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What Can I Do With a Major in Economics?

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Charting Your Courses


One of the purposes of the major is to help students look critically at the ways in which society organizes and manages resources. Without some framework within which to organize ideas—including dissenting ideas and criticism—analysis becomes aimless, diffuse, and, ultimately, ineffective. No one theory, or category of theory, must be accepted by all economists to be considered adequate to understand the economy; however, an understanding of the main theoretical tenets of modern economics is the touchstone from which almost all development, elaboration and criticism of economic arrangements flow.

Basic Theory

The basic theory is presented in the principles courses, ECO 150 and 153. This theory is developed more rigorously and embedded in more sophisticated economic models in the intermediate theory courses, ECO 250 and 253. Additional theory courses include game theory (ECO 125) and several advanced electives.

Statistics and Mathematics

Since economic knowledge is ultimately drawn from the real world, statistical techniques are an important tool both for gathering information and for testing economic theories against the world they seek to explain. These techniques are taught in our basic statistics course (ECO 190) and further developed in the econometrics course (ECO 240).

Economics has become increasingly mathematical. Calculus I (MTH 111) is strongly recommended as an adjunct to your economics major, and is required for the intermediate theory courses. Students planning to go to graduate school in economics need to take ECO 255 and 240 and at least four additional math courses (as listed below and in the catalogue).

Economic Thought and Political Economy

Important adjuncts to the basic intermediate theory courses are courses in economic thought and political economy. History of thought (ECO 237) deepens one's comprehension of the modern doctrine by placing the evolution of modern theories in an historical context, and by showing the forces that shaped this evolution. Free market economics (ECO 233 and ECO 333) investigates economic and political institutes promoting (or reducing) liberty, the underlying philosophical principles supportive (or destructive) of freedom and welfare implications of a free society. The Marxian paradigm asks different questions and provides different answers than does conventional analysis, and a significant number of economists find it a fruitful approach to the study of social problems (ECO 236).

Historical and Institutional Setting

If theory and statistics provide us with tools of analysis, then history and institutional forces provide the setting for economic problems and constraints on their solutions. Without an awareness of these realities, the use of theory, statistics and other sophisticated techniques is likely to lead into blind alleys and unwarranted conclusions. The study of history and institutions in courses such as labor economics, American economic history, economic anthropology, comparative economic systems and economic development, provide the opportunity to go beyond the abstractions of theoretical arguments to the analysis of real problems. Most "applied" courses naturally incorporate elements of history and institutional arrangements, and a few are primarily devoted to this issue. A major adds fundamentally to her comprehension of the subject by being exposed to thinking along these lines.

Empirical and Applied Analysis

In the end, if economics is to be respected it will not be because of the abstract beauty of its theory or the broad sweep of its historical insight. It will be studied and used only if it contributes to the understanding of particular problems. To that end, the economics major will take a number of courses in specific applied areas such as law and economics, urban economics, labor relations, public finance, money and banking, economic development, international trade and finance, economic growth, industrial organization, the economics of education, growth and crisis, and empirical and applied analysis. They use theory and draw on historical insights, but at their core are contemporary, practical, and policy-oriented.

Familiarity can be gained by applying basic tools to several areas, or by taking a sequence of several courses in one area. Both are useful and legitimate approaches to learning about economics and what economists do. Either can provide the student with the experience of applying the tools of economic inquiry. In these upper-level courses, theory, statistics and other tools of analysis are brought to bear on unsolved problems and unsettled questions, in contrast to the emphasis in the introductory courses on what we already know.

A major curriculum designed in this way can contribute importantly to a student's gaining both competence in the economic way of thinking and confidence in her own knowledge of both its uses and inherent limitations. This is the underlying goal of majoring in economics in a liberal arts college, regardless of the subsequent uses to which it may be put.