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Economics sees growing pains as students look for ‘marketable skills’

Students perceive econ and applied math-economics as degrees with job security

The numbers of economics and applied mathematics-economics concentrators have risen rapidly in the past few years, with many students motivated by a desire for post-collegiate job security and a growing interest in quantitative analysis.

The number of economics concentrators rose from 158 in 2008 to 220 in 2012, according to data obtained by The Herald from the Office of Institutional Research. The number of applied math-economics concentrators also jumped, from 22 in 2008 to 48 in 2012. Though numbers for the class of 2013 are not final, economics currently stands unchanged at 220 concentrators in the senior class, with applied math-economics set to rise slightly to 52, University Registrar Robert Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Herald.

Having so many undergraduate concentrators “puts a lot of strain on our resources,” said Roberto Serrano, chair of the Department of Economics. “I don’t want to win this distinction.”

The applied math department has not faced difficulty with increased enrollments. The department has had to make minor adjustments but is not facing a lack of resources, said Govind Menon, associate professor and director of applied math undergraduate studies. “We’re just proud,” he said of the spike in concentrators. “Our goal is to sustain this.”


‘Hard to get attention’

The growing number of economics concentrators has made it difficult for students to access professors easily, said concentrator Alyssa Garrett ’15. “The classes are large, and it’s hard to get attention,” she said.

The economics department expects that recently increased requirements will decrease the number of economics concentrators, said Louis Putterman, professor of economics and director of undergraduate economics studies. Starting with the class of 2016, concentrators must take a second semester of calculus and an additional class in econometrics.

Serrano said he hopes the new requirements will also prevent “tourist” concentrators who add economics as a second concentration late in their junior and senior years.

“I think professors are more focused with academia than teaching,” said Jessica Xu ’15, the leader of the economics Departmental Undergraduate Group. “I don’t think my adviser really knows about me,” she added.

Xu is trying to start a mentorship program for concentrators to help underclassmen navigate the department.

“We try to attract faculty who are recognized for (scholarship),” Putterman said. “That could potentially be at odds with undergraduate teaching.” But Putterman said the department tries to “instill a culture” in its faculty that teaching is important, even though research is the “first priority” when it comes to hiring and tenure.

Serrano acknowledged that many students desire more interaction with their professors. “We do our best,” he said, citing an average student-teacher ratio of over 80-to-1 in economics courses. “I want everyone to appreciate the difficulties,” he said.

About 2,500 students enroll in economics classes each semester, Serrano said. With only around 30 professors, Serrano said the department faces a uniquely challenging situation.

Many first-years find the introductory classes challenging in such large settings, said Tomas Navia ’16, who said he is considering changing his intended concentration from economics to political science. “The economics department needs to make an effort to make it seem like they care about students,” Navia said.


Transforming perspectives

Thomas Fink ’13, an economics concentrator, said students are generally satisfied with the skills the concentration teaches them. Many students find that economics teaches a different way of looking at the world, he said.

“You try and play out decisions from a very rational perspective,” said applied math-economics concentrator Christopher Williams ’13. “You learn to think about opportunity costs and decisions.”

Connor Sakwa ’15 is concentrating in economics but said he isn’t sure what he wants to do after graduation.

“Economics is a major you can really do anything with,” he said. “It’s a major that allows you to take business-oriented classes and combine that with whatever else you want.”

Many students choose to concentrate in economics because it provides analytical skills without being a hard science, Fink said. “Economics is a really good tool for thinking about different things in the world,” he said, citing statistics and analytic abilities as particularly useful skills. But he added, “A lot of people are economics concentrators and don’t do that much work and get a degree that looks good after they graduate.”

William Gregory ’16 said he is excited to concentrate in applied math-economics and learn about the world’s political economy. He said understanding economics makes policies and human decisions clearer.


An eye toward the job market

Garrett said it is difficult for students in the economics department to get a practical education in business. “It’s reflective of the fact that Brown is not as career-oriented as our peer institutions,” she said, adding that she would like to see more business-focused classes and advising in the concentration.

While teachers may provide courses that teach relevant skills and offer individual advice, Putterman said the department is not dedicated to preparing students for business. Students make a choice to come to a liberal arts college, he said.

“We as a department are not in the business of career counseling,” he said, adding that advisers are nevertheless committed to helping students think about careers in the field.

In her State of Brown address last month, President Christina Paxson said she thinks too many students have joined the economics concentration in recent years because they wanted job security, instead of having a genuine interest in the field. In response to student questions petitioning for more career-oriented elements in the concentration, Paxson — an economist herself — said a “pre-professional program is not very Brown-like.”

In general, many students said they are concentrating in economics or applied math-economics because the degree and course of study will provide them with job security after graduation.

“This concentration does prepare students with very marketable skills,” said Associate Professor of Economics and Urban Studies Nathaniel Baum-Snow.

“Coming to college and shelling out a quarter of a million dollars, you want to make sure you can get a job,” Garrett said.

After the financial crash, many students realized they had to take tougher course loads to stay competitive in a poor job market, Baum-Snow said.

“Students got more serious about job security after 2008,” he said.

Senior Lecturer in Economics Rachel Friedberg said she has noticed more “anxiety” recently among students who are concerned about finding a job after college. “I think compared to 10 years ago — in the late ’90s, early 2000s — when things were much better in the economy, students were more relaxed,” she said.

Over the past decade, firms have started to hire fewer people, Baum-Snow said. As a result, he said, “the labor market is rewarding technical training more than it was 10 years ago.”


Improving technical skills

Many students hope that a degree in applied math-economics will distinguish them from other economics concentrators, said Katherine Sudol ’16.

“I just don’t want to graduate with a really common degree like economics,” she said. “Applied math-economics makes me stand out. I am coming from a liberal arts school with a quantitative background.”

Concentrating in economics without applied math involves significantly less math training, Fink said. “As an economics concentrator, you learn (statistical programming) and statistical analysis, but realistically a lot of concentrators have no idea,” he said.

An applied math-economics degree allows employers to know that students have good technical skills and abilities, Williams said.

Many students are able to pass through large economics classes without ever grasping the skills that are taught, Fink added. While these classes do have some dedicated students, “it’s way easier to get away with less work than in other majors,” he said.

Serrano said the economics department is trying to increase the level of technical skills it requires from its concentrators through new requirements.

“Someone with a concentration in economics should have analytical ability to tackle problems and analyze data,” he said.

Menon said finance is not the only industry that requires skills in data analysis. “We live in a data-drenched society,” he said. “If you understand how to track it and use it in a effective way, it’s a great thing to do.”


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