Choosing a PhD Programme; Which Route?

Undertaking PhD study in a UK University typically requires a student to have completed a good MSc in Economics, typically with a final grade above 65%, or the equivalent (although a Distinction is usually required for financial support). Admission to a quality MSc requires a strong undergraduate degree (typically achieving at least Upper Second Class Honours) in a programme including a substantial element of Economics.

There are two routes to a PhD in Economics in the UK – the ‘traditional’ route and the ‘US-style’ route – distinguished by the way in which the taught postgraduate element (including the MSc) is delivered and by the length of study. Some departments offer both routes, some only offer one or the other, and some offer both but limit studentships to those choosing to follow a specific route. The two routes are briefly described below, assuming study is full-time (the timings will typically be adjusted pro-rata if study is part-time).

The traditional route to a PhD in Economics in the UK – and indeed in the Social Sciences in general – is through a “1+3” pathway.   Here students typically undertake a taught MSc focused on Economics in Year 1 and carry out research in Years 2-4.   The first year of PhD – i.e. Year 2 – often involves further taught elements designed to support research in Economics.  Most institutions require students to study for at least two years on a PhD, so the minimum time taken to complete a PhD following the traditional route is three years.  The majority of students complete at the end of Year 4 or during Year 5 (often considered a `writing-up’ year for funding purposes but making this a “1+4” in practice). 


Increasingly, Economics Departments in the UK are also offering a route to PhD that is closer to that found in the US. The median completion time for a PhD in the US is six years from completing a first degree; almost none are completed in four years and a good number continue into year seven. Programmes include two or more years of taught material with a further three to five years of research work for the completion of the thesis. In the UK, some departments have moved towards this model, dividing their PhD programmes into a separate ‘taught MRes’ and a ‘pure PhD’, effectively repackaging the route towards a PhD as a “1+1+4” or a “1+2+3” pathway (delivering MSc+MRes+PhD).

There is a healthy international market for professional economists who have acquired the critical, creative and technical skills developed through a doctorate. The Traditional route to a PhD in Economics provides an appropriate pathway for PhD graduates competing in the market for professional economists. These graduates meet the standards of research excellence appropriate for PhD, but also benefit from the relatively rapid completion typical of UK social science doctorates, with further on-the-job training provided by their subsequent employer.

There is an equally healthy international market for more specialist research economists, not only in academia but in many consulting firms, tech companies and specialist government agencies (e.g. IMF, World Bank, central banks). As Economics as a discipline has developed in technical sophistication, the longer US-style route has become more popular for those wishing to pursue a career as a research economist. For example, evidence demonstrates that going on the job market after six or more years of PG study is associated with a significantly higher probability of obtaining a job in a top academic institution relative to a middle or low ranked one.

An alternative route to a career as a research economist is to follow the Traditional route and then to take up a (one-, two-, or three-year) Post-Doctoral research position.  The extra years of research training are accumulated on-the-job, typically working on a pre-specified research topic with a team of collaborators, so that the researcher enters the job market with a similar level of experience to that of those following the US-style route. However, while post-doc positions are increasing in number, they remain very competitive. 

It is worth noting that, whichever route is taken, successful applicants for jobs as research economists often will have packaged their work to produce a job-market-paper (JMP) that will form the basis of interviews and job-talks. The JMP is usually single-authored and is a piece of very substantial work (often between 50-100 pages in length) with a clearly identifiable set of key results that can show case your abilities as a research economist.