,880
- Employment growth rate: 22%
Despite being one of the most popular jobs for economics majors, few know what an actuary actually is or does. In short, actuaries are “uncertainty analysts.” Using a combination of probability, statistics, database management, and presentation skills, actuaries analyze economic trends and decisions made by a company to help them make the best decisions in the future.
Most actuaries work in insurance to make changes that are best for the company. Actuary jobs are greatly increasing in number, so you’re likely to find a job after you graduate. Depending on where you work, you might have to take additional tests or certifications in order to become an actuary. With an average pay double of the usual economics major salary, the extra effort can be worth it!
While there’s room for advancement in the field, most undergraduates will qualify for entry level actuary position. Entry level jobs usually just include research and analysis, where upper level jobs are more about presenting findings to the company’s decision makers. If you decide to be an actuary, be ready for analysis and, on occasion, telling the hard truth.
- Median salary: $70,500
- Employment growth rate: 10%
Majoring in accounting is not the only way to become an accountant. Many economics majors use their mathematics skills and money smarts to become successful accountants. Accounts prepare and examine financial records, and they also aid organizations to run efficiently (and legally!) by paying taxes and complying with policy. Many accountants specialize in particular issues or goals of a company, like assurance management or financial analysis.
Of course, public accountancy is also something to consider. Public accountants work for places like H&R Block or other tax preparation companies, where individuals come for accountancy services. Keep in mind that having an economics degree isn’t quite enough to land an accountant job. Those wanting to be accountants should prepare to take the CPA exam, the legal certification required by the government. But if you’re an organized person that loves data and numbers, becoming an accountant might be the right path for you.
#3: Personal Financial Advisor
- Median salary: $88,890
- Employment growth rate: 15%
If you’re looking for a more people-oriented career, becoming a personal financial advisor would be an excellent choice. Financial advisors help their clients manage their finances. For instance, if a couple wants to save for their daughter’s college tuition, if a young grad wants to get out of student debt, or if a single person wants to go on the vacation of a lifetime, a personal finance advisor can help them reach their goals.
Beyond just advising, this career helps people manage their investments and savings throughout their lifetimes. That means financial advisors need to know quite a bit about personal wealth building and investment! As a financial advisor, you also provide periodical investment reports to update your clients on how their finances are doing and what they can expect in the future. Money can be a sensitive subject for many and there is a lot of trust to build and maintain with each one of your clients. If you’re passionate about helping people, though, this might be the right job for you.
#4: Financial Analyst
- Median salary: $85,660
- Employment growth rate: 11%
If working in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment appeals to you, then you would probably be a great financial analyst. Your main role as a financial analyst would be to manage portfolios and investments, but beneath the surface, it’s so much more than that. The job requires a vigilant watch on the stock market, which never rests. Beyond current change, financial analysts also look at past financial data in order to try to predict future financial trends.
Most financial analysts work for banks, insurance, and other businesses as opposed to individuals. If this job appeals to you, be prepared to either live in New York or travel there frequently, as visiting the NYSE (New York Stock Exchange) is often an essential part of the job. Economics is one of the most preferred degrees for this job, so many go straight from graduation to being a financial analyst. All in all, it’s an exciting job that would use most everything you learned from your economics major.
#5: Sales Agent
- Median salary: $64,120
- Employment growth rate: 6%
The difference between sales agents and financial analysts is that sales agents work primarily with people outside of their own business or corporation. Those in sales must be as comfortable talking to people as they are selling stocks, talking about company mergers, and trading commodities. Analysis is still a big part of the job, just in a different way. Sales agent deal with a wide range of products and must make recommendations and evaluations as part of their sales pitch to new clients.
Many sales agents work at the NYSE as floor brokers, meaning they buy and sell stocks exclusively. However, 46% of jobs for sales agents are in credit intermediation. Like analysts, be prepared to travel and get the additional certifications necessary for the job. Sales agents exude charisma and energy, but also must be able to keep a level head and make smart decisions in the middle of it all. And, notably, while sales agents have the lowest average pay on our list, it’s still higher than the average starting economics degree salary.
