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How to Become an Economist

By Ibrahim Okunade

Published:

Do you enjoy analyzing data and making informed decisions? Are you interested in understanding economic trends? Becoming an economist might be an ideal career choice for you. This article guides you through the maze of considerations and shows you how to become an economist in four simple steps. Curious? Dive in!

Career Summary

Economist Salary

Economist Salary

According to Glassdoor, the economist salary breakdown is as follows:

  • Entry Salary (US$88K)
  • Median Salary (US$152K)
  • Executive Salary (US$200K)

The average economist salary is much higher than the national average income of citizens of the United States, which was $61,900 per year as of 2022.

What is an Economist?

An economist is a professional who specializes in the study of economics, a social science focused on the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. 

What does an Economist do?

So, what does an economist do exactly? They analyze data, create models, and conduct research to understand and explain economic trends, make predictions, and inform decision-making. In simple terms, economists unravel the complexities of the economy and offer informed perspectives on various economic phenomena.

Economist Career Progression

  • Junior Economist: Entry-level position involving tasks such as data collection, basic analysis, and supporting senior economists.
  • Economist: After gaining some experience, economists often have more autonomy and responsibility, conducting independent research, analyzing data, and contributing to the development of economic models.
  • Senior Economist: Senior economists take on more complex projects, provide guidance to junior staff, and may be involved in leadership or managerial responsibilities.
  • Director of Economic Research: At a higher level, some economists move into director roles, where they lead entire economic research departments. They may be responsible for setting research priorities, managing teams, and ensuring the quality and relevance of research projects.
  • Policy Advisor/Analyst: Economists interested in influencing public policy may transition to roles as policy advisors or analysts. They work with government agencies, non-profits, or international organizations to shape and evaluate policies.
Economist Career Progression

Pros and Cons of Working as an Economist 

Pros: 

  • Competitive salary.
  • Flexibility to work in various sectors, including government, academia, and private industry.
  • Opportunity to shape economic policies and contribute to research that addresses real-world issues.
  • Economists are often in demand, especially in data analysis, policy evaluation, and strategic planning roles.
  • Since economic principles apply on a global scale, economists develop a broad understanding of international markets, trade relationships, and economic systems.

Cons: 

  • Fierce competition for entry-level and prestigious positions.
  • Difficulty in implementing recommended policies due to political and bureaucratic obstacles.
  • Peaks in workload during research projects or budget cycles can be demanding.
  • Challenges in accurately predicting future economic events.
  • Reliance on potentially incomplete or unreliable data.

Useful Skills to Have as an Economist

  • Quantitative Skills
  • Analytical Thinking
  • Research and Data Analysis
  • Communication Skills
  • Econometric Modeling
  • Policy Analysis

Popular Economist Specialties

  • Macroeconomics
  • Microeconomics
  • Labor Economics
  • International Economics
  • Financial Economics
  • Behavioral Economics
  • Urban Economics
  • Public Economics

How to Become an Economist

Economist 4 Steps to Career

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics or a Related Field

The first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics. With a bachelor’s degree in economics, you’ll gain a solid understanding of economic principles, theories, and methodologies that form the bedrock of the discipline. In your coursework, you’ll delve into microeconomics, exploring the intricacies of individual economic agents and their decision-making processes. Macroeconomics will broaden your perspective to analyze the functioning of entire economies, including topics like inflation, unemployment, and economic growth. The study of econometrics will equip you with the tools to apply statistical methods to economic data, allowing for rigorous empirical analysis. Additionally, international economics will provide insights into the complexities of global markets, trade relationships, and the impact of international events on economic systems. This diverse curriculum ensures a comprehensive grasp of economic concepts, preparing you for a range of opportunities in both the public and private sectors, whether in research, policy analysis, or business strategy.

Do I Need a Degree to Become an Economist?

Yes, you do. A degree in economics or a related field is typically considered essential for becoming an economist. This educational foundation provides the necessary theoretical knowledge, analytical skills, and understanding of economic principles. While there may be exceptions, where individuals gain expertise through alternative paths, having a degree is the conventional and widely accepted route. It not only enhances your credibility in the field but also opens up more opportunities for career advancement and specialization within the field of economics.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Degree in Economics?

