Miles Kimball1 wrote on Quartz on Aug 16 2013

And real analysis—by far the hardest subject of the five—is something that you will probably never use in real econ research, but which the economics field has decided to use as a sort of general intelligence signaling device.

Greg Mankiw's Blog: Why Aspiring Economists Need Math wrote on Sep 15 2006

4. Your math courses are one long IQ test. We use math courses to figure out who is really smart.

Even undergrad Real Analysis can be difficult, I know. But why not proxy intelligence

  1. with Masters or PhD level statistics courses? Why not require PhD applicants to have taken Masters or PhD statistics courses?

  2. or other advanced math courses more relevant to economics?

1Miles Kimball - Wikipedia

As a high school senior, Kimball took 9th place in the USA Math Olympiad. Kimball graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics from Harvard University in 1982. He then received a master's degree in linguistics from Brigham Young University in 1984. His Master's thesis was "Language, Linguistics and Philosophy: A Comparison of the Work of Roman Jakobson and the Later Wittgenstein, with Some Attention to the Philosophy of Charles Saunders Peirce."[5] In 1987, he graduated with a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard and won the David A. Wells prize for the best Harvard dissertation in economics.

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    $\begingroup$ Check out any of Kimball's Econometrica and see if he uses Real Analysis. It's used everywhere, unless you do absolute reduced form analysis. Do you think Masters or PhD stats don't presume a knowledge in real analysis? On convergence, limits, differentiability,. continuity? These are absolute basics that one needs to learn to start any research on modern econ. $\endgroup$
    – user28372
    Commented Aug 20, 2020 at 22:59
  • $\begingroup$ I don’t know what kind of research Miles Kimball does but I see real analysis being applied left and right with very few exceptions. Sure if you don’t really want to use cutting edge econometrics or do theory then you can go and do something without actually understanding real analysis - even without much math knowledge one can learn to interpret regressions but if you really wanna actually understand what regression does fully with all the nuance you need to know real analysis. Also Mankiw is right that if you wanna be a policy advisor you don’t need any math but PhD is prep for academia $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 2:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Again, Miles's e-mail address is listed at the link you provided. If you want to know why he thinks what he thinks, drop him an e-mail. Why ask strangers instead? $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 7:47
  • $\begingroup$ I also edited the titles of both of your questions so that it is made clear that these are things some people claim, and the claims is not necessarily true everywhere. $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 7:50

3 Answers 3


Presumably, as you have already pointed out, it's because Kimball took 9th place in a math Olympiad when he was young. It seems to have been a life-altering experience for him ...

It seems very strange to me that one would need to use Real Analysis, of all things, as a proxy for a potential to understand and make contributions to economics. I certainly don't think of mathematics as a proxy for intelligence and I think that very few people do, considering just how wide-spread the notion of a 'math nerd' actually is. Often it can just as well easily describe a very narrowly focused intelligence, which in a sense is not intelligence at all - but a kind of virtuosic performance. Richard Feynman, for example, was quite proud to say he was only above average intelligence. As one wit has said, IQ tests are very good at picking out people who can pass IQ tests. Most physicists, by the way, have very little idea about real analysis, and are quite proud to say so - and they are heavy users of math.

I mean why use a proxy? Why not simply ask students questions on political economy? Isn't this the simplest way of detecting an interest in and an aptitude for economics? Besides, many things can act as a proxy for intelligence - from art history to political philosophy apart from an interest in mathematics. But the key thing about the latter is that rarely examines it's relationship with society at large - which to my mind, is of key importance in a discipline like economics. This of course need not to be the case, and ought not to be the case, but in fact often is. Personally speaking, given how many people once they have left school say how much they hated mathematics, it would be a good proxy for educating the vast majority about technology, science and mathematics.

I recall studying some economics at high school - we had a teacher who specialised in economics - before going onto study mathematics. If the USA does not have economics tuition at high-school level, surely the intelligent thing for Kimball to do is to develop an economics curricula appropriate to college students. Presumably given his professional and institutional affiliations this would be a fairly straight-forward thing to do.

But perhaps that's too much thinking to expect from a self-confessed professional math nerd ....


Real Analysis is absolutely essential to grad school level economics. Limits are everywhere in both micro, macro and econometrics. Fixed point theorems are the basis of key foundational results in micro and macro. Indeed, both Topology and Functional Analysis (which build upon Real Analysis) appear all over all three fields.

You will not sufficiently understand this material if you have just read a few definitions and theorem statements. Actually going through exercises and proving basic real analysis results yourself is the best way to learn the material well enough to tackle grad school level texts, e.g. Mas-Colell, Whinston, Green for micro and Stokey & Lucas for macro. (Stokey & Lucas for example requires a reasonable understanding of topology. But since many mathematical intuitions carry over from real analysis, spending more time on real analysis is reasonable.)

Of course Real Analysis can be both essential, and a useful screening device to pick out students with certain skills. Proving results require creativity and strategic thinking, which are hard to otherwise measure. Additionally, the very fact that learning real analysis might be slightly unpleasant for some students provides a measure of their commitment to work hard even when it is tedious, which is essential during the PhD.


A similar question can be asked about the volunteer work that is expected in your application at universities of this caliber. Not all universities require Real Analysis, even for Masters or PhD programs. Indeed, I cannot even say with confidence that most of these programs require it.

However, a student who passes all of these courses with an A is likely ambitious, well prepared, and very intelligent. They will probably not struggle much with the math in higher economics and will have a lot of time to absorb the deeper concepts. It is a strong signal, and Mankiw can afford to be picky about who he accepts at Harvard. Kimball can be similarly selective.

If you don't take Real Analysis, there can still be a good graduate program out there for you, but admittedly, some elite universities will probably be disapproving - they are trying to discard applicants. Calibrate your sights on universities you can get into and note that you can contribute in many areas- even without real analysis. But if you have time to take the course, you should do so.


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