Econ PhD (U.S. & India)
Last Updated: July 2019
WHY ECON PHD?
Presumably, you have completed your masters in economics and have realized that research in the discipline is your calling. Or you do not have a background in economics at all, but have a keen interest in research in the same. And now you are contemplating pursuing a PhD. A standard PhD in economics begins with mandatory coursework whose duration varies from 6 months to 2 years, followed by a dissertation period of about a couple of years (or more), at the end of which the candidate needs to defend their thesis. What the programme equips you with is sophisticated tools for in-depth analysis in specific questions in economics. If this sounds interesting to you and if you have the perseverance to survive the entire duration of the programme, then PhD is definitely the way to go. The job prospects after this degree include mostly academics (you would begin with the Assistant Professor title at universities/institutes), but a good proportion of graduates also join the industry as consultants in consulting firms like BCG and Deloitte. Some people even join the government or its agencies in the area of economic advisory and consultancy.
FROM WHERE and why?
The best place to pursue a PhD in Economics would be a good university in the U.S.A. (United States of America). There are several reasons for that, and they are listed below. If you have constraints because of which you can not leave India, your best bets would be the top 6 I.I.M.s (Indian Institutes of Management) and I.S.B. (Indian School of Business, Hyderabad). If you do not have a constraint, the best strategy would be to apply to some universities in the US, along with the IIMs and ISB as back-up.
Following are the reasons why pursuing an Economics PhD from the U.S. or from the IIMs/ISB in India is advisable:
- SOP v/s RP - At the time of applying for PhD, most universities in India, Europe, and Australia would ask you to submit a Research Proposal (RP). This is a detailed written piece documenting your intended area of research, literature review, research gap, and research question(s). This is something that most aspirants are not well-versed with or have almost no idea about. Besides, having zeroed-in on a topic at the outset restricts one's possibilities. What if you change your mind after the course-work? Or what if you realize later on that the data required for your area of research is difficult to lay hands on? In the US and in the IIMs/ISB on the other hand, one is required to submit a Statement of Purpose (SOP) instead, which tells the admission committee as to why you wish to join the programme and why you might be a good fit for their department. This is something that is easier to write for aspirants who have no inkling of how to do research. At the end, the admissions committee simply wishes to judge your 'potential for PhD', rather than wanting to judge your 'choice of research topic'. You get to choose the topic once you complete the course-work.
- Course-work - The course-work at the places I recommend would be rigorous, inter-disciplinary, and would span 2 long years (which means you get to learn in-depth, which is the primary aim of a PhD) as opposed to just 6 months or a year in India, Europe, or Australia.
- Advisors - In the US and at the IIMs/ISB, you get to choose your advisors only after completing your course work. This means that you first get to know all faculty members in your department really well before selecting some of them as your mentors. As opposed to this, most universities in India, Europe, and Australia (and some institutes in India like the IITs) ask you to choose your advisors right at the beginning, which means that if later you do not strike a chord with them at any level, it could get really difficult.
- Funding - If you get accepted to universities in the US, it is almost certain that your PhD would be funded entirely (a full tuition-waiver) by the economics department of that university (this is the case for almost all international applicants). Given that tuition is really costly in the US, this is a great incentive to apply there (however, you would still be required to pay some student fees, which are around $1500 per semester as of June 2019). If you get accepted at the IIMs/ISB, it is 100% certain that you would be funded by the institute. On the other hand, admission to most universities (and even some institutes like the IITs) in India is conditional upon external funding (like the UGC's Junior Research Fellowship, for which one has to take a separate exam called the National Eligibility Test). In the case of Europe and Australia, it is difficult to get tuition waivers, without which the PhD is not financially feasible.