The length of time it takes to get a degree in economics depends on the level of degree you are pursuing and your individual circumstances.

Here’s a breakdown of the typical timelines:

  • Associate’s Degree: An Associate’s Degree typically takes only two years of full-time study
  • Bachelor’s Degree: Typically takes about three to four years of full-time study. The duration may vary based on factors such as the country’s education system and whether the program follows a semester or quarter system.
  • Master’s Degree: If you pursue a master’s in economics, it usually takes an additional one to two years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Some programs may offer accelerated options.
  • Ph.D. in Economics: For those aiming for a doctoral degree in economics, the timeline can vary widely. On average, it may take around four to six years or even longer. This includes coursework, comprehensive exams, and the completion of a dissertation.

Keep in mind that these are general estimates, and the actual time can be influenced by factors such as the specific requirements of the program, whether you study full-time or part-time, and your own pace of progress. Additionally, some individuals may choose to take breaks between degrees or pursue additional experiences, impacting the overall timeline.

How Much Does it Cost to Get a Degree in Economics?

The cost of getting a degree in economics can vary significantly depending on the type of institution you attend, your residency status, and the specific program you choose. 

According to College Tuition Compare, the average tuition and fees for a bachelor’s degree in Economics at a public four-year university in the United States is $10,794 for in-state students and $34,473 for out-of-state students. For graduate studies, the average tuition and fees vary between $13,031 and $29,734 for in-state and out-of-state students, respectively.

These are just average costs, and the actual cost of attendance can be higher or lower depending on the specific institution you choose. Additionally, these costs do not include room and board, books, supplies, and other personal expenses.

Many students receive financial aid, such as grants, scholarships, and loans, to help offset the cost of their education. Federal financial aid is available to eligible students based on their financial need. Students can also apply for scholarships from private organizations, foundations, and universities.

Can I Become an Economist Through Online Education?

Yes, you can become an economist through online education. Many reputable universities and online learning platforms offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in economics entirely online. These programs provide a flexible and convenient way to earn a degree in economics without having to relocate to a traditional campus setting.

Online education provides flexibility, allowing you to study from anywhere in the world and often at your own pace. However, it’s crucial to ensure that the online program you choose is accredited and reputable. Accreditation ensures that the institution meets certain standards of quality in education. Additionally, consider the level of interaction with professors and peers, as well as the availability of resources for research and practical experience.

Step 2: Develop Strong Quantitative Skills

Economists employ mathematical and statistical tools as indispensable instruments for dissecting economic data and formulating informed conclusions. Consequently, cultivating robust quantitative skills is of paramount importance, especially during your undergraduate years. 

Building a solid foundation in quantitative methods equips you with the ability to navigate complex economic models, interpret data sets effectively, and engage in rigorous empirical analysis. This proficiency not only enhances your capacity to comprehend economic phenomena but also positions you for success in various career paths within the field, whether it be in research, policy analysis, or strategic decision-making in the private sector.

What Skills Will I Learn as an Economist?

  • Analytical Skills: Economists must be able to critically analyze complex economic data, identify patterns and trends, and draw insightful conclusions. They should be able to decompose complex problems into smaller, manageable components and evaluate the impact of various economic factors on different outcomes.
  • Quantitative Skills: Economics is heavily reliant on quantitative methods and statistical analysis. Economists must be proficient in using mathematical and statistical tools to analyze economic data, build models, and test hypotheses. They should be comfortable with data manipulation, statistical techniques, and econometric models.
  • Economic Theory and Principles: Economists must have a solid understanding of fundamental economic principles, theories, and models. They should be familiar with microeconomics, macroeconomics, econometrics, and international economics. This understanding allows them to interpret economic data, explain economic phenomena, and formulate economic policies.
  • Communication Skills: Economists must be able to communicate their findings and recommendations effectively to a wide range of audiences, including policymakers, business leaders, the public, and other economists. They should be able to explain complex economic concepts in a clear, concise, and understandable manner, both verbally and in writing.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: Economists must be able to identify and solve complex economic problems. They should be able to gather relevant information, analyze data, evaluate different solutions, and recommend the most effective course of action. They should also be able to adapt their approach to different types of economic problems.
  • Research Skills: Economists must be able to conduct rigorous economic research. They should be able to design and implement research studies, collect and analyze data, and draw evidence-based conclusions. They should also be familiar with different research methodologies and techniques.
  • Computer Skills: Economists rely heavily on computers to analyze data, build models, and present their findings. They should be proficient in using various software programs, such as statistical packages, spreadsheet software, and programming languages.
  • Economic Policy Analysis: Economists must be able to analyze and evaluate economic policies. They should be able to assess the potential impact of policies on different economic indicators, such as economic growth, inflation, and employment. They should also be able to identify and recommend alternative policy options.

