Doctoral Student Frequently Asked Questions

Applying to the Ph.D. program in Economics at NYU

If you are thinking of applying to the Ph.D.program in economics, read this FAQ before contacting individual professors. This is not to discourage you from being in touch with us, but only because most of the questions you have in mind have probably been asked before. (So much for individuality!) Of course, do contact us if you have a special situation not addressed here, and we will do our best to help.

The FAQ here is specially tailored for applicants in economics. NYU's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences maintains a webpage with extensive information on application procedures.


How many students apply to your program, and how many do you take?

Over the last two years, we have averaged over 900 applicants per year. We take 18-20. We make between 45 and 50 offers.


What proportion of the entering class is awarded financial aid, and what are the terms of aid?

NYU's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences provides for full financial aid for every full-time entering Ph.D. student for five years, conditional on satisfactory academic performance. (See below for adjustments if you have an external scholarship.) It includes payment of tuition, coverage under an NYU health insurance plan, and an academic-year stipend and a one-time $1,000 start-up stipend award.

This is an extraordinary financial aid package, if we may say so ourselves. Unlike most other university scholarships, you are not required to teach under the NYU fellowship. If you teach as an adjunct during the time you are here, you will receive additional payment for that activity.

The fellowship does not require you to be a research assistant either, but you are encouraged to spend one or more years being a research assistant (this will only happen by bilateral consent between you and the professor you wish to assist). For every year you spend as a full time assistant, you will receive an additional summer fellowship equal to 1/3 of your academic year stipend.

Additional funding in the form of adjunct teaching or research assistantships, or fellowships, are often available during the summer.


What if I have an institutional fellowship, such as a government scholarship?

Then you must declare that fellowship to us, and NYU will adjust the terms of its financial support to you, but you will be brought up to the NYU scholarship level if the academic-year portion of the outside funding falls short. You will still have some incentive to bring in the outside funding. Currently, the policy of the Economics Department is to treat the external support much like we deal with research assistance: we will provide you with an additional summer fellowship.


What if I want to come on my own money?

You can't. You need to be supported either by NYU or by an institution.


Do I get different treatment if I belong to a particular ethnic/religious/national/gender category?

In general, no. We look for the best people regardless of these categories. However, if you belong to a minority group as defined by U.S. law, we may be able to supplement your funding (conditional on being granted admission), though there are no guarantees.


How important is a background in economics?

Typically, very important, to the point of being crucial. We will look at your application if you have a top-notch background in, say, mathematics and have a real interest in economics, but economics is not just applied mathematics. So we value applicants who are trained in the subject.


And a background in mathematics?

It is imperative that you have had exposure to mathematics. A degree in mathematics is not required, though we look especially carefully at applicants with a joint degree in economics and mathematics.


What sort of mathematics courses should I have taken?

You should definitely have taken single-variable and multivariate calculus. It is expected that you would have a background in linear algebra, and an exposure to probability and statistics. Many of our applicants also have a background in difference or differential equations, and they have been exposed to rigorous thinking in limits, continuity, and basic topological concepts (openness, compactness, etc.). There are a good number of applicants who have more than this: e.g., some measure theory and exposure to rigorous probability theory and stochastic processes.

The most important thing to realize is that you cannot jam math courses into the last term before you apply for a Ph.D. and create the same impression as someone who has been consistently trained mathematically. It is also important to realize that we are not looking for mathematical wizards but individuals who have a reasonable amount of mathematical maturity and can apply their logical mind to economic questions.


Can I apply to the Ph.D. if I have only a B.A/B.Sc degree? Don't I have to get an M.A. first?

You can apply with a 4-year B.A. degree from the United States, or its equivalent. Keep in mind, however, that lots of applicants (mainly international applicants) have serious master's degrees in which they have continued to build up substantial skills. If you are from a country with a three-year B.A. degree you should be aware of this. In general, though, the equivalent of a 4-year bachelor's degree is good enough.


Do I have to take the TOEFL and GRE examinations?

You have to take the GRE test. For NYU's TOEFL and IELTS policies, click here.


Tell me what you look for in a good application. In particular, how important are the GREs? Transcripts? Letters of recommendation?

The GREs typically set out necessary rather than sufficient conditions. We look for strong quantitative skills. We know that the GRE does not test those skills adequately, but if you score below some threshold (say, below the 90%) you either had a bad day or there is a problem with the mathematics background somewhere. Do we immediately condemn you on those grounds? Not at all, but if you have low GREs you will have to have that much of a stronger application elsewhere to "make up" for it.

Conversely, if you score in the 90% or higher don't sit back and relax. Many of our applicants achieve perfect scores, many more than we can admit. The rest of your application will be looked at very seriously.

Your transcripts will be looked at very carefully. If you are not a U.S. applicant don't worry: we have ways of figuring out and calibrating your scores using our own experience, background, and the knowledge we have of existing students. We look at your economics and mathematics background very closely, using your transcripts.