- Teaching Assistantship - If a university in the US offers you a PhD admit with full funding, it would most certainly come with a Graduate Teaching Assistantship offer that pays you a stipend. This means that along with completing your course work and attending classes, you would be working as a teaching assistant for the economics department, and would be earning an income that is anywhere between $1300 - $1900 per month (it is always indexed to the living cost of the city where the university is situated). This easily covers your living expenses and your student fees. The tasks at the job would include grading papers and assignments of undergraduate students, maintaining their attendance records, taking tutorials, and teaching some lectures. So you get to study for free and also get to earn! However, you might not get a GTA offer at all the IIMs. Regardless, if you get an admit, you would be paid a fellowship (a transfer made to you every month without any work conditions) by the IIMs in the range of Rs. 25000 - Rs. 35000 per month, and the same for ISB is around Rs. 48000 per month (as of June 2019).
- Eligibility Test - Universities in the US require you to submit your GRE and TOEFL scores as a pre-requisite for considering you for admission. The IIMs/ISB accept any one out of GRE/CAT/GMAT scores. This means that even if you apply to all of these places put together, this can be accomplished with taking just two tests, i.e the GRE and the TOEFL. On the other hand, most universities and other institutes (including the IITs) in India hold separate entrance tests that quiz you on different types of economics (mainstream/heterodox/mathematical/Marxist/etc.), which means that you would have to prepare for each one of them separately. That's a bummer.
- Admission Criteria - In the US and at the IIMs/ISB, your entire profile would be considered before you are offered an admit. The dimensions include your work experience, prior research work, recommendation letters, the SOP, and past academic performance. Above all, you do not need to attend a dreaded interview for admission to the US (however, the IIMs and ISB do have this requirement)! As opposed to that, most other universities and some institutes in India judge your competence based only on your performance in their entrance test and interview, and the content written in your RP. Though I do not condemn this procedure, it surely does reduce one's chances of landing an admit, given the already fierce competition in India. As far as Europe and Australia are concerned, one usually needs to convince a professor in the department about their capabilities even before they can apply. This takes time and effort, and the judgement would be based on a single professor's viewpoint.
- Publications - Universities in the US and the IIMs/ISB do not expect you to have published papers in any journal before you apply for a PhD in economics. Most Indian universities and some Indian institutes, on the other hand, give preference to those candidates who fulfil this criterion. Most Indian journals (where most candidates try to publish), with all due respect, are not part of category A journals. If at all, you could try publishing a paper in category A or A* journals with the help of your mentor(s) and/or professors. Publishing initially in any journal with a lower rank would amount to jeopardising your career in the long run. However, it is not a requirement to do so if you apply to the US and the IIMs/ISB. As far as Europe and Australia are concerned, I am not informed of their stand on the topic.
- Reputation - A PhD from any university in the US or from the IIMs/ISB is reputed world over and valid in every country. The research methods taught there are cutting-edge and the most contemporary ones. This reason in itself should be enough to convince you!
- The IIMs and ISB offer an FPM (Fellow Programme in Management) degree (as of June 2019) rather than a PhD degree. This is a doctoral-level programme that is valid in B-Schools across the world, but not at universities. This means that after attaining an FPM degree, you would be able to apply for the Assistant Professor position only at B-Schools, but not at universities or other institutes. If you are OK with this caveat, go ahead by all means. Otherwise, if you still can not leave India and would require a full-blown PhD degree, you can have a look at a list of all institutions that offer PhD Economics in India here.
- Qualifying the comprehensive exams at the end of the first year (after the second semester) of the PhD programme is mandatory at any university in the US. You are given two attempts to clear them, failing which you earn only a masters degree.
An indicative matrix of requisite funds for the application and transition procedure is displayed below (approximate costs mentioned as of June 2019). If you are applying to both universities in the US as well as to the IIMs/ISB, you would need to spend some money in Indian Rupees, and if you finally go to the US, some amount in USD. It is always good to be aware of the total amount of funds required for PhD applications beforehand. I wish somebody had presented this spreadsheet to me before I had begun with the procedure!
