Doctoral Program Guidelines


1. Introduction

The goal of the Economics Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is to train economists: graduates of the program are prepared to undertake advanced research in economic theory, econometrics, and applied branches of economics, and to apply their knowledge and skills to a wide range of problems in a broad array of institutional settings. These aims are achieved through a program that combines coursework, examinations, seminars, and independent research, culminating in the completion and defense of a doctoral dissertation. The program has been very successful at achieving these aims, as evidenced by its strong national reputation and placement record.

The purpose of this guide is to provide a concise description of the program's requirements and procedures. Additional details about various aspects of the program can be found on the websites linked to this guide.

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2. Program Administration

The policies and procedures of the graduate program are overseen by the Graduate Committee, which consists of the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) and two or more additional faculty members. Major changes in policy are made at the discretion of department faculty. The interpretation and implementation of most program policies, including the assignment of teaching assistantships, are the responsibility of the DGS.

The Graduate Admissions and Aid Committee, which consists of six or more faculty members, is responsible for admitting new doctoral students, and for allocating departmentally administered financial aid among both incoming and continuing students.

The Graduate Advisor plays a vital role in the program, serving as a key link between graduate students and faculty. The Graduate Advisor is students' primary source of information about program policies and procedures and is also the central administrator of program procedures. The Graduate Advisor performs these roles in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies, the Graduate Committee, and the Admissions and Aid Committee.

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3. Program Requirements

3.1 Preparation for Doctoral Study

Graduate work in economics demands mathematical sophistication of a higher order than the requirements of most U.S. undergraduate economics programs would suggest. Students entering the doctoral program are required to have taken a three-course sequence in calculus, a course in linear algebra, and a course in mathematical statistics. These prerequisites are a bare minimum, and additional background in mathematics and in graduate-level economics courses can ease the transition into the program.

A detailed description of the department's expectations about students' mathematics preparation, both upon entry to the program and upon completion of first-year coursework, can be found on the mathematics preparation website.

3.2 A Typical Sequence of Study

The economics doctoral program is designed so that most students should be able to complete the requirements for the Ph.D. within five years. Below is a typical sequence of study.

1st year Fall and Spring
Take required first year courses.
Summer between 1st and 2nd year
Take the two Preliminary Examinations
2nd year Fall and Spring
Take courses in major and minor fields, Mathematics, and Statistics. Attend workshops in major field and possibly other fields
Summer between 2nd and 3rd year
Work on Field Paper.
3rd year Fall and Spring

Complete Field Paper (Fall). Begin working toward Three-Signature Proposal (Spring). Attend Workshops. Take additional courses.


Summer between 3rd and 4th year
 Continue work toward Three-Signature Proposal
4th year Fall and Spring

 Complete Three-Signature Proposal (Fall). Work on dissertation. Attend workshops.

Summer between 4th and 5th year
 Continue work on dissertation.
5th year Fall and Spring

 Continue work on dissertation (Fall). Attend workshops. Complete dissertation (Spring). Sit for final Oral Examination and receive Ph.D. (Spring).

3.3 Coursework

3.3.1 First year

During the first year of study students are required to take the following seven courses:

Fall Semester:
703 Mathematical Economics I
709 Economic Statistics and Econometrics I
711 Microeconomic Theory I
712 Macroeconomic Theory I

Spring Semester:
710 Economic Statistics and Econometrics II
713 Microeconomic Theory II
714 Macroeconomic Theory II

703 reviews the mathematical techniques that are the basis for doctoral work in economics, while 709 provides basic training in mathematical statistics. Students with exceptional mathematics and statistics backgrounds may request exemptions from one or both of these courses. Such requests should be sent to the Graduate Advisor for consideration by the course instructors and the DGS.

711-714 are the core courses in microeconomic and macroeconomic theory. The material in these courses forms the basis for the Preliminary Examinations. 710 is an introduction to econometric methods. Exemptions from these courses are rarely granted.

Since there are only three required courses in the Spring, many students opt to take a fourth course in Economics, Mathematics, Statistics, or another field during this time.

3.3.2 Second year and beyond

A main component of the second year of graduate study is major field coursework. Typically, each major field offers one course in the fall and another in the spring, and students in the field must take both courses. In the event that a major field does not offer two courses during a certain year, faculty in the field will specify alternate means of meeting the field's course requirements. For more information go the the major field information website.

From the second year onward, students are expected to register for the workshop in their major field. (Students need not register if doing so would lead them to be registered for more than 15 credits; however, workshop attendance is mandatory even in this case.) Workshops provide students with the opportunity to hear research presentations by both internal and external speakers and can serve to suggest topics for dissertation research. Details about schedules, coordinator and speakers can be found at the Workshop webpage.

Students are also required to satisfy a minor field requirement. To satisfy this requirement, students must take four courses that serve either to broaden their knowledge base or to complement study in the major field. Minor field courses can be in economics or in other fields. Details about the minor field requirement, including a list of suggested courses in the Mathematics and Statistics Departments, can be found on the minor field information website.

