Economics is a hugely popular degree subject, and for good reason. Economics teaches you a range of useful skills that are transferable to many jobs and careers.
Based on our career research, we’ve identified six of the top careers you can have with an economics degree. But what makes these the top careers?
Well, at Probably Good, we think your career is one of the best resources you have to make a positive difference — we want you to find a career that’s good for you and good for the world. The careers we discuss here are far from the only decent options, but they’re some of the best we’ve looked into for people with an economics degree.
For each career, we’ll provide an overview and salary information, tell you how impact you might be able to have, and discuss how competitive these careers are.
Impact potential: high; Salary potential: moderate; Competitiveness: moderate
What is a development economist?
Development economics is a subfield of economics that focuses on economic conditions and the well-being of people in low and middle-income countries. Development economists work in governments, NGOs, think tanks, or academia, trying to incorporate and improve evidence-based policies and programs.
Some responsibilities of a development economist include:
- Designing experiments (such as randomized controlled trials) to assess the efficacy of intervention programs and interventions.
- Interpreting the results of studies and producing reports and academic research papers.
- Academic economists will likely have teaching responsibilities as well as other departmental duties.
How much impact could you have?
As a development economist, you can be fairly confident you’d be helping those living in poverty, especially if you manage to get a job within an impactful nonprofit, foundation, governmental agency, etc., or as an economist in an evidence-based policy research center (see our full development economics profile for more detail).
Development economist salary
According to 2021 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, economists in general earn a median salary of $105,630, which is 1.95x higher than the US median salary of $54,132. The highest 10% of economists earn over $193,680. However, these are likely higher than the earning potential of development economists, as the figures are dragged upwards by economists working in financial services, who earn more on average than other sectors. Some data on academic economists reports a salary range.
How competitive are development economics jobs?
The competitiveness of development economics varies quite a lot, depending on the specific path.
Some of the top jobs in development economics, like those in academia or high-level policy positions, require a PhD. PhD acceptance rates are very low, particularly for top-ranking universities. For instance, MIT has reported an annual acceptance rate of around 5%, the Paris School of Economics is around 10%, and Columbia Business School reported an acceptance rate of just 2.6%. These rates are likely to be similar across top global doctoral programs.
Academic economics is known to be a highly competitive (and elite-dominated) field, and it can be hard to land a permanent position if you’ve received a PhD from a non-elite university. One estimate claims that only 10-30% of PhD holders will land a permanent academic position, though this is likely to vary significantly across geographic regions, as well as subfields.
However, once you have a PhD, we’ve heard that many economics roles, such as at organizations we highlight in our full career profile, are in high demand, so might be less competitive. These organizations also have roles for people with undergraduate degrees or master’s degrees, and so this route could be easier to enter.
Monitoring and evaluation specialist
Impact potential: moderate; Salary potential: low; Competitiveness: moderate
What is a monitoring and evaluation specialist?
Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) specialists work in and with governments, NGOs, and other organizations to assess whether their social programs are functioning as intended and working for the people they’re intended to reach and, if not, what can be done to improve them.
Some specific responsibilities include:
- Designing and implementing data collection practices, such as developing evaluation surveys and managing field-based data collection workers.
- Developing strategies and theories of change for an organization.
- Analyzing quantitative and qualitative data to generate actionable insights about the delivery and efficacy of a program.
Because of the statistical methods and data analysis skills you’ll pick up in an economics degree, people with economics backgrounds are often sought after for M&E jobs, particularly for roles that require a more quantitative skillset.
How much impact could you have?
If you’re able to join a high-impact organization, such as a nonprofit focused on evidence-based solutions to pressing problems or a well-respected external evaluator, a career in M&E could allow you to do a fair amount of good. This is particularly true if you have a passion for global health and development, where most of the promising opportunities are.
However, the impact you can have will depend in large part on the organization you’re a part of. Our full profile on M&E specialists goes into more detail.
Monitoring and evaluation salary
Monitoring and evaluation salaries are likely to depend a lot on location. In the US, Comparably claims an average salary of $74,000 for monitoring and evaluation officers (as of 2023), which is 1.37x higher than the US median salary of $54,132. Monitoring and evaluation salaries are likely to be higher for positions that require advanced degrees (such as in economics), and in respected external evaluation organizations. Salaries are likely to be lower on average for M&E specialists who work within low- and middle-income countries, which is where many of the most impactful opportunities in global health are based.
How competitive are monitoring and evaluation jobs?
Monitoring and evaluation careers can overlap significantly with careers in development economics, especially for roles in external evaluation organizations such as IDinsight or J-PAL. Because of this, they offer similar considerations for competitiveness. However, PhDs are not expected for the majority of monitoring and evaluation jobs, even within these organizations though having one can open up more technical roles as well as leading research projects. We’ve also heard that jobs that don’t require a PhD can be more competitive than those that do require one.
Roles within implementing organizations such as global health nonprofits are likely to vary a lot in their competitiveness. But, as we mention in our full career profile, having experience in the local context where a program is running can be an advantage for being hired into M&E jobs.