Your letters of recommendation are extremely important. They should come from academic professionals who have taught you or have interacted with you (e.g., as undergraduate thesis supervisor). The letters should be honest, revealing of your strengths (and weaknesses), and if possible should attempt to rank you within the context of the recommender's own professional experience. It may be a good idea to tell your recommender that we want such a letter. It is all right to write things like "She is a very pleasant person" or "He bears a fine moral character" and we take such things seriously, but in the end these statements won't get you into a top graduate program.

Ideally, your letters should come from academics, individuals who are seriously active in teaching and research. If you have worked in a company and your boss writes us a letter, there is only so much [s]he can tell us about what we really want to know. Similarly, if a top government official knows you or your family and writes a letter on your behalf, it is of limited use to us (and therefore to you).

Do not be concerned about getting letters from "important" academics or researchers. We can tell a lot about your letter writers from the letters they have written before, and from the way they write. These things matter a lot more than whether your recommender has won the Nobel Prize in economics (often, the so-called "important" people don't have the time to write a serious letter).


I need to include a personal statement as part of my application. Is this important?

Very. We take this statement seriously and --- believe it or not --- in conjunction with the rest of your application, we can often tell when you have written it as opposed to someone else! A good statement should be clear, not too long, and to the point. We do not expect you to define your Ph.D. topic exactly, but also expect that you would be able to define your interests beyond the usual broad classifications of micro, macro and so on.


Does work experience count?

Good question. The answer is: it depends. If you have been --- say --- an investment banker for 5 years before you applied to a Ph.D. in economics at NYU, you probably have serious work experience but probably none of it will point towards your success (or failure) in a research program. So far as the doctoral degree in economics is concerned, you're probably better off applying just after graduating from university. [This is not to denigrate investment banking at all, but only to point out that it signals very little about the kind of skills we're looking for.]

If you have been, say, at the World Bank, or an intern at the Fed, very similar considerations may apply. It all depends on exactly what you have been doing, but in general don't expect to jump into a priority queue because of this sort of work experience. While experience certainly counts as a positive attribute, it also means that you've been out of touch with academic research for a few years. While experience helps you ask a new set of questions, it can also sometimes close you off to new academic methodologies or ideas. Work experience cuts both ways.


Should I include a sample of my research in the application?

Sure. We encourage it. But "research" isn't the literature survey you wrote for a course, or a term paper. That sort of thing will have little or negative value. If you have written a paper and are unsure whether you should send it in with your application, ask your professor. [S]he will know whether your paper has that spark of originality we might be interested in seeing. Use this option sparingly, because it can reveal a lot about you!


Does it help to be in touch with an NYU faculty member in advance?

Yes and no (mainly no). Very often a faculty member gets email from an applicant saying that [s]he wants to work with that faculty member. But this isn't possible until the applicant enters the program, takes the core courses, passes the qualifying examinations, and only then is a thorough assessment carried out (including a lot of self-assessment) and an advisor chosen. So don't use this as a way of trying get a professor to support your application.

Of course, it may be genuinely the case that your own interests lead you to interact with one of our faculty members, quite apart from the question of admissions. In that case your queries will almost always be met with a suitable response. The point is that in most cases, it is easy enough to separate a real research inquiry from a message designed to try and obtain admission.


Is there a particular set of skills and qualifications that would guarantee entrance into the program?

No. And it is important to realize this: we take 20 out of 1000. Of course we may not be able to make you an offer even if you are very, very good. In addition, we could (and unfortunately do) make mistakes in our rankings. So you should never feel depressed if you are turned down by a top program. You are competing with the best from all over the world, and getting one rejection is no reflection on your ability.


Fair enough, but just what is it that you are looking for in an applicant?

It isn't easy to define this, but what we look for is evidence of creativity, originality, drive ... ingredients that will make you a successful researcher. The ability to do well in courses or exams is correlated with this talent, and we certainly look for that and we also demand that you do well in our coursework, but that isn't the ultimate goal. Many students are really good at coursework but are just not the same when it comes to research. What about vice versa? Well, we all read about such exceptions and we all admire them, but that's who they are: exceptions. [We look for them as well, but they're harder to find.]


Should I try getting into the M.A. program at NYU and then plan to move over to the Ph.D. program?

Apply to the M.A. program by all means but please do not see it as an avenue for subsequently entering the Ph.D. program. The two programs are run separately, and have different course offerings. Of course, we would value the M.A. degree from NYU as part of your subsequent application, just as we would value the M.A. degree from other good universities.


Do you encourage transfers from other Ph.D. programs?

In general, no. We take the overall position that transfers are not a good idea. Your existing Ph.D. program has presumably invested a lot in you (and vice versa). Of course, there may be pressing personal reasons or special academic contingencies under which a transfer is advisable, but don't expect your application to stand out simply by virtue of the fact that you are already enrolled in a Ph.D. program.


Is a video required as part of the PhD application?

No. Video submission is voluntary. Videos will mostly be used to distinguish among finalists. If you choose to do so, we request that you submit a short video (no more than three minutes in length) that describes your background and achievements briefly. Then, devote the greater part of the video to telling us about your research interests and postĀ­degree goals. Whether or not you submit a video, your written Statement of Academic Purpose should include a full account of your background and career goals.