Career paths for an economist

Part 1 – The private sector

What are the opportunities available to students studying economics? If you are in the second or final year of your economics degree and interested in securing an internship or graduate job you will be faced with a bewildering array of options. To give yourself the best chance of securing a role you must focus on applying to one industry and know that industry like the back of your hand. Submitting applications across a variety of industries should be avoided because it is not time effective. Below is a list of sectors that seek to employ economists every year. This list is by no means exhaustive but it should give you an idea of where to focus your time and efforts.

Investment banking


  • Very high starting salary
  • Variety of work
  • The opportunity to network with senior management


  • Extremely competitive
  • For many roles ‘who you know’ is more important than ‘what you know’
  • Many of the banks have target universities
  • Very long hours with weekend shifts seen as standard
  • High stress environment
  • Low job security

Every year investment banks draw a huge number of applications from economic students for their internship and graduate schemes. With starting salaries of £40,000+ and bonuses, it is easy to see why. Moreover, many of the positions offered by investment banks are tailored to the skills of an economist. For example, a position on the trading floor requires graduates to analyse a particular firm or sector, weigh up costs and benefits and understand risk. All of these skills come naturally to students from an economics background. Furthermore, economic students are often much more aware of current issues surrounding the economy as well as the banking sector. This is why so many of the positions within this sector are given to economists.

However, any undergraduate considering a career in investment banking should not do so lightly. It will require an enormous amount of time and effort. If you do have your heart set on this career path then the earlier you begin tailoring your CV the better. Most graduates who gain a position at an investment bank do so through an internship. To gain an internship your first-year academic results need to be impressive. This will mean that your first-year experience will be very different from that of your best friend who is studying film. And remember, even if you spend all three years of your university life achieving fantastic academic results, being president of the banking society and playing five different sports, this may not be enough to secure you a role at an investment bank simply because you go to the wrong university or your dad is not the CEO of Lloyds Banking Group. Having said that, do not be discouraged from applying to this challenging, exciting and highly rewarding industry. Just be aware of the sacrifices that need to be made in order to be successful.

Professional services


  • High starting salary
  • The opportunity to complete a professional qualification
  • Large graduate investment


  • Very competitive
  • Many roles are exam orientated

When someone mentions the professional services industry the first thought in every undergraduate’s head is ‘The Big Four’ (PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young). Much of the work these big four firms undertake, as well as others in the industry, does depend on the economic climate and regulation. Economists’ knowledge of both of these factors makes them especially attractive to professional services firms.

One of the major benefits of this industry is that firms make a large investment in all of the graduates they take on. Part of this investment is to put all of their graduates through a professional qualification. These qualifications will be taken alongside your day-to-day responsibilities and can last from three years (ACA and CIMA) up to six (actuarial exams). Students studying economics will often get exemptions from some of the exams in the first year of these qualifications. Economists will also find their degree very relevant to the modules they have to study in subsequent years of these qualifications and the projects their company will place them in.

Studying for a professional qualification may not be to the liking of some graduates who want to leave their exam-taking days behind them. Moreover, if you fail any of your exams twice your contract with your employer may be terminated. This can be very stressful for graduates. However, getting one of these qualifications on your CV does look very impressive.

If you are interested in following this career path make sure you spend a lot of time researching the service line you want to apply for and each firm’s core competencies. Both of these factors will be heavily scrutinised in any interview you may get.

Multinational companies


  • Good starting salary
  • High job security
  • Under-applied to by economists
  • Large number of roles
  • International work opportunities


  • Graduates may feel detached from senior management
  • Work may not have much impact

The types of organisations that I would include under this heading are Unilever and P&G, but the list is long. For example, most organisations in the food industry, the car industry and the aviation industry will have employees working for them across the globe. These firms have many roles which particularly suit economic students such as finance, strategy and research. During a graduate placement, students will often get to experience more than one of these business areas. As well as the opportunity to experience different roles, some of these organisations will offer students time in one of their foreign offices. Moreover, since economists tend to apply to the first two sectors already mentioned in this article, competition between economic students for these placements is relatively low. However, don’t think that you will be able to walk into one of these companies. There will still be fierce competition from students from every academic background. There are negatives to working in a large international organisation. First, as you will likely be buried underneath many layers of hierarchy there could be limited scope for innovation or creativity. Second, the work you are doing may seem far away from the mission statement of the organisation. Despite these concerns, ambitious young economists should give more consideration to a career in this sector.


