Pre-Grad School Advice for Agricultural and Applied Economics

I received the following email:

I wanted to reach out to you, in the hopes that you could provide me some advice as a student considering a future in graduate work in Agricultural Economics. Ever since I began my undergraduate coursework, I always knew that an MS in Agricultural Economics was a possible future for me. Now … I am swiftly coming to the conclusion that a graduate degree in this space could really help me achieve my career ambitions, as well as open more doors.
Do you have any advice for a student considering a future in this field? Do you have any recommendations for undergraduate students preparing to apply to graduate studies in Ag or Applied Econ?

This was my response:

If by graduate studies you mean both an MS and a PhD, then I can offer better advice. If you mean an MS only, my advice will be slightly less useful, first because I did both my undergraduate degree and my MS in economics and then moved to agricultural and applied economics for my PhD, and second because I have little to no experience having only an MS, as I worked for six months between my MS and PhD and never had to look very hard for work with just an MS.
But if you are planning on getting a PhD, my recommendations would be the following:
1. Load up on mathematics. Take real analysis, linear algebra, as much calculus as you can, and some statistics while you still have the opportunity to do so. Doctoral-level studies are essentially applied math (at least for the first year), and your math prep will directly determine where you get admitted.
2. Don’t do a PhD unless someone else pays for it.
3. Don’t attend a PhD program unless they have a solid track record of placing people in the kind of employment you are seeking. For me, it was clear from the very beginning that I wanted to be an academic, and so I targeted departments with a strong track record of placing their students as faculty in good departments.
4. Don’t lose your connection to the real world. My best research ideas (e.g., the welfare effects of the quinoa price boom, the measurement of food waste, food prices and food riots) come from reading things in the newspaper or on social media and thinking “That isn’t right” or “I wonder if that’s true.” I realize that it is hard to keep up with the outside world when living the life of a hermit that is that of a grad student, but do your best.
5. If you aren’t sure whether you’d like to get a PhD and believe you might want to get out with just an MS, your goal is to get in and get out. This means the topic of your thesis doesn’t matter very much (if your program requires a thesis at all). Given what I see among our MS students, having an MS is a solid way to a good job if you take lots of econometrics courses, as employers are mainly looking for quantitative skills (and they will increasingly be look for those skills in the future).

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