Economics: Pros And Cons Of Postgraduate Study

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If graduating is close, or if you have already graduated, it can be difficult to decide what to do next or where to go.

Masters and PhDs are often seen as investing in your future - making you more qualified for a future career. Deciding to go onto further study is often a difficult decision and that is before having to decide what to study, where to study and how to study.

If you are interested in economics, you may well be thinking about continuing to study the subject after your first degree,making this sort of decision needs a lot of thought, there are many things you should consider when applying. Unlike some other subjects (notably the natural sciences), graduate study in economics is normally a two-stage process: typically a one year Master's followed by a three year PhD. The two stages have different purposes.

Master's Degree

This is primarily a ‘taught' course, like an undergraduate degree. Most are one year, but some last for two, which makes a big difference in terms of cost.

The Master's is designed to train you in the tools needed to become an economist. Some Master's students go on to PhDs, while others become professional economists working in government, international organisations or the private sector. As a consequence it is much more mathematical and empirical than an undergraduate degree. Aside from a dissertation, long essays will be rare. Assessment, like at undergraduate level, tends to be final exam and dissertation.

Doctorate (PhD or DPhil)

This is a research degree. It lasts for three years in theory, but in practice this can stretch to four. Most people will need a Master's already to do it, and have the intention of going into academia, although some professional and governmental institutions increasingly hire top economists with Doctorates. Assessment is of a piece of original research - your thesis. It is normally coupled with a verbal examination called a viva. The majority of Universities refer to this research degree as a PhD, Oxford chose not to and refer to it as a DPhil. A few new Universities have also started to run DPhil's.

Pros and Cons of Further Study

Should you do it?

Generally speaking, it is a bad idea to embark on further study without a clear idea of what you hope to get out of it. But further study can be fun - and if you know you want to do something which requires it, such as become an academic, so much the better.


·         Human Capital:

Certain jobs will require Master's or PhD. If you have an idea of what you want to do after you stop studying (and with rational expectations you should appreciate that this point will eventually come) find out which qualifications you need to do it.

·         Signalling:

A Master's from a university with a good reputation can open doors with employers. This is the case even if you want a job which won't involve any of the material that you learn on the Master's. This is especially true if you have gone to a university which might not have an established ‘brand' with employers. This is less true with a PhD - three years is a long time to spend acquiring a signal!

·         Consumption:

If you enjoy studying (which most people considering further study will do) then you should take this into account. This is especially true if further study allows you to do a job which you would enjoy (see Human Capital, above)


·         Fees:

These are not limited by the government, and can vary substantially. Typically the fees for Master's courses are much higher than for PhDs each year. Fees are also highly variable. Some will be as ‘cheap' as an undergraduate degree (£3,000/year) while others will be far higher than this, with the most expensive fees in excess of £15,000/year.

·         Wages forgone:

You still will have living costs, but without wages or a student loan. When you take the opportunity cost of lost earnings into account further study can be even more expensive.

If you are fortunate enough to win funding then you will receive a stipend towards covering the cost of living.


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