Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Wirtschaftswissenschaftliche Fakultät

Frequently Asked Questions concerning studies at Ph.D.level


This little text addresses some frequently asked questions regarding studies at the Ph.D.level. My answers to those questions are admittedly my subjective views, but they originate in more than five years of experience with giving advice on this (and getting feedback from students).


  • How do I know that studying at the Ph.D.-level is the right decision?

That's an important question. Studying at the Ph.D.-level is a big investment. Counting everything it can easily take 5 years to complete a Ph.D. In my opinion, this investment makes only sense to the extent that you wish to qualify for a job that requires a Ph.D. degree. What are those jobs? Well, academic jobs for sure. But also jobs at policy institutions such as central banks, the World Bank or the IMF, just to name a few. Otherwise, if you don't need a Ph.D. for your desired first job after leaving the university, I would recommend to go for a Master's degree rather than a Ph.D. 

It can also be beneficial to find a job at an institute in your field of interest, for instance as a student assistant during your studies, or after as a predoctoral fellow (you can find more information on pre-doc positions below). Both these options can help you to better make a decision by giving you an insight into current research while strengthening your application for a Ph.D. program if you wish to apply for one later on.


  • When should I start applying for Ph.D. programs?

That depends a bit on your background. If you study economics at HU then I typically recommend to apply at end of your Bachelor studies. This might sound surprising. In fact, many students are under the impression that the Master comes after the Bachelor and that the Ph.D. comes after the Master. But this is not how this typically works, and the reason has to do with the structure of international Ph.D.-programs. Out of the 5 years, the first 2 years consist of specialized courses. That means: If you do 2 years of Master after the Bachelor and start a Ph.D. program after that, you will end up doing 4(!) years of coursework before you start writing your thesis. This is not only a long time of coursework, it is also inefficient: There is a lot of overlap between Master's level and Ph.D.-level courses. To understand this, it is useful to think of a metaphor. When you were in school they told you in the first years history starting before the Romans and ending today. In the final school years they started again before the Romans and ended today with the difference that you used different methods and studied different sources. It's the same in Economics. Bachelor, Master and Ph.D. basically tell you the same story, but at each level with a different set of tools (which is more and more abstract and research-oriented). So listening to the same story three times before starting your own dissertation is a bit too much, I think. Better choose before completing the Bachelor between two things: a "bread and butter"-degree (i.e., a Master), or a degree that you need for a research-oriented job, i.e., the Ph.D. A final remark might be in order here. If a Master's degree is a formal requirement for embarking on a Ph.D. programme then there typically exists a "Fast Track Option" to make it feasible to start with the Ph.D. directly after completion of the Bachelor's degree. 

As I said, however, the best answer to this question depends a bit on your background. If you consider a Ph.D. in Economics after completing a Bachelor's degree in, say, Maths or Physics, then I would rather recommend to take the Master in Economics first (in order to get used to economics before starting the Ph.D.).

It might also be advisable for some students (say students who are unsure about whether they should go for the Ph.D. after completing a Bachelor in Economics) to start with a regular Master (after the Bachelor's degree in Economics) and to take Ph.D. level courses starting in the second Master year. This could also make sense for students with a Bachelor's degree in Maths or Physics.


  • When are the application deadlines for a Ph.D.?

If you are thinking about doing a Ph.D. you should consider that the deadlines are usually earlier in the academic year than those for a Master and that these deadlines vary greatly among countries. Especially if you are interested in applying to universities in the USA the application deadline is usually mid December for the fall semester of the next year. However, the application deadline for BSE (Berlin School of Economics) is usually February 15th.  

Also, note that the application process can be rather time consuming, so taking roughly a year to prepare the details of your application is beneficial. Not only does it take a while to write a statement of purpose, but also taking the GRE test requires some preparation and possibly multiple attempts. It is best to keep in mind that many US universities value GRE scores of 169 or 170 in the quantitative section.


  • How do I know that a Ph.D. is not too difficult for me?

The Bachelor in Economics at HU is a research-orietended degree. If you like abstract thinking and if your results at HU are good (or very good) at the Bachelor's level then you should be confident that you can do it. Nevertheless, keep in mind that writing a Ph.D.-thesis is very challenging (and at times exhausting). That means that you should not expect this to be easy, even if you are obtaining very good grades in the HU Bachelor in Economics.


  • Where should I apply?

Apart from the top places in the US, there are also very nice Ph.D.-programs in Europe, such as EUI (Florence), LSE (London), TSE (Toulouse) and UPF (Barcelona). So think big, adopt a wide perspective, of course. And also give a good consideration to BSE (Berlin). It is safe to say that we are offering one of the best Ph.D. programs in Germany. This is clearly reflected in the success on the international job market with placements of finishing BSE (formerly BDPEMS) students at ECB, IMF, Bank of Canada, among others. 

If you are considering to apply for the top-ranked Ph.D. programs, keep in mind that taking quantitative courses can help your application and prepares you better for the rigorous course period and the subsequent research stage.


  • How do I get a job after I have completed my Ph.D.?


If you want to stay in academia or get a job at a policy institution, you typically have to participate in the international job market for economists. This centralized job market is quite unique and very efficient (after all, it’s a job market for economists), and works a bit like a bazaar. Once a year, all the job market candidates (Ph.D. students who are looking for jobs) and representatives of all important universities and research or policy institutions meet in a US American city to allocate the available jobs.

Once you and your supervisor have decided that your dissertation is in its final stage and you are ready to go to the job market, you can apply for interviews via the „Job Openings for Economists (JOE)” website. You will be supported by both your supervisor(s) and the placement director of your Ph.D. program. Typically, you will get several invitations for interviews for places you have applied to.
The interviews all take place within a few days in January in the same city (the location of the corresponding year’s American Economic Association’s meeting). During an interview, you will present your job-market paper (one part of your dissertation), followed by questions of the interviewers. A few days or weeks later you will hear back from some of them and hopefully get a “fly out” to the institutions to present your job-market paper once more to a broader audience. After this fly out, the final decisions are made and you will hopefully get a job.

This process can be very challenging, but it also gives you the great opportunity to get a really interesting job. For example, recent BSE students (formerly BDPEMS) got jobs at the ECB, IMF, University of Frankfurt, Bank of Canada etc. Of course, no one forces you to participate in the academic job market. You can also apply for non-research orientated positions in banks, companies, or associations. Also, there are smaller institutions and universities that do not hire via the international job market.


  • Which options are available to me if I would prefer not to begin a Ph.D. program directly after I finish my Bachelor's degree?


Your first option could be to study for a one-year Master's degree in Economics. This helps you prepare for and adapt to the level of the courses you will encounter in a Ph.D. and give you more time to spend on developing your specific topics of interest. GSE (Barcelona), LSE (London) and UCL (London) offer good programs, to which you can usually apply between October and April. They have rolling admissions, so they will process applications as they are received rather than waiting for a universal deadline.  

Another option would be to apply to a position as a predoctoral fellow (pre-doc) at a university, where you will be a paid full-time employee working with a team of researchers. Usually, pre-doc positions are offered for the duration of one or two years. This gives you a good idea of what it means to conduct research and introduces you to academic researchers with whom you could potentially work during your Ph.D. For instance, you can find available pre-doc positions on or via the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)