3.3.3 Grading

Both the Department and the Graduate School require students to maintain a grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 during their course of study. In addition, the Department also requires students to maintain a GPA of 3.0 in their first year core courses, in the courses used to fulfill the major field requirement, and in the courses used to fulfill the minor field requirement.

3.3.4 Degree Requirements

Effective beginning Fall 2014 for new Graduate students.

The Department and Graduate School have established guidelines on the types of coursework and credit that can be applied towards a graduate degree. As students plan their path through the doctoral program, the following requirements should be taken into account regarding eligibility for the Ph.D. and  M.S. (no subplan) degrees:

  1. A minimum of 51 credits is required for doctoral degrees and 30 credits for master's degrees;
  2. At least half of all degree coursework must be completed in courses numbered 700 level or higher;
  3. The residence requirement specifies that at least 32 credits for the Ph.D. and 16 credits for the M.S. must be taken while a graduate student at UW-Madison;
  4. In rare situations, with approval from the Graduate Committee in the Department of Economics, prior coursework taken from other institutions or coursework taken as a UW-Madison undergraduate or special student may be counted towards the minimum degree requirements. Please note the following:
      1. No more than 15 credits of graduate coursework from other institutions may be counted towards the Ph.D. and no more than 7 credits towards the M.S.;
      2. No more than 7 credits of coursework numbered 7xx level or above taken as a UW-Madison undergraduate may be counted towards the Ph.D. or M.S.;
      3. No more than 15 credits of coursework numbered 7xx level or above taken as a UW-Madison special student may be counted towards the Ph.D. and no more than 9 credits may be counted towards the M.S.; and
      4. Coursework earned ten years or more prior to admission to a doctoral degree or five years or more prior to admission to a master's degree is not allowed to satisfy requirements.
  1. Students must also meet the Graduate School minimum degree requirements.

3.4 Milestones

There are four main milestones on the path through the Economics doctoral program: the preliminary examinations, the field paper, the three-signature proposal, and the final oral examination. Each is explained below.

3.4.1 The preliminary examinations

The first milestones on the path the the Ph.D. are the preliminary examinations in Microeconomic Theory and Macroeconomic Theory. The prelims are based on, but not limited to, the material taught in 711-714.

There are two Preliminary Examination Committees, one for each exam. These committees typically include faculty members who most recently taught the relevant first year courses, as well as other members of the faculty. The committees are responsible both for writing the exams and for determining which students have passed the exams. The latter determination is based on the exam grade, with marginal consideration given to performances in relevant courses.

The prelims are offered twice each summer. Students are required to take both prelims in the first attempt, which occurs in early summer after their first year. Students who fail either or both exams on their first attempt retake the exam(s) they did not pass the next time the prelims are offered, which is in late summer. If after the second attempt a student has passed one exam, but not the other, they are granted an automatic third attempt (the following June).

If after the second attempt a student has not passed either exam, the student will be asked to leave the program. Petitions for a third attempt are permitted, but only for unusual circumstances. Petitions should be addressed to the Graduate Committee and be turned in to the Graduate Advisor within one week of the announcement of prelim results. Petitions are evaluated on the basis of past performance on prelims and in coursework, and on the advice of members of the faculty knowledgeable about the student in question. Note, however, that students who pass a prelim on the third attempt are not exempted from any subsequent program deadlines. For this reason, maintaining satisfactory progress in such instances is very demanding, and petitions will be evaluated with this fact in mind. Students who have not passed both exams after their attempts are exhausted are asked to leave the program.

Additional information about the exams can be found on the preliminary exam information website.

3.4.2 The field paper

In addition to fulfilling the major field course requirements described above, students must also complete a piece of original research on a topic in the major field. Both the procedures for writing the field paper (submission of drafts, etc.) and the decision about whether a submitted paper is acceptable are determined by the faculty in the field in question.

To maintain satisfactory progress through the program, each student must have the field paper approved by the student's major field by December 15th of the third year of study. Any student who has not had the field paper approved by May 15th of the third year of study must leave the program.

3.4.3 The three-signature proposal

A three-signature proposal is a plan for dissertation research. To complete the 3-sig requirement, a student must first find an Advisor on the Department's faculty who is willing to supervise the student's dissertation research. In consultation with this Advisor, the student selects two additional UW-Madison graduate faculty members, at least on of whom is from the Department, to evaluate the proposal. Often, the student's proposal contains a statement of the questions to be addressed, a description of the proposed solutions, and a discussion of the relevant literature. The 3-sig requirement is complete when each of the three faculty members informs the Graduate Advisor that the proposal is acceptable.

To maintain satisfactory progress through the program, each student must complete a three-signature proposal by December 15th of the fourth year of study. Any student who has not completed this requirement by August 15th of the fourth year of study must leave the program. Students should plan to submit their proposals to their advisors at least one month before the relevant deadlines to ensure that there is sufficient time for evaluation.

