What is the importance of math in studying economics?

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Question: 

Please advise my going to become an economist. I was an average mathematics major as an undergraduate with a G.P.A. of 3.19 overall with a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics. I have about the average IQ for economists, but I know nothing about economics. Now that I am 41 this year, I am thinking of starting anew in a brand new area of applied mathematics. Is this advisable this late in life to switch careers from mathematics to economics given that the two share a common bond in mathematical economics and are theoretical in microeconomics?

Would the transition be better if I pursued pure mathematics instead, because my experiences has been lately in proof making? What can I look forward to? How and what should I be looking into, to start off, if economics is a good choice? I am a highly curious person. Plus, I have worked hard, I have been doing pure mathematics on my own since 2004 until presently; but, it has been slow going; so, I thought that by going into something that has a better return in investments of my intellectual energy, I should try microeconomics?

Answer: 

The prospect of a mid-life career change would be daunting for anyone.  In the end, you’ll have to make that difficult decision on your own.  But I can give you a few tips on how you might begin to explore whether a career in economics is for you.

Perhaps it’s best to start with an overview of the curriculum for a college major in economics.  As you know, economics has two main branches:  microeconomics (dealing mainly with individual decision-making and the market mechanism) and macroeconomics (focusing on economy-wide phenomena like unemployment, inflation, and economic growth).  College-level economics starts with “Principles” courses – one in micro and one in macro – normally taken by economics majors in the freshman year.  The next step up from principles is a pair of intermediate theory courses, again one in each of micro and macro, covering pretty much the same set of topics introduced in the principles classes but at a higher level of rigor.  In particular, intermediate theory courses make extensive use of the tools of calculus.  A third “layer” builds on the intermediate theory courses with courses focusing on specific “fields” of economics such as labor economics, international economics, public finance, etc.  One hallmark of economics is the careful and disciplined use of data in seeking answers to questions.  Thus the statistical analysis of economic data also plays a significant role in an undergraduate economics major, specifically featured in courses on econometrics, and interwoven into courses in a variety of economic fields.  

You are obviously aware of the indispensable role of mathematics in economics.  So your background in math would be a definite advantage to you if you do decide to study economics.  In fact, with your math background, I think you could probably start your exploration of economics at the intermediate theory course level.  You mention the possibility of taking classes at a community college.  One problem, however, is that most community colleges offer only the entry-level principles courses in economics.  I’ll have to leave it to you to decide whether it would be feasible to enroll, perhaps on a non-degree basis to start, in classes at a 4-year college or university.

The website of the American Economic Association presents a variety of “Resources for Students,” including some general information to help people better understand the nature of the discipline, and some more specific information about career opportunities for people with a degree in economics.  One very nice recent addition to the website is a brief educational video of interest to people evaluating career options in economics.

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Last updated on March 14, 2017