*Correction: Vaccinations for the US = 10,000
*Addition: Doctor's prescription and medicines = 5000
Addition: Smart Phone = 300
Though the total cost of all this would turn out to be around INR 8-9 Lacs (if you apply to around 15 universities in the US and 7 institutes in India), there are three things to consider. One, you would not be undergoing as massive a debt as bachelors and masters students in the US do (which runs into tens of lacs and sometimes around a crore). Two, the return on investment in these expenses is extremely high, given that you would earn really well after a PhD from the US or from the IIMs/ISB (this is essentially a small investment in your human capital which has a huge payoff in the long run). Three, you would most likely be able to recover these costs as part of savings out of the stipend that you would receive as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) while pursuing your PhD in the US.
APPLICATION & transition PROCEDURE
- Find a Mentor - This might be much easier said than done, but it really, really helps to have a mentor who has had experience of pursuing an Economics PhD in the US. They can guide you through every step, which is a humongous relief. This is almost imperative because unlike popular masters programmes such as computer science, one cannot even rely on private (Study Abroad!) consultants who can help you with the application procedure (and even if you do find one, I would strongly advise against availing their services because the PhD application procedure is highly specific and requires academic rigour). Although I had found my mentor while working as a Research Associate at IIM Lucknow at a time when, honestly, I wasn't even looking for one, I realized later that many people apply for such jobs with the purpose of getting guidance from their superiors and to also convince them to provide recommendation letters for their PhD applications when the time arrives. Hence, applying for RA jobs for projects that are headed by eminent faculty members at reputed institutes like the IIMs/ISB or the IITs would be a good strategy. However, do not, ever, make this intention of yours explicit to any of your potential employers during the hiring process. Faculty members are well aware of these intentions but it leaves a really bad taste in the mouth if the applicant spills the beans, and it reduces your chances of getting hired manifold.
- Timeline - Session begins in the US in August each year, and the application portals for the same open almost a year before. At the IIMs and ISB, session begins around June. Let us suppose you wish to join the PhD programme in year (t). Then, you would need to begin the entire process (starting with making the list of universities and starting prep for the GRE) by March (t-1) - April (t-1). Any later than that would not be advisable. Take the GRE (as many attempts as it takes to get the desired score; most people obtain it by the second attempt) by the end of August (t-1), and take the TOEFL as well (you should be able to score well on this one on the first attempt itself). Start working on your SOP right after the GRE. It could take months to perfect the SOP. Application portals for uniersities in the US would have opened by then. Apply to the schools of your choice in the US latest by the end of December (t-1). If you are applying to the IIMs and ISB as well, complete those applications by then too, because their application portals would have opened in November (t-1). Your admits should begin to be offered between mid-March to mid-April of year (t) (interviews for the IIMs would be taking place around the same time, and admit offers would reach you about a week after the interview dates). In the event that you do not receive any good offers from the US, you must accept an offer from the IIMs/ISB, if you receive any. If you do receive offers from the US, you must accept the best among them (along with the GTA offer) by the beginning of May (t). By mid-May (t) you would receive a document called he I-20 which would be issued by your university, on the basis of which you can apply for a US visa. You should be done with your visa by end of June (t). And then finally, you fly off to the US in August (t).
- Obtain your transcripts - You would need to submit transcripts during the application procedure. A transcript is an official score card (mark sheet) of your bachelors and/or masters degree(s) that is sealed in an envelope and stamped by the issuing university/institute. Obtaining these in India might take a long time, sometimes even months. So apply for these at your previous universities way ahead of time.
- List of universities - Refer to rankings of economics departments from websites like US News, QS World, and Ideas Repec, and make an exhaustive list of universities in the US with details of each department and their accepted GRE scores. Reconcile these rankings with rankings based on perception with the help of your mentor(s) (commercial rankings are only indicative and not accurate when it comes to PhD). Based on the range of GRE scores that you think you can achieve, short-list some universities, but only tentatively at this point. You could also apply some subjective criteria for this purpose, like climatic conditions (in case you do not want to spend 5 years in extreme weather). And based on the approximate cost per US application mentioned previously, fix an approximate number of universities you can apply to according to your budget (this is an important parameter).
