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What Is an Economics Major in the US?

Learn what you can do with an economics degree from a US university.

A man and and woman sitting next to each other compare notes in a busy lecture hall.

Economics majors study how individuals, communities, corporations, and even nations decide to use their limited resources. Despite having a reputation of being only about money, the study of economics can be applied to food and water, health care, education, environmental policy, and more. While 22% of all economists in the US work for the federal government, there are a variety of ways to use an economics degree—and in many professional fields. 

But what is economics? What is it like to study economics at a university in the United States? Which courses do you take in an economics program and what skills do you need to be a successful economist? Keep reading to learn if a degree in economics is right for you. 

What is economics?

Although economics is often associated with business, it is usually part of the department of arts and sciences at universities in the United States—this is because economics is a social science. Social sciences are concerned with society and interpersonal relationships. Other social sciences include anthropology, political science, psychology, and sociology. 

When you study economics, you rely on empirical data, hence the “science” in social science. Empirical data is evidence to support or dispute a claim based on observation and experimentation. Economists observe how people allocate limited resources. Then, they conduct experiments based on collected data to predict the way people will behave in the future. These predictions inform many of our decisions on a personal, societal, and even global scale. 

Which characteristics do economics students share?

Students who study economics, according to the College Board, “study economic models and theories to analyze how the seemingly simple acts of buying and selling can be complicated by factors such as taxes, interest rates, inflation, labor disagreements, and even the weather.”

So, economics students are detail-oriented and enjoy statistics. Many are interested in social, political, and economic problems and have strong analytical, research, and communication skills. Economics students use these skills to explain complex patterns in our day-to-day world. While studying economics, students can intern at consultancies, financial services organizations, government jobs, nonprofits, and public policy institutions. 

Successful professional economists are good at math, but they also understand psychology, sociology, and history. They are curious, independent thinkers who are not intimidated by uncertainty. They are comfortable with both writing and public speaking, and can communicate complex information in ways that everyone can understand. 

How is an economics degree different from a business or finance degree? 

A business degree is a broad major, allowing students the most flexibility of the three degree types. A finance degree is laser-focused on money and may have a narrower range of career possibilities. An economics degree is somewhere in the middle.

There are a lot of similarities between business, finance, and economics. Let us take a closer look. 

Business degrees are less specialized than economics degrees

Students studying in the USA must take a variety of classes as business majors, from ethics to calculus. Business majors can specialize in several different subjects, including finance and economics, but you would have to get a dual degree to major in economics and also finance or business. 

An undergraduate business degree, such as the bachelor in business administration (BBA) in business management from Adelphi University, builds a skill set that applies to a wide array of roles in many industries and fields. Business majors become analysts, entrepreneurs, and executives, and work in human resources, marketing, finance, and economics.

According to PayScale.com, business students can expect to make approximately $65,000 after graduation. 

Finance degrees are all about money

A finance degree is more focused than a business degree. Finance students are concerned with money and how it moves on a personal, business, and institutional level. 

  • Personal financiers help people save money for retirement or large purchases based on risk and return on investment.

  • Corporate financiers plan forecasts that help companies strategize for the future, and they look at business decisions to determine their value.

  • Investment financiers manage personal and corporate investment portfolios based on the risk and return of stocks, bonds, and other securities.

Finance is more mathematical and is most commonly a bachelor of science degree. According to PayScale.com, finance students can expect to make approximately $71,000 after graduation. 

Economics, finance, and business in perspective

With an economics degree, students develop analytical and problem-solving skills that are in demand in many industries. There is more math in economics than business and more soft skills development than in finance. 

Additionally, there are more career options with economics than finance because it applies to more than just money. But before you decide on your program, remember to research available career opportunities. Look at open positions and employment trends in your home country to understand the job market you are entering. 

Should I study for a BA or a BS in economics?

Similar to many business degrees, economics students can study for a bachelor of arts (BA) or a bachelor of science (BS). The primary difference between the two is the amount of math coursework required, with the BS being more math-intensive. A BA may have a language requirement and require liberal arts classes as well. 

According to PayScale.com, a student with a BA in economics can expect to make around $72,000 after graduation, while a student with a BS in economics can expect to make approximately $70,000. For international students planning on working or interning in the United States, a BS in economics may qualify for a 24-month STEM OPT extension, but not a BA. 

