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Mathematics to study Economics

Mathematics courses are essential for students interested in Economics. Take lots and lots of undergraduate math courses if you are considering doctoral studies in the US, advises Arvind Panagariya, Professor of Economics and the Jagdish Bhagwati Professor of Indian Political Economy in the School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA), at Columbia University.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   2011
Arvind Panagariya, Professor of Economics and the Jagdish Bhagwati Professor of Indian Political Economy in SIPA at Columbia University.

Most branches of Economics use mathematics and statistics extensively, while some areas of mathematical research have been motivated by economic problems. If you are considering a Ph.D. program in the US make sure you take mathematics courses which cover topics useful in economic applications: optimization techniques, multivariable calculus, linear algebra and topology; the list goes on.  

“You have to take a decision to do a Ph.D. in Economics early because you have to prepare by taking enough math courses. That is the very first step,” said Arvind Panagariya, Professor of Economics and the Jagdish Bhagwati Professor of Indian Political Economy in the School of International & Public Affairs (SIPA), at Columbia University.

Professor Panagariya has authored several books including “India: The Emerging Giant,” which Fareed Zakaria of CNN described as the “definitive book on the Indian economy.”

Here is the second part of the celebrated economist’s free-wheeling interview to Uttara Choudhury.

How does the Office of Career Education at Columbia help students find job opportunities targeted at Economics students?

“Recommendations of the members of thesis committees play a crucial role in the entire job interview process. Since Ph.D. students have not established their reputation yet, what the advisors say is crucial.”

The Economics job market in general is very well organized. All leading Economics departments pull together the CVs of their students expected to complete their Ph.D. in any given year. A senior professor in the department usually serves as the Placement Officer. He sends out letters to all the major universities describing the students on the market from his department.  Other professors in the department often also write to selected schools recommending their students expected on the market.

Each department ranks the students on the market internally, and the position on that list becomes a key factor in anyone’s placement. The Placement Officer’s letter may contain information on who the department thinks are its top three or four students. This is broadly the supply side of the equation.

On the demand side, each department has a hiring committee whose members sift through the material they receive from other universities and also call their friends at leading departments to collect information on candidates who might best fit their needs. They seek out recommendation letters from thesis committee members of the promising candidates and the papers based on the theses by the students. Based on the reviews, the hiring committee then draws a list of 20 to 30 students it decides to interview at the American Economic Association meetings in early January.  Those on the list are contacted and interview times are set up by the end of the fall semester.

In the first week of January, you have the American Economic Association meetings which the students on the job market and a large number of economists from universities and elsewhere attend. Each department interested in hiring runs intensive interviews for three days, seeing 10-to-15 students each day. After the interviews are over, the departments rank the interviewees and draw up shortlists of four or five students whom they invite for campus visits. After the campus visits, decisions are made and jobs offered. So it is a well-organized operation.

Recommendations of the members of thesis committees play a crucial role in the entire process. Since Ph.D. students have not established their reputation yet, what the advisors say is crucial. Of course, the advisors have to guard their own reputation to be trusted in the future; so they cannot give recommendations unjustified by the promise of the student.

How should you prepare yourself to enter a Ph.D. program?

“In the US, if you take the Top 60 programs, you will have a lot of problems without a solid grounding in mathematics. It’s an essential requirement.”

You have to take this decision early because you have to take enough mathematics courses. That is the very first step. Next, prepare very well for the GRE because it is a particularly important piece of information for admission committees when they evaluate foreign students. This is because education systems outside the US are not properly understood.

Delhi School of Economics people largely know because there are so many D-School students in America. But with so many international students coming here, the GRE really provides a way for admission committees to evaluate your potential, as well as see how you stack up against other applicants.

Recommendation letters also matter. You want these letters from your professors who can assess your potential. Sometimes students think that letters from someone at a prominent institution such as the World Bank or McKinsey where they did internships might be more valuable. But unless the individuals at these institutions writing letters themselves have academic reputations, their letters would not help very much. It is safer to get letters from your professors who can assess your potential and themselves have academic reputations.    