- GRE and TOEFL - Prepare well for the GRE and for the TOEFL. The entire prep should not take more than 5 months at the maximum. For the GRE, you must score above the 80th percentile on quant and above the 75th percentile on verbal. Anything below this would require really, really strong recommendation letters to land you a university of your choice. The TOEFL is an easy test, but it is imperative for you to score above 27/30 in the Speaking section to be able to be considered for GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistant). Practise the Speaking section really well by recording your voice on your phone and listening to it in order to correct your errors. You should be done with both the tests and should have gotten desired scores by the end of August (t-1).
- Re-jig the list of universities - Based on the GRE score you achieve, re-jig your list of universities for the last time. This could take some time, and here you would need help from your mentor(s). Try to keep an extra university in the list, in case the application criteria of one of the others do not suit your liking.
- Talk to current Indian students - Visit the websites of each of the universities you have finalized and go to their economics department page(s). Search for Current Graduate/PhD Students, and look for Indian faces. Their email IDs would most likely be mentioned over there. Contact them over email and ask them questions regarding the department, the university, campus life, living costs, etc. This is an imperative step. You would be surprised to know that first, most of these people would actually reply to your mails, and that second, they might give you information based on which you might want to back off from applying to the university(s) in question.
- Recommendation letters - This is where your mentor(s) and previous professors step in. Catch hold of your mentor(s) and your professors who know you really well from your bachelors and/or masters and request them to submit recommendation letters for your candidature (recommenders need to be academics). Allow them some time to prepare the letters. You would be required to send at least 3 recommendations per application, so be ready with the combinations of your recommenders for each university. When you prepare the online application, each of these persons would receive a link on their email IDs through which they can submit your commendation.
- Write your SOP - This is one of the most daunting tasks. It is even more important than your GRE score, because this document tells the admission committee why you might be more fit for the PhD programme than all the other applicants. Basically, you need to weave your life's story around economics and, without lying (of course!), present it in a manner which portrays the fact that most of your choices and experiences in life have moulded and prepared you towards the Economics PhD. You also need to mention briefly your intended area of research and also need to include similar research work that faculty members in the department(s) you are applying to might be carrying out, along with telling them why you wish to join the very university you are applying to. You can look at sample SOPs on the internet to get an idea (some examples are available here). This piece needs to be highly personalized and should be extremely unique, because this is essentially going to highlight your unique selling points. This document makes up for the fact that the application procedure does not include a technical interview. Take advantage of that, take as much time and as many revisions as needed, and produce the best ever version of your story on paper. Send your SOP to your mentor(s), to your professors, to your friends who might be studying in the US, and to your friends who are good at writing and editing. Ask for their inputs and include them in your edits. Do this multiple times before you freeze a version of the SOP.
- Get an International Transactions Card - You would need a credit/debit card with international transactions switched on. It should not be anything other than Visa or MasterCard. You would need to make at least 3 transactions per application. It would also be advisable to open a savings account with a private bank if do not already have one, because dealing with public sector (government) banks for international transactions has a high opportunity cost in terms of time taken for grievance redressal. As of June 2019, Kotak Bank offers zero-balance accounts (called 811 accounts) which could be opened from your home (the representative comes to your place to verify all documents) and can be operated entirely from your smartphone or net banking (to the extent that I haven't ever visited my bank branch). Please be aware that this is not an endorsement; it is mentioned here only because it is one of the very few convenient options that I am aware of. Depending on when you read this post, there might be several other options which might be equally good or better than the one mentioned here.