What is it like to study economics as an international student in the United States?

Of the approximately 2 million bachelor’s degrees granted by US universities in 2016-17, 30,000 were general economics degrees, representing less than 2% of the total, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Specialized bachelor degrees in economics, from business and managerial economics to agricultural economics, added 12,000 degrees to that total. 

According to a recent Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange, of the approximately 432,000 international students studying in the United States in 2017-18, 7.7% studied social sciences, including economics. Currently, 8% of all liberal arts undergraduate students at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston) study economics. 

Many United States universities are reclassifying some of their math-intensive economics specializations, such as econometrics and quantitative economics, as STEM areas of study. These universities hope to draw more international students interested in taking advantage of the OPT extension. Before you apply, make sure to check with your prospective universities to see which type of degree you will earn with an economics education, as it could affect your internship and employment options after you graduate. 

What are some of the popular specializations and courses available to economics students?

It is rare to see many programs at US universities that offer specialized undergraduate economic degrees. Most schools only offer either a BA or BS in economics. That is because most undergraduate programs in the United States focus on the broad overarching principles and skills that make up the foundation of economics. US students are more likely to find specialized economics degrees, such as natural resource economics or pharmaceutical economics, at the master’s or doctoral level.

Which core areas of economics get covered at the undergraduate level?

Economics majors take classes that generally fall into two categories: macroeconomics and microeconomics. 

What is macroeconomics?

Macroeconomics is the study of the behavior and performance of an economy as a whole. Macroeconomists start at the big picture and work their way down. Employment rates, imports and exports, and gross domestic product are major influences on the total economy of a nation, for example. Macroeconomists work for banks and the government, and they also work with large-scale global consultancy firms. They look at global markets, governments, trade, investment, and the flow of money. 

What is microeconomics?

Microeconomics is the study of the behavior and performance of an economy on the group, business, or personal level. Microeconomists start at the bottom and work their way up. The focus may be an individual market—the effects of supply and demand on automobile production, for example. Microeconomists may look at household purchasing choices or the resource allocation decisions a business makes.

What are some common economics courses at US universities?

There are a large variety of economics programs and requirements at US universities. Most schools, however, have a set of mandatory classes that make up the core structure of their economics curricula. These core classes consist of both macro and microeconomics topics. At American University in Washington, DC—ranked 77th national university in 2020 by U.S. News & World Report—students can choose between a BA and a BS in economics. In both degree paths, students must take classes in the following subjects:

  • Macroeconomics

  • Microeconomics

  • Applied Econometrics

  • Statistics

The International Monetary Fund describes econometrics as taking an economic theory and quantifying it. In other words, econometrics helps explain economic relationships, such as cause and effect, using statistics and math. Statistics classes provide an overview of how to collect, organize, analyze, and present data to form an argument. 

In both the BA and BS degree tracks, students must also complete a capstone requirement before graduation. The capstone requirement can be a semester-long project, internship, or research seminar for students considering a master’s or doctoral degree in economics. 

What are some specialized courses for economics majors? 

Economics majors can choose from a wide array of classes that focus on both the theory and application of economics principles. These classes can be financial, or they can apply economic principles to areas such as natural resources and sustainable development. Here is a list of some of the more specialized economics classes available through the economics department at UMass Boston:

  • Political economy and international migration

  • Economics of global health

  • The economics of inequality

  • Gender and economics

  • Health economics

  • Introduction to Marxist analysis

  • The economics of state and local governments

  • History of economic thought

  • Money and financial institutions

  • International trade

Depending on where you study, you may be able to combine economics with a different area of study, such as business, for an interdisciplinary major. The University of South Carolina, ranked 83rd best graduate economics program by U.S. News & World Report, offers a B.S. in business administration with a major in economics. 

Other universities, such as UMass Boston, offer accelerated programs, allowing students to earn their bachelor’s degree and their master's degree in five years. Usually, it takes four years to complete your undergraduate education and two years to complete an MBA in the United States. The accelerated program not only cuts out one year of study but one year of tuition, too.

What does an undergraduate class schedule look like for an economics major? 

Students generally pick their major at the end of their sophomore year at universities in the United States. This is because students are required to take core classes in arts and sciences at the undergraduate level. This well-rounded approach to undergraduate academics allows students to explore different areas of study before deciding on their major. 