Asset Management (M&G, Baillie Gifford) – Similar to investment banking with slightly less pay and slightly less competition

Retail Banking (NatWest) – Lower pay than its glamorous big brother but far fewer working hours

Market research (Nielsen) – An area of work where economists can put econometric and statistical theories into practice

U.K. firms (Sainsbury’s) – Many U.K. firms will offer management schemes perfect for those economists who want to become future leaders


Regardless of the industry or organisation you would like to work in, there are some general tips to help you succeed:

  • Start thinking about your desired career as early as you can. The best way into many organisations is through an internship, which requires students to work hard during their first year.
  • Be realistic. Do not apply to investment banks if you have three Bs at A-level; you will just be wasting your time.
  • Once you have chosen a sector, do as much research around that sector as possible. Good places to start are your family and friends, the university careers service and this website:
  • Expect to be disappointed. When you are applying to U.K. internships and graduate schemes you are competing with the best students from around the globe. The quicker you can learn to deal with rejection the easier the whole process will become.
  • Be persistent. Applying to jobs while studying towards a degree can be very difficult, especially when your job applications don’t appear to be going anywhere. As long as you meet the minimum requirements and do your research you will get an interview eventually, so apply to as many companies as it takes.
  • Try to enjoy it. Interviews and assessment centres can be nerve-racking and daunting prospects. But people are rarely as intimidating as you think they will be. To make these experiences enjoyable and rewarding, think of each interview and assessment centre as opportunity to learn about yourself and the people that work there.

15 Responses to “Career paths for an economist”

  1. Mapaseka Says:

    Im a 2nd year student. I started off with Actuarial Science but then I realised I dont like it very much, so now Im doing Economics and stats; which Im enjoying so far. I haven’t really gotten into the core subjects of my degree but I have high expectations. I also like it because I never have to see accounting ever again. Im very intersted in the Professional services field but Im afraid my degree wont make me a viable candidate for such a post…should I perhaps consider taking a more financial route instead of Statistics?

  2. eoghan Says:

    Hi Mapaseka,

    It really depends on what you want to do within a professional service firm. If you want to do Audit/tax/corporate finance then I would recommend taking as many financial/accounting modules as you can. If you want to do consulting however, I would suggest you continue to study the modules that you enjoy the most. Most of the big professional service firms do not mind which degree you have.

    I hope this helps.


  3. Jonasch Wiaderny Says:

    Very nice article. I must confess, however, that I cannot agree to one of your points, namely `Be realistic. Do not apply to investment banks if you have three Bs at A-level; you will just be wasting your time.`.

    While grades may be important to some people, they often do not represent adequately your skills, for they are under the influence of many other things. Fortunately representatives in the human resource departments have accepted this fact and are more likely to invite you if you have an interesting letter of motivation. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed your article.

  4. Gerhard Says:

    I am currently in a study-field at a university, which entails economics until I have finished and obtained my degree. My degree’s core function is about investing/investments and therefore I found this post to be very helpful. I have always been interested in investing and how the economics of a country works. You’ve summarized the main points I need to know for no to give me the closure I need. It was also very interesting to see the part of multinational companies, I never really took that into consideration. As for what I needed to know you’ve laid everything out in an understandable way. Listing the pros and cons were very informative, letting me know what to really expect going into one of those career-paths.

