How to Become an Economics Professional

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Lesley Chiou is a professor of economics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. She earned a Bachelor of Arts at the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD at MIT. Lesley’s research focuses on the relationship between consumer behavior and the actions of firms, as well as the effect of consumer behavior on public policy.

What is the study of economics?

Economics is the study of how people make choices. This relates to everyday decisions that individuals make from what brand of cereal you select to which financial aid package you choose.

What do you find most interesting about economics?

What I find most interesting about economics is that we can apply theories and concepts to study any type of behavior by individuals. Economics teaches us that any conclusions we draw stem from our underlying beliefs and assumptions.

What is your least favorite aspect of economics?

I don't have a least favorite aspect of economics (not surprisingly!). I believe the biggest challenge is identifying methods of answering questions. While physical scientists can design a controlled experiment in the laboratory, economists also rely on other ways to study human behavior. One example is looking for "natural experiments" or field experiments that occur in society where different regulations are imposed on otherwise similar individuals. Economists have used these methods to study many phenomenon, including discrimination and education.

Are there subfields of economics that students might not be aware of?

Students are generally aware of financial economics and the broad categories of macroeconomics and microeconomics. Some popular subfields also include labor economics, environmental economics, game theory, and industrial organization. Subfields that are growing and gaining more attention include behavioral economics and experimental economics.

What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in economics?

One of the great things about a degree in economics is its versatility. Many broad options exist, including careers in the corporate world, academia, non-profit organizations, and government. Students can also pursue advanced degrees in public policy, business, and the social sciences. Economics provides the broad training of how to use theory and statistical analysis to answer real-world questions. These skills are highly valued by employers and applicable to a broad range of career paths.

Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in economics, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor's degree?

While a graduate degree may be necessary for an academic career and to advance in certain research positions, plenty of options exist for a bachelor's degree.

What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in an economics program?

A student should have curiosity and enthusiasm for understanding how people tick, and a desire to learn the necessary theory and quantitative skills to answer interesting questions.

What electives would you recommend that a student in an economics program take?

The most important factor in selecting an elective is choosing a topic that you are interested in. Take a chance! You never know what may strike your interest.

What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in an economics program?

In any field, I would recommend that students work with others (their instructors, classmates, upperclassmen). This provides you with a chance to learn and retain new ideas as well as exchange and brainstorm new perspectives. Collaborative work gives great preparation for graduate work and for the work world. My second recommendation would be to always ask questions. Coursework in an economics program is cumulative, so it's important to keep up and always seek to clarify concepts. It's a good idea to really focus on core concepts and quantitative tools in intermediate theory classes. Finally, don't get discouraged! The early coursework is meant as a preparation for the elective studies where you'll get to see all the tools in action.

Do you think economics is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?

When given the two options, I think most instructors would recommend the latter. However, technologies are improving these days, and institutions are experimenting with easier ways of forming a social network of students and instructors online. Online classes may be a good introduction for those who are working full time or just curious to get started into the field. The most important thing is to interact with others, so you can exchange ideas and learn from each other -- whether in an online or offline environment.

What subjects should a prospective student of economics study before entering a formal college program?

No economics is necessary before entering a formal college program, as most programs have an introductory principles course. You should make sure your background in algebra, Calculus, and statistics are solid. If you would like to brush up on these topics, colleges may offer short refresher courses, or you can take the courses from the mathematics or statistics department.

What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of economics?

My main advice would be to be patient and not lose sight of why you are studying economics. The first part of program is used and designed to help you gain the theoretical and quantitative tools. Once you have the tools, the interesting applications are explored in the upper-division electives.

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