Career Advice for Economics Majors

Monday, August 28, 2023

Article written for Forbes by Bill Conerly

As an economist who is well known in my town, I get calls from economics majors (or their parents) asking for help finding jobs. Here’s a summary of my advice for soon-to-graduate or recently graduated econ majors, on the off chance that your parents don’t know me, or you’re too shy to pick up the phone and call. If you are thinking of graduate school, scroll down to my final note on graduate school in economics.

What kind of jobs are there for economics majors?

Most of the jobs that economics majors get do not have “economist” in the job title. Here are a couple of actual jobs that I see people doing which would fit an econ major perfectly.

At the corporate headquarters of a fast food company, an analyst tracks sales, costs and profits at their stores. If sales have increased, she drills down to determine whether more people are eating at their stores, or if the average sale is higher, or some combination of the two. That will impact marketing decisions. She’ll track costs. If food costs are up, is the price of food going up, or is spoilage increasing? She does this regionally, as well as compares her chain’s numbers with national economic data.

At a young Internet company, a guy estimates the value of a user. Some percentage of free users upgrade to the paid premium service, and there’s an average “life” of a premium customer. This generates a present value of a user. He compares the value of a user to the cost of acquiring users, through refer-a-friend promotions and advertising. He continually drills down. Do new users acquired through Google ads convert to premium users as often as people who come from Facebook ads? The explorations are endless.

Jobs like this are hard to find because they usually are not tagged “economics.” They may actually be filled by business majors, accountants, or former receptionists who proved their chops on the job. The trick is to find these jobs.

Many hiring managers think that “economics” is about forecasting GDP and recommending monetary policy to the Federal Reserve. For that reason, the label economist isn’t helpful to the average BA. The economics major must go out and identify the jobs.

(However, there are some jobs open to B.A.s as economists, economic analysts, or economic research assistants at economics consulting firms, the government, and some corporations, especially utilities.)

Skills and tasks to emphasize

The economics major has a strength in finding work: everyone knows that you have to be smart to be an economics major. (If you’re an econ major, you know this isn’t true. But don’t tell anyone, because most of the world finds economics mysterious and figures that we are really smart. It’s a useful myth.)

Here are the actual skills that will prove useful in getting a job, and succeeding in it. Look for jobs that require these skills:

  • Manipulating data, statistics, drilling down, finding relationships. It’s amazing to me how many people are mystified by the “drill down.” That example from fast food, of whether sales are up because of more customers or higher sales per customer, is a drill down. It comes naturally to economics majors, but its magic to many people.
  • Understand relationships. This is the theory part of the first bullet. An econ major knows what factors could lead to higher sales or higher costs. Many people have trouble thinking conceptually rather than in specifics. The econ major is better at thinking about relationships to explore.
  • Learning about new products, industries, regions, business models. Many people experienced in business know their own area, but they are not good at shifting to other areas. A good econ major can learn about new fields. Look for a job where this ability is important, such as a fast-growing industry or one subject to major change.
  • Communicating. If you can explain complicated things clearly, both orally and in writing, then you are going places. If not, then this should be your first remedial education project. It’s not an inborn skill, but it can be learned, and it can improve with practice.

Industries for economics majors

People with economics major work in all industries, but there are opportunities in a couple of industries right now (2015). The Internet sector is using lots of analytics, and the companies are used to paying people well. Health care is a large and growing industry with miserable understanding of their costs, and thus a huge need for analysts.

Before talking to someone in a particular industry, read a little about it, and especially about its use of analytics. For Internet businesses, The Lean Startup has a good chapter on assessing a company’s user data.

In all areas of job search, I find that people overemphasize the big name companies. Here in Portland, people think Nike and Intel right away, along with major banks and utilities. However, mid-sized companies actually employ more people than do large companies. (Small business employs even more, but most small companies are not hiring any econ graduates. The exceptions include many consulting firms.)

How to search for a job

Networking is the single best method of finding a job. That said, every other method can work. I’ve gotten a job by just walking in and applying; by responding to a job ad; through a headhunter; and through networking. So everything works. But networking works best of all. It’s the scariest approach, which may be why it works best: your competition would rather sit at a computer responding to job postings than actually calling people.

Networking is especially easy for college students and recent grads. You call and ask for information, and people are happy to help.

Here’s a true story. When my nephew graduated with a degree in finance, he didn’t know what type of finance job he wanted. I offered to give him names of my contacts in various parts of finance (corporate planning, investment management, banking, etc.). I told him to call each contact and say that he is Bill Conerly’s nephew, a recent finance graduate,  and he would like to learn more about the kind of work that the person does. Everyone he called was happy to talk to my nephew and set up an appointment. After a half dozen calls, my nephew was so in the rhythm of asking for advice that he forgot to mention he was my nephew. He landed a meeting with the most prominent person in a particular field, who asked, “How did you come to call me?” It turns out that the person was willing to meet with any earnest young person, whether my nephew or not.

Once you have a meeting with a knowledgeable executive, ask questions. You can talk about yourself when asked, but keep the focus on learning about the kind of work that the person does. Here are some questions that will get the conversation flowing:

  • How did you get into this job?
  • What kind of people succeed in it?
  • Have you hired people who didn’t work out, and why not?
  • Is the work mostly social or solitary?
  • Is it detail-oriented or big-picture?
  • Is it deadline-focused or steady?
  • How much do people learn on the job?
  • What are career paths after entry-level work?

These questions serve two purposes: they help you learn, and they show the executive that you’re a smart person. People are judged more by the questions they ask than by the answers they give.

(Read that last sentence again.)

Finish the interview by asking for suggestions about who else you should talk to. If you’re interested in the kind of work the person describes, ask about other people, such as competitors, who might have further insights. If the work sounds like it’s not for you, ask about other people in other fields who might be worth talking to.

Bring a resume, but don’t pitch yourself. You called to ask for advice; stick to asking for advice. The person knows you’re looking for work and will talk about any openings that would be right for you. (The exception is if you are interested in sales; in that case, don’t hesitate to ask for a job.)

Back home, write a thank-you note. (Hand written, sent by snail mail.)

Each meeting will lead to more meetings, in an exponential fashion. You’ll find a job before the number of meetings reaches infinity, trust me.

Update: I've written a follow up article explaining how to get started: Networking For Economics Majors: Getting Contacts For Job Search.

Grad school for economics majors

There’s only one good reason for going to grad school: if you have such a hunger to learn more economics that if you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. For everyone else, the opportunity cost is too high. There are lots of good jobs available without a graduate degree, so taking years away from productive work doesn’t make sense. Especially don’t go to graduate school if your primary reason is that you don’t know what else to do.