I read there are a couple of questions asked in this regard, but I am not quite satisfied with the provided answers.

I am currently doing my master's degree (expecting to pursue a PhD) in Economics, and I have been very exposed to the Mas-Colell and the book of Advanced Macroeconomics by David Romer. Just reading the books, and taking notes, I end up rewriting each book myself again.

Therefore, I want to ask what it means to you to study Economics, how is it possible to learn economics, without actually memorizing (since I think that is my problem, I try to memorize everything)? What is an efficient way to take notes (in class or from the textbook), going through the textbook and actually understanding what is being exposed?

I hope my question is appropriate for this space, just to have a little discussion if there was someone who went through similar while pursuing graduate studies.


2 Answers 2


I am a ph.D Student in Economics, and I am sharing my experience.

It is not necessary to be able to prove everything. Each time you will have to tackle a specific issue you will have to go back to handbooks and articles that have been made.

I think what is important to memorize is the global story of each chapter of these kinds of handbooks (as Mas Colell for instance). The most useful things to memorize is probably the tool you will constantly use in Microeconomics (such as optimization, linear algebra, topology), Econometrics, Games Theory and so on. Maybe craft your own handbook based on what you learned from different lectures, books and write as many tips as you can when you are inside the subject. Then if you have to go back to your notes you will be way faster.

If you have this basis, what matters is to be able to take some perspective with your subject, and to be the most relevant is the hardest thing. Studying economics permits to shed lights on (not all) human behaviors, never forget that behind your proofs and lemmas !

  • $\begingroup$ @Alejandro Ruiiz: I've been trying to learn economics in a self study mode but I wanted to comment because your question was interesting. My point is that, if you like economics and keep going with it, you'll probably feel the same way 20 years from now. Don't be uncomfortable with not knowing things. It can be a life long journey so you need to be okay with not knowing. My take is that one could live two or three lifetimes and still feel uncomfortable about what one knows. Pick a specific sub-field of economics, knock the hell out of it and don't worry about what you don't know. $\endgroup$
    – mark leeds
    Apr 20, 2019 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ Alexandro: I highly recommend this one pager. good luck. jcs.biologists.org/content/joces/121/11/1771.full.pdf $\endgroup$
    – mark leeds
    Apr 20, 2019 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ My BA is in Economics, and my MA I'm currently going for is in Economics as well. I am just surprised by how not even after 4 years, I know how to study Economics. It's just, there's so much to learn. And for example, my question is focused on how PhD students do it to get through the prelimars after the first year. It is like going through the entire economic theory that has been developed thus far! It's just crazy for me $\endgroup$
    – Alex Ruiz
    Apr 20, 2019 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ Note that when you do the Ph.D., it will be focused on some really small area of economics that you hopefully can really master. So, don't worry about learning everything. Just make sure that you're very interested in the sub-field of economics that you choose. all the best. Oh, I think working through pld pre-lims on your own is the best way to get through the new one. $\endgroup$
    – mark leeds
    Apr 20, 2019 at 19:21

The first year of a Ph.D. in econ is no-doubt a lot of work, so memorizing everything is not only extremely hard but probably pointless. You surely need to learn some techniques and develop intuition and good practices for thinking through new problems or complex mathematical arguments. However, once the prelims are done, you have to start looking out in the world and try to explain something that has not been explained before. So the earlier you start doing that, the better. You will soon realize that it is easier to understand how each topic in Mas-Collel (and other similar books or resources) connects with each other when you realize how the discipline has developed in order to be able to study increasingly more complex problems and using increasingly less restrictive assumptions.

In the end, your dissertation will be just that: either a study of a particular phenomenon that has not been studied before, the developing of new tools that can be used for more complex problems, or an improvement of the current tools so that things can be studied without making too many restrictive assumptions. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully, you get the point that what is really important is to be able to see the big picture, be acquainted with the tools used in the discipline, and develop the rigor to formalize social phenomena in a way that something can be learned given the data and mathematical tools we have.


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