3.4.4 The dissertation and the final oral examination

The student's progress through the program culminates in the writing of a doctoral dissertation. The dissertation is a novel contribution to economic knowledge, and a student who completes a dissertation is qualified to perform significant, independent economic research.

The specific requirements for an acceptable dissertation are determined by the student's Oral Examination Committee. This committee, whose five members are drawn from the UW-Madison graduate faculty, typically consists of the student's Advisor, the two other faculty members who evaluated the student's 3-sig proposal, and two additional faculty members. The committee must include at least two members of the Department faculty; and at least one of the five committee members must hold an appointment outside the Department of Economics.

When the Oral Examination Committee feels that the dissertation is close to its final form, the student presents the dissertation in a final oral examination. Students should speak to the Graduate Advisor about administrative procedures and other arrangements.

The graduate program is designed so that most students will complete their final oral examination by the end of their fifth year of study. Students who have not completed their final oral examination by May 15th of their seventh year of study must leave the program.

3.4.5 Progress reports

Students in their fifth and sixth years of study who will not be completing their degree requirements that year must write a two page progress report. The report should describe in brief the contents, current status, and expected completion date of each dissertation chapter, and must be approved by all members of the student's reading committee. A completed progress report and approvals from all relevant faculty must be received by the Graduate Advisor by May 15th of each relevant year. Students who do not have a committee of three faculty members must form one by August 15. Students who fail to meet this requirement must leave the program.

3.4.6 Summary

The program's due dates and terminal deadlines are summarized in the table below.

Milestone Due Date
Terminal Deadline
Field paper
December 15th of third year
May 15th of third year
Three-signature proposal
December 15th of fourth year
August 15th of fourth year
Progress Report
  May 15th of fifth year*
    May 15th of sixth year*
Final oral examination

May 15th of seventh year

*Only required if the final oral examination is not completed by this date.

3.5 The Master's Degree

Students who have passed both preliminary exams and the field paper are entitled to receive a Master of Science degree. As there are benefits to obtaining this degree (for instance, eligibility for certain fellowships, and a higher pay rate for summer Federal internships), qualified students are encouraged to do so.

Students who will not complete the Economics Ph.D. program may be eligible to receive a terminal Master's degree. The requirements for eligibility are as follows:

(i) completion of at least 30 credits of graduate coursework in Economics, including the first-year courses described in section 3.3.1, with a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0
(ii) a grade of B or better in at least three of the following six courses: 709, 710, 711, 712, 713, 714;
(iii) the Graduate School's minimum degree requirements must be met.

Prior to completing these requirements, students should meet with the Graduate Advisor to complete the necessary forms.

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4. Financial Support

4.1 Satisfactory Progress

It is the goal of the graduate program to provide financial support to students who are maintaining satisfactory progress during the first four years and often beyond. The conditions for satisfactory progress are:

  • Maintaining a 3.0 GPA.
  • Passing both prelims by the end of summer after the first year.
  • Completing the field paper by December 15th of the third year.
  • Completing the three-signature proposal by December 15th of the fourth year.
  • Completing annual progress reports by May 15 in any year following the fourth year.
  • Performing satisfactorily in teaching assistantships.
  • Demonstrating proficiency in English in accordance with University guidelines.
Requirements (cumulative)
Summer after 1st year
Both Prelims passed by end of summer
3rd year, Fall
Field paper passed by Dec. 15th of 3rd year.
3rd year, Spring
4th year, Fall
Three signature proposal passed by December 15th of 4th year.
4th year, Spring
5th year, Spring
 Progress report completed by May 15th of the 5th year.

The above requirements are cumulative. That is, for each semester the requirement listed must be met, and all previous requirements must be met in order for support to be provided.

Funding is contingent on:

  • Remaining a student in good standing in the department.
  • Performing adequately in any teaching or other assigned responsibilities.
  • Meeting departmental standards for spoken English proficiency if appointed as a teaching assistant.

4.2 Conditions under which support will typically be withheld:

  • Required courses not completed on time.
  • Speak test score lower than 45 for teaching assistantships.
  • Poor performance in prior assigned assistantships.
  • GPA below 3.0.
  • Failing both prelims by the second attempt.
  • Failing either prelim twice.
  • Field paper not passed by Dec. 15th of third year.
  • Three signature proposal not completed by December 15th of fourth year.
  • Progress report not completed by May 15th of the fifth year or in subsequent years.

The Department offers a limited number of fellowships or scholarships to students in their third year of study and beyond as prizes for exceptional performance in the program..

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5. Leaves of Absence

While in most cases participation in the program is continuous through time, students sometimes find it necessary to take a temporary leave of absence. Written requests for a one semester or full year leave of absence should be addressed to the DGS and turned into the Graduate Advisor.

If a student is granted a one semester leave of absence, the milestone due dates and terminal deadlines are pushed back approximately one semester according to the following rules: May 15th becomes August 15th, August 15th becomes December 15th, and December 15th becomes May 15th. If a student is granted a full year leave of absence, all due dates and deadlines are pushed back one year.

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