This is from my FH. who was an economics Ph.D student last year but will graduate with a Master’s this December:
“First and foremost, you should have a strong math background. So you definitely should have taken at least Calculus 2, and some multivariate calculus wouldn’t hurt. A working knowledge of matrix theory is definitely a plus, as you’ll need it for graduate level econometrics. A strong statistics background is important too- you should be able to work with multivariate probability distributions and have an understanding of at least linear regression models (OLS). The better you are at math, the better your chances of success in the program are.
Most of the time, the program will feel more like a mathematics Ph.D program rather than an economics one, but your intuitions and background in economics will definitely help for the earlier stages of the micro / macro courses. You’ll still see things like demand / supply curves, budget constraints, utility maximization, elasticities, and other topics, but it will be much more math-intensive than a typical undergraduate economics class. So you should definitely be very familiar with taking derivaties (especially partial derivatives).
You should also try your hardest to get some type of assistantship, like being a TA. Oftentimes, you’ll be paid a decent stipend ($12,000-$18,000 for a half-time position, depending on the school), and your tuition will be waived, meaning you’ll only have to pay the school’s fees (in my case, about $600 per semester). Most likely, as a TA, you’ll just have to hold office hours for an introductory economics course, and be able to answer students’ questions about the material.
You should also try to be sociable and make as many friends early on as possible. Doing so, you can form study groups and solve homework problems together; oftentimes, these homework problems can be very difficult to solve on your own, but as a group, your chances of solving the problems correctly is much greater. You’ll most likely be taking all of the same classes (usually about 3 per semester), so there are plenty of benefits to making friends in graduate school.
Grades (especially on tests) are usually heavily curved. In my experience, class averages have been around 50-60% on many tests, with a curve significantly bumping the average score up. As a general rule, the worst grade you can get is usually a B- / C+. In graduate school, poor grades are rare due to excessive curves. So as long as you have a minimal understanding of the material, you probably won’t have to worry about failing any classes- grades are used more for determing assistantships and the relative strength of each student.
A Master’s should be much easier to get than a Ph.D, with a Master’s usually only taking about 2 years, with a Ph.D often taking at least 5 years. In both cases, you’ll have to write some sort of thesis paper, which takes about 1-2 semesters. You’ll get to pick your topic and work with a professor of your choice to write a paper based on either empirical research that you’ve done, or a theoretical paper in which you present a new economic model. These papers are usually around 25+ pages (double spaced). Ph.D programs requires a VERY strong level of mathematics to succeed in, so a Master’s program might be better if you have doubts about your mathetmatical ability. That being said, Ph.D students have a much easier job getting assistantships (many universities do not even offer assistantships to Master’s students), so you might even consider applying to a Ph.D program and later “dropping down” to a Master’s program in order to get an assistantship. The main draw to getting a Ph.D is probably to become a professor, so if you’re like me and not interested in teaching, getting a Master’s might be a better choice.
After a year (or two years, depending on the program), you’ll likely have to take a qualifying exam, if you’re interested in a Ph.D program. This is basically a large test based on the courses you’ve taken in the program, with a passing grade necessary to continue in the Ph.D program. It’s important to study a great deal for this test, and you should be careful not to forget what you’ve learned in your earlier classes, as a lot of the material you’ve taken in earlier classes may show up on the exam. Many programs only let a certain number of students pass this exam, so whether you pass or not depends on how well you do compared to your classmates.
If you do feel comfortable with some intense math, then an economics graduate program can be very rewarding- a Master’s or Ph.D in economics should make it pretty easy to find a high-paying job. But the importance and abundance of advanced mathematics for an economics graduate program cannot be understated- you should think of it more like a series of math classes than a series of economics classes. At the end of the program, however, you’ll have a very strong background in economics and should be able to work in business / financial sectors with an impressive salary. If you struggle with math, getting an MBA (Master’s in Business Administration) will let you get similar types of jobs as an economics major might have, but requires much less math. Business classes have much more “practical” content, but are much less theoretical and math-intensive.
Just make sure you really love economics and are good at math before entering an economics program, and good luck!”