6 Web Resources to Learn Skills to Become a Better Economist

There are plenty of online resources to help you enhance your skills and knowledge in economics.

Here are some web resources to consider:

  • The Financial Times: The Financial Times is a respected publication that provides coverage of business and economic news. The FT also has a website with a variety of articles, blogs, and videos.
  • Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED): FRED is a database of economic data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. FRED contains data on a wide range of topics, including employment, inflation, and interest rates.
  • The World Bank Data: The World Bank Data is another database of economic data, this time from the World Bank. World Bank Data contains data on a wide range of topics, including poverty, education, and health.
  • The Brookings Institution: The Brookings Institution is a think tank that conducts research on a wide range of economic and social issues. Their website has a wealth of articles, reports, and podcasts.
  • Econlib: The Library of Economics and Liberty (Econlib) offers a collection of educational resources, including articles, books, and multimedia content covering economic principles.
  • National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER): NBER offers working papers, data sets, and other resources for economic research. It’s a valuable source for staying updated on current economic research.

Step 3: Gain Hands-on Experience Through Internships

Internships and research opportunities can provide valuable practical experience and help you apply your classroom knowledge to real-world situations.

What Are Internship Opportunities for an Economist?

Internship opportunities for economists span various sectors, providing hands-on experience and a chance to apply economic principles in real-world settings.

Here are some common internship opportunities for aspiring economists:

  • Financial institutions: Financial institutions, such as banks, investment firms, and hedge funds, often hire economics majors for internships. These internships can provide exposure to financial markets, financial modeling, and risk management.
  • Government agencies: Many government agencies, such as the Federal Reserve, the Department of Labor, and the Treasury Department, offer internship opportunities for economics majors. These internships can provide valuable experience in economic research, policy analysis, and program evaluation.
  • Consulting firms: Consulting firms, such as McKinsey & Company, Deloitte, and Bain & Company, often hire economics majors for internships. These internships can provide exposure to a variety of industries and help you develop consulting skills, such as problem-solving, analytical thinking, and communication.
  • Research institutions: Research institutions, such as the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute, often offer internship opportunities for economics majors. These internships can provide experience in conducting economic research, writing reports, and presenting findings.
  • Non-profit organizations: Non-profit organizations, such as think tanks, advocacy groups, and foundations, often offer internship opportunities for economics majors. These internships can provide experience in policy analysis, program evaluation, and impact measurement.

Step 4: Get Advanced Qualifications (Optional)

Consider pursuing a master’s or Ph.D. in economics for more specialized knowledge and better career prospects, especially if you’re interested in research or academia. Pursuing advanced education in economics, such as a master’s or Ph.D., can significantly deepen your expertise and open doors to more specialized roles within the field. 

A master’s degree offers the opportunity to delve into specific areas of interest, providing a more focused curriculum and often involving a research component. This level of education enhances your analytical skills and can make you a competitive candidate for positions in economic research organizations, government agencies, and certain private sector roles.

On the other hand, obtaining a Ph.D. in economics is particularly valuable for those aspiring to contribute to cutting-edge research and pursue academic careers. Doctoral programs typically involve an intensive research component, allowing you to make original contributions to the field. A Ph.D. not only provides in-depth knowledge but also positions you to become a thought leader, contributing to the advancement of economic theories and policies.

What’s the Career Outlook for Economists?

Stats from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a promising outlook for economists. According to the projections, employment of economists is expected to grow 6 percent from 2022 to 2032. This growth rate is faster than the average for all occupations. In addition, about 1,200 openings for economists are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Economist Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of an Economist?

Job opportunities for economists are diverse and span various sectors.