Would you say a math background is indispensable for earning a degree in Economics?

Totally! In the US, if you take the Top 60 programs, you will have a lot of problems without a solid grounding in mathematics. It’s an essential requirement. When students doing their bachelors consult me, the first thing I ask them is ‘What kind of mathematics are you doing?’ My first advice to them is go and do lots of mathematics courses. 

Do South Asian students struggle when they come here?

“Prepare very well for the GRE because it is a particularly important piece of information for admission committees when they evaluate foreign students. This is because education systems outside the US are not properly understood.”

The schools don’t admit anyone they feel will not be able to cope with the math. They are very selective. The Delhi School of Economics does a terrific job of preparing the students for a Ph.D., as you can judge from the numerous Indian faculty members at leading US universities who first did a Master’s at the School.

When at the University of Maryland, I had deep involvement in the admission process for many years. There I found that on balance the top ten or so students from the Delhi School of Economics were generally a safe bet.

How long does it take to earn a Ph.D. degree from Columbia?

On average, it takes five years. If you move swiftly you could do it in four. Three would be rare. Four is considered very good, five is normal and six is not too bad. If you go beyond six then things are not going too well.

Are students encouraged to complete their dissertation within five years?

For two years you do the coursework, so you get to finish your Ph.D. thesis in the next three years. You are allowed to take longer but getting financial assistance becomes difficult after five years.

Do foreign students get financial aid when they are enrolled for a Ph.D. program in Columbia? 

Mostly, yes. The universities understand that unless you come from a super wealthy background it is tough for a student to sustain himself through a five-year Ph.D. program. Students get paid when they work as teaching assistants or participate in the instructional activities of the department.

You have written/edited ten books including “India: The Emerging Giant.” You have also published in virtually all top-ranking professional journals in Economics as also leading policy publications. Your work is admired by theoretical, empirical and policy economists alike. What else is currently in the pipeline?

There are about half a dozen books in the works, the vast majority of them on India. In 2009, the Templeton Foundation awarded Professor Jagdish Bhagwati and me a $2-million-grant to establish the Program on Indian Economic Policies at Columbia University. The program is now in its third and final year. It has now produced voluminous scholarly research on burning policy questions. We also have a comprehensive website (http://indianeconomy.columbia.edu/) where we have posted many of our research papers that your readers might find useful.

The program covers research in poverty, equality and democracy; growth and the socially disadvantaged; and state-level policies and outcomes. OUP, USA is launching a new series called Studies in Indian Economic Policies under the editorship of Jagdish Bhagwati and me, which will publish several books based on our research findings. 

“The Delhi School of Economics does a terrific job of preparing the students for a Ph.D., as you can judge from the numerous Indian faculty members at leading US universities who first did a Master’s at the School.”

I have contributed papers to the first edited volume on the impact of economic reforms on poverty and equality in India. A second volume focuses on India’s economic transformation. We are also in the process of completing a manuscript that looks at India’s 15 largest states and examines their policies. We also have case studies on Bihar, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh in progress. These studies will be brought out in book volumes in the OUP series.

Jagdish Bhagwati and I are also writing a provocative book “India’s Tryst with Destiny: Debunking Myths that Undermine Progress and Addressing New Challenges.” The book tackles many myths that have been propagated over the years in policy debates in India relating to growth, poverty, health, education and economic reforms. We refute these myths and lay out the reform agenda for the next several years in what we call Track I and Track II areas. Track I reforms are needed to accelerate growth and to make it even more inclusive while Track II reforms are needed to promote inclusion by making the social program more effective.

Then, I have two-thirds of a book on Free Trade and the Developing Countries sitting to be completed for the last two years. This is a major undertaking, approximately on the same scale as “India: The Emerging Giant.” With the good wishes of friends like you, hopefully, all this work will see the light of the day in the next couple of years!

Uttara Choudhury is Associate Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.   

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Vandana
iam graduate without maths and my ambishious to do MA economics form dehli. Is there any course (in maths) that would help me for doing MA economics or tel me what should i do for MA economics.............
09 July 2013


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