Laurence J. Peter of the "Peter Principle" once said of economists, "An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn't happen today." While this tongue-in-cheek definition has a kernel of truth, our understanding of economics, the complex relationship between resources and production, has come a long way over the last 50 years. Twenty-first century economists analyze historical data for patterns and apply the understandings they gain to make short- and long-term economic predictions.
A bachelor's degree in economics, math or statistics is a minimum educational requirement for an economist. An undergraduate degree is a sufficient qualification for a number of entry level economics-related jobs, but if you want to pursue more senior positions in policy research or management, you will likely need a master's or Ph.D. Undertaking an internship at some point in your academic career will give you some valuable experience and a leg up in your job search.
The number of jobs directly related to economics is relatively small, so if you just have a bachelor’s degree, you will likely end up in a related job such as a research assistant, financial or market analyst, technical writer and similar positions. Economists with advanced degrees typically work as industrial or organizational economists, macroeconomists, microeconomists, monetary or financial economists, labor or demographic economists, international economists, public finance economists and econometricians. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over half of the economists in the U.S. are employed by the federal, state or local government.
The basic job of an economist is to analyze data. That means economists collect economic data, compare it to historical data or heuristic models, and derive conclusions from the results. In a nutshell, an economist's job is to study data and use their understanding of economic relationships to uncover trends. They can then produce forecasts relating to these economic trends, discuss the implications, and make recommendations based on their findings.
Pay and Employment Prospects
Economists earn a comfortable living. According to the BLS, economists took home a median salary of $89,450 a year in 2010. Economists working in science and research and development earn the most with a median salary of $109,720, and those employed by state governments earned the least, only taking home $61,620 a year. Employment prospects are not great for economists given the budgetary constraints at all levels of government. The BLS projects a mere six percent job growth through 2020.
2016 Salary Information for Economists
Economists earned a median annual salary of $101,050 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, economists earned a 25th percentile salary of $73,890, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $138,120, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 21,300 people were employed in the U.S. as economists.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Economists
- Prospects: Economist Job Description
- American Economic Association: Careers
- CBS Moneywatch: The Smartest Things Ever Said About Market Forecasting
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Economists
- Career Trend: Economists
Clayton Browne has been writing professionally since 1994. He has written and edited everything from science fiction to semiconductor patents to dissertations in linguistics, having worked for Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Steck-Vaughn and The Psychological Corp. Browne has a Master of Science in linguistic anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.