- Median salary: $104,340
- Employment growth rate: 6%
This job might seem obvious for majors in economics, but what economists actually do is a little bit of a mystery to the outsider. Mainly, economists research issues and solutions based off of qualitative and quantitative data and research. As you can probably guess, it requires the use of a lot of math, statistics, and economic software programs. As such, it is generally recommended that those interested in becoming an economist continue from their B.A. in economics to their master’s degree or even PhD.
Some, but not all, economist roles require the presentation or publication of your research, so writing and speaking abilities are also required. The specifics of the job can change based on where you work, though usually economists are hired by the government or academic institutions. Government roles usually mean making recommendations for economic solutions, where academic roles can require teaching and independent research. The third largest segment of economists consult individuals or businesses as freelancers, allowing an unusual amount of flexibility in comparison with other economic major jobs.
#7: Financial Examiner
- Median salary: $80,180
- Employment growth rate: 10%
Financial examiners look with a scrutinizing eye on all the assets and liabilities for a particular company and keep companies up-to-date on new economic policy that can help or hurt the business. Some examiners, especially those for start-up companies or new or growing businesses, may have a role in creating an internal economic structure. This means dictating economic best practices, creating financial habits, and enforcing new requirements of the company’s employees.
Many financial examiners also take on some of the responsibilities of a financial analyst, where they compare the company’s past performance and help them reach future goals. Many examiners work for banks and government and assess the safety or risk of loans made to consumers. These roles also require a person of integrity. Examiners balance what is financially good for the company while treating consumers fairly and not making predatory loans. Financial examining requires, in a word, balance. This makes economics majors a perfect fit because of their skill of considering many different economic theories and practices with each decision.
Other Economics Career Opportunities
If you’re still wondering what to do with an economics degree, never fear. There are tons of jobs for economics majors, with more being added all the time. Here are some more you might want to consider:
- Security trader
- Instrument analyst
- Business analyst
- Data analyst
- Data scientist
- Management consultant
- Budget analyst
- Credit analyst
- Associate underwriter
So, in short, what can you do with an economics degree? Well, with many jobs meeting or exceeding the average economics major salary, it’s obvious that the demand for students with financial know-how and independent thinking skills is high. It’s a good time to be an economics major!
Key Takeaways: An Economics Degree
What is the study of economics, again? Economics, rather than just studying money, examines the buying and selling of scarce resources in the context of different societies and cultures. There is a vast variety of jobs for economics majors, though they usually have to do with the buying or selling of valuable commodities.
While the seven schools we’ve listed are some of the best for economics, they certainly aren’t your only options. Explore schools near and far from you and discover more of what you’re specifically looking for in your future college.
It can be overwhelming trying to choose a major, so consider the following when you ask yourself, “Should I major in economics?”:
- Economics will require math throughout the major, especially at the beginning.
- Economics majors usually have an analytic slant to the way they think.
- Economics is not considered an “easy” major, meaning you may have to take a little longer to graduate or participate less in extra-curricular activities.
- Economics jobs are plentiful usually in bigger cities.
As you research programs in schools, remember that economics programs around the United States are vastly different from each other. Each place has its own interests in study and research, with their own perks to consider. The important thing to remember is that regardless of the school’s ranking, the core of what you are learning in your economics major will be the most important thing of all. Be sure to look at course offerings and see if classes excite you or relate to what you want to do after you graduate
If you’ve read through this article and you’re excited about what you’ve learned, you’re probably a good fit for an economics degree. Your degree would open the whole world around you, allowing you to see how buying and selling lets people meet (or miss) their goals. Always exciting, never the same, economics might be the major you’ve been looking for.
If you want to get into one of the best economics programs, you need to make sure you’re submitting a fantastic application. Here’s all the information you need to know about applying to universities, and be sure to check out our special topics posts on writing application essays and getting awesome letters of recommendation, too.
Of course, getting into a great program requires excellent test scores, too. Here’s our guide to getting a 1600 on the SAT, which is full of tips and tricks to help you ace the test. (Taking the ACT? We’ve got you covered, too.)
Maybe you’ve finished this article and aren’t sure that an economics major is right for you. Don’t worry: there are tons of majors out there! Get expert advice for choosing a major here.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.