- Apply - To be considered for GTA, you would need to complete your applications before an early deadline, which usually varies from 15th Jan to 15th Feb (t) for most universities (for some it is as early as 1st Dec (t-1), so keep a tab on it). For each (online) application, you would need to fill out a form, upload documents like your transcripts, CV, and SOP, send link to your recommenders, pay the application fee, and submit the application. Apart from that, you would need to report official GRE and TOEFL scores from their respective websites to each university you are applying to. Both of these together cost around USD 50, bumping up the average cost of each application to USD 100 - USD 120, which is roughly INR 10,000. Keep following-up with your recommenders regarding their recommendation submissions (professors are usually a busy lot and sometimes require humble but multiple reminders). The entire procedure of the actual application can take up to a month (or even more), given that each application portal is different and that each university has nuanced application requirements. If you are applying to the IIMs/ISB as well, get done with them simultaneously. Ideally, your target must be to complete all the applications by the end of December (t-1) so that you play safe.
- Offers - You should start receiving offers by mid-March (t). If your application was strong, most of these offers would include both a full tuition waiver and teaching assistantship with stipend (along with health insurance). Anything less than that would not be financially feasible. The procedure is that you first accept the GTA offer given by the economics department, then the Graduate School (admissions office) of the said university sends you a PhD admit offer with a full tuition waiver, and then you accept that. In case you receive multiple such offers, you can easily withdraw from one and accept a better one till 15th April (t) (this is a date agreed upon by the Graduate Schools Association of the US). Switching beyond this date involves risk. While switching, you simply need to send a mail to the department as well as the Grad School of the university mentioning the change in your plan. If you have to do this, try doing it before 15th April (t), not after the date. While accepting and/or choosing among offers, try to ascertain that you would be able to cover these costs from the offered stipend amount (for this, contact current PhD students at the universities and ask them those details). Be wary of universities that give you an M.A. + PhD offer (which means that your initial visa would be for an MA degree, that you would be an MA student for the first year, and that you would be given PhD student status only from the second year for which you would have to apply for a visa again). Be specially wary of schools that make this clarification only after you accept the GTA offer. This had happened with me, and it had led to a lot of administrative confusion; thankfully I had received a couple more offers which were much better than that one. In case you do not receive a good offer from the US, you must attend the interviews at the IIMs and ISB and try to crack them. For that, you must be prepared well with micro, macro, international econ, econometrics, and current affairs in the Indian economy.
- ISFS Document - Once you have finalized and accepted an offer, the Grad School of the respective university would ask you to fill out a document called the International Student Financial Statement (ISFS). This is simply a declaration of the fact that you are capable of paying the student fees (not the expensive tuition, which would be waived for you). This is somewhere around $3000 per year. Although you would actually be paying this out of your stipend, the Grad School still wants proof of your capability to pay it for the first year. Fill up that form, and send it to them along with you bank statement with the requisite balance. Once the university accepts this form of yours, they will start processing your I-20 document.
- I-20 Document - This is a document that is issued by the US Government along with your university. It states your purpose of being in the US, i.e. academics, and certifies you as a legitimate international student. A sample I-20 can be seen here. You need to be sure of the fact that under the FINANCIALS section of the document, the Scholarship and Teaching Assistanship field in the right hand column is not blank, and that the the Totals in both the columns are equal. The Personal Funds field in the right hand column denotes the amount of student fees that you would have to pay, so you would need to show proof of that much balance in your bank account during your visa interview (you would actually be paying that out of your stipend, but the American Embassy/Consulate doesn't consider future assistanship income as a source of funding). Depending on the university, they might or might not charge you a fee for shipping the I-20 document to you in India (usually between $50 - $100). You would receive this around 15 days after accepting the admit. Keep it safe and with utmost care, since this document is as important as your passport and visa. You would need to carry all these documents with you at all times when in the US. After receiving the I-20, you need to pay the SEVIS fee online (around $350), the link for which would be provided to you by your university.