Impact potential: high; Salary potential: moderate; Competitiveness: moderate-high
What is a civil servant?
Civil servants are government employees responsible for many aspects of the day-to-day running of a country. Some specific responsibilities include:
- Designing policies, as well as advising ministers and other policymakers.
- Ensuring the successful implementation of policies.
- Running public services like transportation, healthcare, and education.
Economics degrees can be a great background for going into government as a civil servant. With an analytical mindset and quantitative knowledge, you’ll likely be able to fit in many areas of government. And those with more advanced economics qualifications, like a PhD, may even be able to work as an economic adviser.
How much impact could you have?
Civil service jobs can allow you to have a lot of impact, especially if you’re able to get into an influential position that helps you tackle a pressing problem.
For more information, see our career profile on civil service careers in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, as well as the 80,000 Hours career review of policy-oriented government jobs.
Civil servant salary
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the “professional” class of employees working for the federal government earn a median salary of $94,583, which is 1.74x higher than the US median salary of $54,132. This data is from 2013, so take it with a grain of salt!
Globally, public sector workers tend to have a significant wage premium over workers in the private sector, especially in low- and middle-income countries. However, much of this premium may be accounted for by the difference in education levels between public and private sector workers.
Governments are typically transparent about how much they pay, so make sure to research your own government’s pay scales if you’re interested in this path.
How competitive are civil service jobs?
Much like civil service salaries, the competitiveness of civil service jobs is highly dependent on the country, and also the type of role one wants to have. However, civil service jobs with the highest potential for positive impact, such as those that focus on policy and the management of governmental departments, are likely to be quite competitive regardless of country, though perhaps less so at senior levels where there are fewer qualified candidates. Similarly, countries that run competitive graduate schemes for civil service entry are often highly competitive. For example, In India the top grade of the civil service has incredibly low acceptance rates of below 0.1%. And in the UK, acceptance rates to the graduate fast stream are around 2%.
Impact potential: high; Salary potential: low; Competitiveness: moderate
What is a nonprofit entrepreneur?
Nonprofit Entrepreneurship is the founding of new nonprofits with the goal of solving important problems.
- Any of the activities involved in creating and running a nonprofit, including administrative tasks, hiring and onboarding employees, and directing the organization’s strategy.
- Raising funds, primarily from foundations and individual donors.
- Build and maintain partnerships with external bodies such as government agencies, NGOs, and funders.
An economics degree is likely a good starting point for a nonprofit founder. It’ll give you strong quantitative skills which are highly advantageous for running an organization, as well as strong reasoning skills and an ability to assess evidence to make sure your organization is really having an impact.
How much impact could you have?
If you have the potential to be a great founder, then we think starting a nonprofit can be one of the most impactful options available to you, especially if you’re focused on making evidence-based decisions in high-priority cause areas. Founders of effective nonprofits have been able to have a truly massive impact.
However, this path is highly demanding, requiring a number of impressive traits for success. It’s also quite high risk. Many organizations don’t work out as intended, meaning you can end up having little to show for all your hard work.
Nonprofit entrepreneurship salary
Though it’s hard to get good figures, nonprofit entrepreneurship is not a path to take if you want to become wealthy. Early on, you will generally have a salary lower than is typical in the nonprofit sector, which is already low. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated (in 2016) that nonprofit workers in management and professional jobs are paid nearly $5 less per hour than counterparts in the private sector (taking into account non-salary benefits). This isn’t a path to take if you want to become rich!
How competitive is nonprofit entrepreneurship
In a sense, nonprofit entrepreneurship is not competitive at all. Almost anyone can register a charity, and there are no formal qualifications needed (though an economics degree is a good start!) However, securing the funding needed to make a high-impact charity a success is harder; 75% of US nonprofits operate on less than $100,000 a year.
However, if you have a good track record and are willing to pursue an evidence-based approach to nonprofit entrepreneurship, there are foundations and other donors that could be excited to fund you.
Impact potential: high; Salary potential: high; Competitiveness: very high
What is a for-profit entrepreneur?
For-profit entrepreneurs found ventures that make a profit for owners and investors.
Some specific responsibilities include:
- Taking on all aspects of starting and running a business, including budgeting, marketing, sales, and creating your product.
- Raising funds, most commonly by finding and pitching to potential investors, as well as maintaining relationships with investors.
- As the business grows, founders will generally take on more managerial responsibilities, supervising employees, ramping up hiring, and directing company strategy.
Though there are no formal qualifications needed to become an entrepreneur, an economics degree will likely serve as a good starting point. The financial and numerical literacy gained through an economics degree will help in many aspects of running a business, and the critical thinking skills you’ll gain can be hugely helpful in making good strategic decisions.
How much impact could you have?
There are two main ways that for-profit entrepreneurs can have a big impact: first, you can provide products and services that directly help people or improve the world in other ways. Getting the right product or service into the marketplace could produce the kind of impact many might not expect from companies, like saving lives, improving people’s health and quality of life, providing and improving education, and helping people to escape poverty. Our full career profile gives some examples!
