What I learned from a PhD in Economics

Disclaimer: This blog post is highly subjective.


This blog post is mostly for myself, to reflect on my time as a doctoral student. Although the post might also be useful for students considering enrolling in a PhD program.

Prior education

Before diving in, I briefly want to think about what I did prior to the PhD program. In high school I wanted to do chemistry at university, however this changed and I started a degree in economics. I studied hard, but in Sweden economics programs lack mathematical rigor and I did not get a foundational understanding of the subject. I did not understand this at the time, however it became blatantly obvious when I did an exchange semester in Switzerland and took master courses in quantitative finance. In Switzerland I got introduced to a new side of mathematics that I had not seen before (basically just standard tools for economists). When I came back to Sweden I decided to start another bachelor program in precisely mathematics. I was unlucky that it took some time to realize this but I was lucky that I had this possibility and this was the single best choice I’ve made education wise.

During my mathematics training I got a thorough understanding of foundational areas of mathematics such as linear algebra, calculus, probability theory, and numerical analysis. The education was much tougher than what I was use to and that triggered me to study harder. This was the first time I felt that I got a decent education and I’m very grateful to numerous professors at the department for their encouragement and guidance.

After the mathematics degree I did a one year master in financial economics. I knew that I needed a master’s degree if I ever wanted to continue in academia. However, I was not particularly impressed with the education, again due to a lack of rigor. I think that there is a problem with the way economics is taught, especially in Sweden. Up until starting my PhD I would say that my math degree was the single most important thing, and that the knowledge from the economics programs could probably be picked up from reading books and papers.

I applied to a PhD program at my alma mater, but did not get accepted. Instead, I started to work at a software engineer within machine learning and data science. It was a very good experience and I learnt a lot about the private sector and programming, but after half a year, I decided to apply to another PhD program. This time I got accepted and started a degree in economics.

Expanding on the problem with how economics is taught

Since this is a fairly provocative statement I want to expand on this a bit. Generally, the same microeconomics content is taught on bachelor, master, and PhD level. The difference between the famous Mas-Colell graduate text book and a bachelor level micro text book is the mathematical rigor. In the bachelor course the focus is on the results from the models, however without actually deriving the models it is impossible to get a decent understand of them. We tell our student that “given that people act rational, it leads to…”, instead of telling them that the “rationality assumption” comes from the fact that we need to take a derivative to solve the model. I don’t think it is unreasonable to claim something like “without the proper mathematical foundation microeconomics is meaningless”.

The outline of a PhD in economics

In Sweden, the econ programs have four years of studies (80%) plus one year of teaching (20%).

The PhD experience

Overall, I want to start to say that the PhD experience was great. It provided depth in multiple areas such as technical ability, communication, independent research, collaboration, judging good ideas, writing, etc. It really was what in my opinion the university should be about. The courses were demanding, both for the students but also for the professors. The relationship between the students and the teachers was naturally great since we spent a lot of time together and the number of professors per student was high.