- Vaccination - Each and every state in the US has different vaccination requirements for incoming international students. As soon as you accept you offer, start inquiring with your university officials regarding the same. The entire procedure can take up to three months, since some vaccines are to be taken in multiple doses with a gap that ranges between 15 days to 3 months. Be particular about this, otherwise the same vaccines would cost you a fortune in the US. And without these certifications you would not be allowed to attend classes. Keep aside around Rs.10,000 for this purpose.
- Practise cooking and living alone - Unlike in India, you wouldn't get inexpensive food from restaurants or wouldn't have it prepared for you by someone like a domestic help. Even the meals at the dining halls (the messes at the university campus) are expensive as anything. Same goes for household chores. Hence, you need to practise cooking for yourself and taking care of your household chores, and balancing all of this with academics and work. This kind of time management, unfortunately, is something we Indians are not used to, thanks to the extremely low labour wages of our domestic helps and campus employees. Thus, before you fly off to the US, stay alone and away from home for about 3 months and practise taking care of yourself. If you do not attempt this exercise, you would definitely have a hard time later on.
- Indian Students Association - The next and one of the most important steps would be to get in touch with the Indian Graduate Students Organisation at your university. They are going to be your life line and support system in the US. Search for this organisation at your university's website and contact the current board members. Ask them all your burning questions. Ask them for help with housing and with transport from your arrival point in the US to the university campus. In case the university provides a bus service for the latter, the Indian Association would help you get access to it. And given that you would be entering a whole new country, it would be advisable to avail that service. Look at the dates at which the bus service is available and then book your flight ticket accordingly. The organisation's members (who are senior students at the university) would most probably be willing to host you initially, which is a breather because the alternative of staying at a hotel could be both costly as well as risky.
- Dollars and ForEx/Travel card - You would need to carry a few thousand US dollars with you. Carry part of it as cash and the other part in a ForEx card. The latter is like a pre-paid coupon with some amount loaded on it and can be used as an ATM cum debit card without having a bank account in the US. Once you open a local bank account in the US, you can transfer the funds from the ForEx card to your bank account.
- Visa and Flight Ticket - PhD Students with full funding get a US visa with relative ease. Fill up the form called DS-160 with extra care, submit it, and book your interview appointment with the high commission/consulate (not any later than end of June (t)). You can find the detailed visa process here. The list of documents to be carried for biometrics can be found here, and that for the interview here and here (if you are applying for PhD and have received scholarship and a GTA offer, you would not require any documents related to loans or the CA). Attend the interview with a cool head. Once your visa is approved (which is on the same day as the interview), book your flight ticket to the US.
- Doctor's prescription and medicines - Visit your family doctor and get some medicines for common ailments prescribed for yourself, and any other medical problems you might need medication for. These would come in handy during your travel to the US and during your initial months there till the time you get accustomed to the American healthcare system. Although you would most probably have access to health insurance thanks to your PhD offer, the American healthcare system is quite confusing and can take some time getting used to. Purchase only those medicines from India in the quantities that are prescribed by the doctor. You would need to show the prescription during immigration at your airport of arrival in the US.
- Communication - You would need your primary Indian phone number to be switched on throughout your travel and during your complete stay in the US, since most probably this number would be attached to several services like Aadhaar, banks, etc. Enquire with your carrier regarding how much it would cost you to keep your number working in the US on an annual basis such that you receive at least SMS alerts from India. During your flight to the US and for the initial period there, you might even require internet connection on your Indian SIM, so check that too. Once in the US, you would definitely need a local SIM card. However, be aware that purchasing communication services in the US is a little convoluted. Unlike in India, carriers in the US work only on some phones. So you would have to check the compatibility and might have to even buy a new phone. Keep aside around $300 for that, or you could purchase it on EMI. Electronics in the US are cheaper than India and relatively easily accessible.
- Stuff to pack - You could have a look at a couple of lists of things to pack here.