So, economics students at the undergraduate level are generally required to take core arts and science classes, core economics courses, and higher-level specialized classes in economics. Let us take a look at a sample course schedule for an undergraduate economics major studying for a bachelor of arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago, ranked 68th best graduate economics program by U.S. News & World Report

Freshman year, first semester: 16 hours

  • Academic writing I: writing in academic and public contexts

  • Principles of microeconomics

  • Precalculus mathematics

  • Foreign language requirement

Freshman year, second semester: 17 hours

  • Academic writing II: writing for inquiry and research

  • Principles of macroeconomics

  • Foreign language requirement

  • 2 general education requirement courses

Sophomore year, first semester: 16 hours

  • Microeconomics: theory and applications

  • Foreign language requirement

  • 3 general education requirement courses

Sophomore year, second semester: 16 hours

  • Statistics for economics

  • Macroeconomics in the world economy: theory and applications

  • Foreign language

  • General education requirement course

 Junior year, first semester: 17 hours

  • Econometrics or honors econometrics

  • Environmental economics

  • General education requirement course

  • General education requirement course/elective

  • Economics-based elective

Junior year, second semester: 15 hours

  • Business forecasting using time series methods

  • Monetary theory

  • Research and writing in economics

  • General education requirement course/elective

  • Economics-based elective

Senior year, first semester: 15 hours

  • International economics

  • Economics-based electives

Senior year, second semester: 15 hours

  • Mathematical economics

  • Economics-based electives

Should I intern as an undergraduate economics student?

Interning while studying as an undergraduate student in the United States is a good idea for all areas of study, including economics. There are many great opportunities for economics-based internships in the United States, from top banks to international nonprofits to roles with research-based consultancies. 

According to a survey conducted by the Institute of International Education, 78% of international students choose to study in the United States to enhance their career opportunities and gain professional experience in their area of study. Interning is a great opportunity to satisfy that international study requirement. 

Internships help you: 

  • Build your resume: Even entry-level positions require relevant experience.

  • Network: Strong connections within your area of study can help you find a job after graduation.

  • Find work: Many internships turn into full-time jobs.

Talk to your Shorelight advisor if you need help finding the right internship for your career path.

Should I pursue a master's or doctoral degree in economics after I graduate?

Before you decide to go back to school for a master’s or doctoral degree in economics, think about your long-term career goals. If you decide that you want to apply your economics education to a broader business setting, a master’s in business administration may be better for you. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there is a lot of competition for economics-related positions at the graduate level, and many graduates decide to apply their learning in other fields. For instance, the job growth outlook for economists shows an 8% growth between 2018 and 2028, while the job growth for social scientists and related workers is 11%. While the social scientist professions are growing quicker than the economist positions, they pay about $25,000 less per year. 

As noted earlier, an economics graduate with a BA can expect to make approximately $65,000 a year—but according to PayScale.com, a graduate with an MA can expect to make $10,000 more out of school ($75,000). 

As students gain experience in other fields, many find other master’s degrees, or specialized economics master’s degrees, such as environmental economics, to be more in line with their careers. Higher degrees in math or finance may be better if you want to get into trading, as economic theory may not be helpful. 

Ask yourself the following questions before you decide to go to graduate school for economics: 

  • Do I want to work as an economist, or do I want to work in a related field?

  • Do I want to teach economics?

  • Do I want to research economics at a higher level?

  • Do I want to affect policy or work for the government?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then keep reading this section. If you are still not sure, check out the American Economic Association’s suggested reading list for prospective graduate students in economics. You will find a wealth of useful information that can help you make your decision. 

Which degrees are offered at the master's level in economics?

Many master’s programs in economics at US universities are not terminal, meaning you earn your degree in preparation for a doctoral degree, not as a stand-alone degree. According to the American Economic Association, 81% of all economics master’s programs in the United States are considered terminal. Of the top ten economics graduate-level programs, six are not terminal. Of the terminal master’s programs, 118 lead toward a master of arts degree, and seventy-six lead to a master of science degree. 

There are several graduate degree paths you can follow if you choose to study economics at the master’s level. The most common include microeconomic theory and macroeconomic theory, econometrics, and applied economics. Dual degrees are also popular, especially when combined with business degrees. The University of Illinois at Chicago, for instance, offers a master of arts in applied economics, master of arts in economics, and an MA in economics/MBA joint degree program.

