Often, the first question anyone asks of someone studying economics at the graduate level is, “Are you planning to teach?” There’s a common (incorrect) perception that the only career options for someone with an advanced degree in economics are teaching or working for the government as part of a think tank.
While those are both certainly viable career paths, they are by no means the only career options. In fact, one commonly overlooked, but potentially lucrative, career option for a student of economics is one that is actually quite important in the world of modern business.
Economic consultants, who generally work for a firm specifically devoted to economic consulting, are vitally important when it comes to high-profile legal cases involving multi-billion dollar corporations. They provide important research and analytical services to provide expert insight into complex financial and economic situations. For example, in the 2007 when media giant Viacom sued YouTube for $1 billion, both sides retained the services of economic consultants to assess all of the financial aspects of the case, and provide expert advice, as well as analysis and testimony to be used in court.
There are only a handful of large economic consulting agencies in the U.S., most of whom handle the largest cases, like the aforementioned Viacom case and the recent Samsung vs. Apple patent case, but there is a much larger concentration of small boutique firms who offer services on lower-profile cases. Regardless of the firm size, though, economic consulting is an interesting field and one where you can put your extensive knowledge of economics and economic theory into practice.
Economic Consultant Job Description
Many firms that provide economic consulting services hire large teams of consultants to handle various aspects of cases. In general, though, the work is divided into several categories:
Research and data collection. This usually means performing database research (such as Lexis/Nexis) to locate information that is relevant to the case, such as news reports and case law, as well as reviewing documents related to court testimony, such as transcripts, depositions, and evidence that’s been presented. In some cases, you may need to contact data providers in order to collect or clarify information. Because the typical case generates reams of research, it’s important to be able to identify what is relevant and important and what can be dismissed.
Analysis. Many consultants find this to be the most interesting part of the job because it involves using (and sometimes developing) sophisticated mathematical and statistical models to create economic impact predictions that form the core of the testimony on behalf of the client. In short, analysis takes everything that’s been discovered in research and turns it into usable information.
Auditing. A consultant’s analysis is only as good as the data and methodology used to create it, so auditing is a vital part of the consultant’s work. A significant portion — up to 50 percent in some cases — of a consultant’s time is spent analyzing other consultant’s work to ensure that the models are sound and that there aren’t any flaws in the thinking or mathematical errors.
Usually, these three tasks are tackled as a team. In most cases, a lead expert, usually a professor from a well-known economics program in conjunction with the consulting firm, provides the testimony, although the consultants do the actual work of developing the testimony.
Economic Consultant Career Path
Depending on the firm, one can usually land a job as an economic consultant (often referred to as an economic analyst or research associate) with an undergraduate degree. However, in most cases, a master’s degree is required for career advancement; most analysts who want to move up the ladder opt for a master’s in economics or an MBA with a concentration in economics.
The pay range for this type of work varies significantly, with annual salaries at the low end starting around $40,000 and climbing all the way up to $134,000. However, most firms offer competitive bonus programs, with bonuses of $10,000 or more each year being the norm. In addition to competitive salaries, many economic consultants note that the work is intellectually stimulating, especially since in the smaller firms even newer associates are often given the opportunity to work on major cases and interact with seasoned experts.
If you have a background or interest in economics and a desire to apply theoretical knowledge in real world, high stakes scenarios, a career in economic consulting might be right for you.