  5. Tlhokomelo Malewa Says:

    I am pleased by this post and as an aspiring investment banker, i have learned a lot from this post. Thank you

  6. Dylan G Says:

    Really Appreciate someone posting on careers for economists , not many people know what they are getting into when they choose to study economics and your post was really informing and also listing bothe the positives and the negatives about the different careers and that is what students need to hear and not just the simple job titles as that still does not inform them about the various careers and also the different sides of the careers
    Thank you

  7. Madelene Cronje Says:

    Hi Mapaseka,

    I am a first year student studying Accounting Sciences and reading your blog made me even more excited about what I am studying. Reading about the different career opportunities available for a person studying an economic degree emphasised the fact that I am doing the right thing. I agree that most jobs that people in economic courses apply to have brilliant starting salaries and opportunities to grow and learn even more as an economist although the working hours are generally stiff. I do, however disagree with the fact that there is such a high level of competition amongst employees in this field as most economic fields tend to specialise in a specific field of economics such as accounting or risk-management or statistics. This, in my opinion, means that certain companies will only hire people from certain specified fields lessening the competition. I plan to work as a trainee auditor at PwC when completing my studies and to enable myself to do this I have applied for a bursary as well as holiday work from them and I have attended an assessment and interview.

  8. Nelani Says:

    I really appreciated the advice and informatuon given in this article. It gives me s much better idea of what to expect in the corporate world for economists as well as the advice the help you be successful. It is something everyone can apply to themselves.

  9. Mbalenhle Hadebe Says:

    I have never really done research on the career paths of being an Economist.I enjoy Economics a lot.For me doing Economics at a high level helped me to become a strategic thinker than I was before.I am considering doing Economics as my second degree because I just realized that I am more interested in a multinational sector.Although I think the are few job opportunities in South Africa for an Economist.Most of the time people travel outside the country to improve the chances of getting employed in this industry.However,being an Economist in Africa is still not familiar,people rather do something that is well known because they are afraid of disappointment and rejection.

  10. Minenhle Hlongwane Says:

    An enlightening blog this is. I would like to thank you for the information given, it has really sparked a light unto mine eye. I’m one of the many students who are studying economics simply because they were accepted to study the course. I really had no idea on what paths i can take after finishing my degree, it was basically a matter of “i’ll see when i get there”. After reading this blog i can say unashamedly so that i’m eager to know more about my degree and to enjoy the journey whilst doing so. Thank you so much for such an informative blog.

  11. Leigh Shaw Says:

    I would like to thank you for this post. I feel enlightened and feel like I took a great lesson out of what I have just read. The information you provided about what different types of jobs there are for economists is extremely informative and now as a first year I can start taking economics more seriously. Investment management seems extremely interesting however as you say there would be immense stress on a person in the position where to me being in a multinational company would probably be a better option as I could transfer to a different country if they are ever looking for a person to move which would be amazing as then you can get to see the world and still have a good paying job.

  12. lee Says:

    this blog really opened my eyes and gave me a clear view of what economics is all about ,basically why i need it.

  13. Masego Masha Says:

    Hi, thank you very much for this informative blog.
    I am a first-year student studying Bcom financial sciences and until i read this blog, I always thought that my career path was set to be in the accounting industry. I’m enlightened and encouraged to search for more opportunities.

  14. Natasha Says:

    In relation with the above article with job opportunities for students who are studying economics. I am currently a First year student and i am currently pursuing Bcom Accounting sciences which typically leads to becoming a Chartered Accountant, although i am very passionate about accounting and i thoroughly enjoy the challenge, i also have found an interest in Economics and would like to double major in my second year. Would this be a waste of time or worthwhile to me? I also have just recently signed with PwC my training contract which i would pursue in order to qualify as a CA. I want to also broaden my horizon and my main goal is to work for the IMF or The World bank. Could me double majoring in Accounting Science and Economics give me an advantage when it comes to employment?

  15. Christinah Madisha Manaka Says:

    Intresting to actually realise that there are so many private sectors offering economics students from their second year intenships. Career path of an economic graduate is really challenging but given this information, the advantages and disadvantages I have confidence and hope that somewhere there is a job for me. Thank you very much

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