Alternatively, you can aim to generate money to donate toward effective causes and pressing problems. Donating millions to highly effective organizations can achieve a lot of good, like helping the global poor, improving the welfare of animals, or even helping to protect against catastrophic risks like pandemics and the effects of climate change.
For-profit entrepreneur salary
The salary of a for-profit entrepreneur is highly dependent on the success of the business—and you’ll be able to set your own salary (though you may be accountable to investors). The most successful founders can make truly enormous amounts of money (which you could give away to have a huge impact!). But because of the high failure rates, many founders might not make very much at all, and might often lose money if they invest their own funds.
How competitive is for-profit entrepreneurship?
Because there are no formal requirements, almost anyone can enter for-profit entrepreneurship. However, succeeding within for-profit entrepreneurship is very difficult. Research by StartupGenome has suggested that about 90% of tech startups fail completely, and only 1.5% of companies reach a successful exit of over $50 million, so there’s a significant chance of failure. The rewards for-profit entrepreneurship can be enormous, but there are much safer options to pursue with an economics degree for those who are less risk-seeking.
Impact potential: high; Salary potential: moderate: Competitiveness: high
What is a prioritization researcher?
Prioritization researchers use tools from a range of disciplines—spanning economics, philosophy, and mathematics—to help make work out what the world’s most pressing problems are, as well as the best ways of tackling them. These researchers work in nonprofits, think tanks, and sometimes even government.
Some specific responsibilities and tasks include:
- Researching new problems and cause areas that could be high-impact to work on.
- Creating cost-effectiveness estimates of specific programs and interventions (for example, see GiveWell’s analysis of building footbridges in rural Africa and Latin America to increase access to healthcare and education).
- Writing public-facing or internal reports on your findings.
- Assisting with grantmaking decisions.
Because lots of prioritization research is quantitative in nature, an economics degree can serve as a great background for these jobs given the experience you’ll gain in statistical analysis and other quantitative skills. Indeed, many successful people in this path have an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in economics or an adjacent field.
How much impact could you have?
Prioritization research can be a really high impact career for those who are a good fit, particularly if you stand a reasonable chance at getting into one of the most promising organizations that conduct this kind of research. Some organizations have been able to have considerable influence in important funding and policy decisions, moving large amounts of resources to high-impact areas. We go into more detail on this in our full career profile.
However, this path can be very competitive, meaning there’s a high bar for entry. And because prioritization researchers often work on novel problems, it might not be a great fit for people who like to work on well-defined questions, or who are uncomfortable with uncertainty.
Prioritization researcher salary
You probably won’t find any job titles actually called “prioritization researcher.” It’s a term we’ve developed to describe a set of related research jobs. This means there isn’t great data on these specific jobs, but we can zoom in on similar professions.
For example, payscale reports (as of 2023) that policy analysts earn an average salary of $63,000, which is 1.16x higher than the US median salary of $54,132. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2021 that political scientists earn a median salary of $122,510—though this is likely to be a large overestimate for most prioritization researchers.
For roles at organizations associated with the Effective Altruism movement (which we have experience with), our sense is that prioritization researchers can earn anywhere from around $40,000 to upwards of $70-90,000.
How competitive is prioritization research?
For roles in think tanks, many sources (such as this one) report that think tank careers are highly competitive, drawing quite a few talented graduates from social science subjects like economics. The career-advice organization 80,000 Hours also believes think tank research is a competitive field, scoring it a 2 out of 5 for ‘ease of competition.’ They also note that more senior positions often require postgraduate qualifications. Getting experience in an internship is helpful, but these are reportedly often highly competitive, too.
The competitiveness of jobs at nonprofits is likely to vary hugely. Though we don’t have a sense of the competitiveness across the whole nonprofit sector, organizations associated with the Effective Altruism movement that conduct prioritization research often have acceptance rates around 1% and sometimes lower (drawing from our own research and knowledge of these organizations). Further postgraduate qualifications are generally not needed in these organizations, though they are sometimes helpful. We discuss many of these organizations in our full career profile.
Economics degree transferable skills
This has just been a small list of possible careers you can take with an economics degree, but the real number of options is much higher. In fact, did you know that as many as 74% of university graduates go into careers unrelated to their degree subject or major?
The truth is your degree subject doesn’t necessarily matter that much, and it’s often quite feasible to switch jobs or career. And, luckily, an economics degree teaches loads of great transferable skills that can help you with many different careers. Here are some of the skills you’ll get in an economics degree:
- Data analysis and statistical skills: Analyzing data and understanding statistical methods is a key part of an economics education, and is transferable to many other careers and disciplines.
- Financial literacy: You will gain a strong understanding of financial markets, institutions, and tools that play an important role in modern economies.
- Policy analysis: An economics degree can help you understand the impacts of various policy choices and the trade-offs involved in policy-making.
- Critical thinking and reasoning skills: Economics teaches you to think logically, critically, and systematically about issues.
Our full list of career profiles gives lots of ideas for other career paths where these skills might be put to use, with a focus on having a positive social impact.