Before we discuss specialized master’s degrees in economics, it is important to note that every graduate-level degree program is different. Before you apply, be sure to research schools, programs, curriculums, and even professors. Make sure there is a professor who can guide your master’s thesis or act as an advisor in the area of economics in which you are interested. A top-tier university without a program or the faculty that specialize in your fields of study may not be worth your time or money. 

Which specialized graduate-level economics programs are available to international students? 

Specialized programs in economics at graduate schools in the United States generally fall into the following categories: 

  • Behavioral economics: the study of psychological, cultural, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and companies.

  • Environmental economics: the study of environmental policy and environmental changes, such as climate change, on economic policy.

  • Financial economics: the study of economics as it relates to money.

  • International economics: the study of trade and investment and their effect on different countries.

  • Policy or political economics: the study of trade and production as it relates to policy, law, and custom.

What can I do with an economics degree? 

There are careers in economics, and there are career options available to graduates of economics degree programs. In other words, you do not have to be an economist working for the government with your economics degree. Many economics majors work as scientific researchers, financial analysts, or business managers, among other careers. 

According to PayScale.com, the median salary for an economist is approximately $75,000 annually. Let us take a look at some other common professions for economics majors and see how they compare: 

Operations research analyst

Job description: Analyze data to help corporations make decisions about resource allocation, price setting, supply chain management, and more 

Median salary: $56,000, according to PayScale.com (2020)

Growth projection: 26% (much higher than average), according to the BLS 

Senior financial analyst

Job description: Analyze a corporation’s accounting data to assess economic, statistical, and financial risks

Median salary: $80,000, according to PayScale.com (2020)

Growth projection: 6% (average) according to the BLS

Statistician

Job description: Analyze data and utilize math and statistics to solve problems 

Median salary: $73,000, according to PayScale.com (2020)

Growth projection: 30% (much higher than average), according to the BLS 

What do employers look for in economics majors?

When a company wants the skills that an economics major has, they rarely post job openings with the word “economist” in them. They are looking for analysts, consultants, advisors, and researchers. 

Forecasting the gross domestic product or studying the interest rates of a nation are not the only jobs available to economics majors. Economists help companies calculate how much a customer might spend in the future or the cost of winning that customer in the first place. Economists track visits to websites and social media channels and help find ways to improve those numbers. They use data to build pricing strategies and marketing budgets. 

If you are an economics major having a hard time finding employment, start with the skills you have, and work backward until you see job posts that require what you can do. As seen above, some jobs suited to economics majors have outstanding growth outlooks for the next five to ten years.

Here are some of the common skill sets recruitment professionals are looking for that economics majors have: 

  • Attention to detail: Economics majors study data and stats to find relationships. They work through the data, exhaustively drilling down through numbers and facts until they find useful information. Experience finding actionable patterns buried in data is an extremely marketable skill set that is valuable in many industries.

  • Good communication: Once economists find information that could be valuable to an organization, they need to be able to convey that information to the greater organization. Communicating complicated subject matter requires strong written and verbal skills.

  • Problem-solving: While many people have problem-solving as a listed skill on their resume, economics majors can back it up with high-level math and statistics experience.

  • Conceptual thinking: The theory work that economics majors perform helps them look for and better understand complex relationships and think conceptually.

Why study economics in the United States

According to U.S. News & World Report, nine out of the top ten universities for economics in the world are located in the United States. Students have the opportunity to take classes in relevant and timely subjects and get to practice real-world applications throughout diverse industries, including health care and economic development. 

Economics majors in the United States have the opportunity to intern with policymakers, international banks, and nonprofits working all over the world. An economics degree can lead to business, law, or other graduate school studies as well. With more economics degrees qualifying for the OPT STEM extension that allows students to stay in the US for an extra two years, now is a better time than ever to explore economics as a major. 

However, before you apply to an economics program, take time to explore your options. Make sure the universities that you wish to attend have the programs and professors to help you be successful. Make sure there are positions available back home in your planned areas of study. A degree from a US university can help you stand out in a crowded field, but cannot find you a job if there are not any! It may sound like a lot to look into, but hey, you are considering economics for a career, right? Consider it your first research assignment!

Talk to a Shorelight advisor today about studying economics in the US >