Here are some common roles for economists:

  • Economic Analyst: Analyzing economic data and trends to provide insights and recommendations for organizations or government agencies.
  • Policy Analyst: Evaluating and formulating policies based on economic research and analysis, often within government or non-profit organizations.
  • Research Economist: Conducting independent research on economic topics, often in academic or research institutions.
  • Financial Analyst: Assessing financial data and market trends to provide recommendations for investment decisions.
  • Consultant: Working for consulting firms to provide expert advice on economic issues to clients in various industries.
  • Data Analyst/Statistician: Applying statistical methods to analyze and interpret data, often in collaboration with economists in research or industry.
  • Econometrician: Specializing in the application of statistical methods to economic data, typically in research or policy analysis.
  • Market Research Analyst: Studying market conditions and consumer behavior to assist companies in making informed business decisions.
  • Lecturer/Professor: Teaching economics at academic institutions and conducting research in universities.

What Type of Organizations Hire Economists?

Economists are in demand across various sectors, and they find employment in a wide range of organizations.

Here are the types of organizations that commonly hire economists:

  • Government Agencies: Federal, state, and local government agencies hire economists to analyze economic trends, formulate and assess policies, and contribute to decision-making. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Federal Reserve, and the Department of Labor.
  • International Organizations: Organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and United Nations hire economists to work on global economic issues, development projects, and policy analysis.
  • Central Banks: Central banks, such as the Federal Reserve in the U.S., the European Central Bank, and the Bank of England, employ economists to analyze economic data, formulate monetary policy, and assess financial stability.
  • Research Institutions: Academic and non-profit research institutions, like the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) or the Brookings Institution, hire economists to conduct independent research on economic issues.
  • Consulting Firms: Economic consulting firms, such as McKinsey, Deloitte, and others, employ economists to provide expertise on economic issues, market analysis, and policy evaluation.
  • Academic Institutions: Universities and colleges hire economists as professors, researchers, and lecturers. They contribute to academic research, teach courses, and mentor students.
  • Financial Institutions: Banks, investment firms, and financial institutions hire economists for roles related to economic forecasting, risk assessment, and market analysis.
  • Think Tanks: Economic think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation or the Urban Institute, employ economists to conduct policy research and analysis.
  • Technology Companies: Tech companies may hire economists to analyze data, understand market trends, and contribute to business strategy.

What is the Work-Life Balance of an Economist?

The work-life balance of economists varies depending on their employment setting and job role. Economists who work in academia typically have more flexible schedules than those who work in the private sector or government. However, economists in all sectors may need to work long hours, especially during busy times or when deadlines are approaching.

  • Academia: Economists in academia typically have the most flexible schedules. They have the autonomy to set their own hours and work from anywhere with an internet connection. However, they may need to work long hours during the semester, especially when grading papers and preparing for classes. They may also need to travel frequently to attend conferences and present their research.
  • Government: Economists who work in government typically have regular work hours, but they may need to work overtime to meet deadlines or respond to crises. They may also need to travel to different government agencies or meet with constituents. 
  • Private sector: Economists in the private sector usually have regular work hours, but they may need to work overtime to meet deadlines or respond to client requests. They may also need to travel to different client sites or attend industry events.

Should I Become an Economist?

All in all, you are in the best position to decide whether a career as an economist is worth the hassle or not. Consider the key points discussed in the article, such as the educational requirements, the development of quantitative and analytical skills, and the diverse job opportunities available in various sectors. Of course, you should also consider the economist salary range broken down above and how it fits into your aspirations. Reflect on your personal interests and skills, as a genuine passion for economic principles and analysis can significantly contribute to job satisfaction.

Evaluate the potential challenges, such as the need for continuous learning, adaptability to dynamic economic landscapes, and the potential for intense work periods. Additionally, think about your long-term goals and whether a career as an economist aligns with your aspirations for professional growth and impact.

Ultimately, the decision should align with your passions, values, and long-term objectives. Take the time to thoroughly research the field, envision your desired career trajectory, and weigh the potential challenges against the rewards. By making an informed decision based on a holistic understanding of the profession, you can embark on a career path that is fulfilling and aligned with your aspirations.

Careers Related to Economist


Ibrahim Okunade

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