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A Day in the Life of a Economist

The field of economics rewards creative and curious thinkers. Economists study data and statistics in order to spot trends in economic activity, economic confidence levels, and consumer attitudes. They assess this information using advanced methods in statistical analysis, mathematics, computer programming; finally they make recommendations about ways to improve the efficiency of a system or take advantage of trends as they begin. While economists were previously relegated to the academic and government communities, they are now finding employment in significant numbers throughout the private sector. The number of privately owned economic consulting firms has grown by about 150 percent over the last six years, to reach about 5,000 as of this writing. These firms offer advice to and predict economic scenarios for individuals and large corporations, and occasionally act as consultants to branches of the government. However, universities and research groups remain the largest employers of economists, followed by the government. “I love being an economist. I get a glimpse of the future, or what we think it’s going to be,” raved one economist we surveyed. High levels of satisfaction are found throughout this field, which encourages discussion, detailed examination, and lively disagreement. Economists work closely with each other and share ideas fairly easily, which leads to a strong sense of community within the profession. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the profession is its highly theoretical nature. One ex-partner of a private advertising and economics firm wrote, “It’s all numbers which assume perfect market behavior. People don’t work that way. The don’t buy according to their optimal strategy; they buy because they feel like it.” The lack of a clear-cut relationship between theoretical modeling and reality eats away at some economists’ belief in what they do. The daily routine of each economist is determined by the specialty chosen. Financial economists meet with members of Wall Street firms and government officials to predict the movement and pace of global financial markets. International economists may spend as much as 30 percent of their time traveling and 40 percent of the time on the phone researching current trends in foreign economic systems (for this subgroup, language skills are important). Other fields include agricultural economics, labor economics, and law and economics.

Paying Your Dues

Graduates with bachelor’s degrees in economics find entry-level positions in which their primary responsibilities are the collection, assimilation and preparation of data. For positions with greater responsibility, such as those in teaching or government, a master’s degree or Ph.D. is required. The more quantitative course requirements of the economics major include statistics, regression analysis, and econometrics. These form the core of business life, but at the same time, those who are comfortable with the written or spoken word have a significantly higher rate of advancement and overall job satisfaction than those who are not. Applicants should be comfortable with computers, numbers, and long academic papers. Many women who start in academia find they are more successful in the private sector. The ability to distinguish yourself from other economists is key, but can be difficult, especially within a particular company’s or industry’s accepted economic assumptions. Creative thinkers and those who have taken cross-discipline course loads, such as philosophy or marketing, seem to find it easier to break from the pack and propose new, interesting additions to the economic canon. Technological breakthroughs bring countless new possibilities to economic analysis for economists to explore and present.

Present and Future

Adam Smith, the father of economics, came up with “laissez-faire” and the so-called law of supply and demand. John Maynard Keynes, with his theories on unemployment and the system of economic sponsorship, was one of the first modern economists to garner international fame. In post-WWII economies, the role of economists has been recognized as valuable by all governments and numerous industries in the financial sector. In the future, computer modeling will help economists formulate their economic visions for a wide variety of clients, including third world countries and multinational corporations. Private industries should hire approximately 30 percent more economists over the next five to ten years, mostly in urban centers, particularly Washington, New York, and Los Angeles (for economists specializing in the analysis of Pacific Rim economies).

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Economists who pursue graduate degrees often work while still in school, so these first few years pass at a frenzied pace. For the first few months in the working world, economists learn the assumptions and models used by the hiring company. Tasks focus on computer modeling, report writing, and working as part of larger, highly supervised research teams. Salaries are low. Projects usually have strict deadlines, so expect some weekend work. Economists in academia start out as assistant professors, lecturing, grading papers, and teaching sections.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Nearly 30 percent of those who began five years ago have either returned to school to pursue higher degrees in economics or to get out of the field altogether (in many cases, to become bankers). Since most private consulting firms employ fewer than fifty people, those who stay can rise rapidly. Successful economists are team leaders, managing large research projects, working with clients, and reviewing materials prepared by junior associates. Academics, now teaching their own seminars, are likely to have shifted among universities to those with strong opportunities for advancement and are publishing papers and articles other than thesis material.

TEN YEARS OUT

By this point, economists have significant client experience, strong managerial skills, and an ability to deliver promised services. Over 25 percent of ten-year veterans start their own consulting firms. Others become in-house employees at banks, brokerage houses, or other types of financial consulting firms (usually at the vice-presidential level or higher). Academics are now professors, publishing articles, working with graduate students, and angling for the extra university awards and consulting agreements that can provide a significant boost to income and prestige within the profession.