Should I study economics at university?

Studying economics at university - stock market graph
Studying economics at university develops analytical thinking alongside a good understanding of current affairs and how society functions. It prepares you well for a wide range of careers, not only those that are finance-related.

Economics isn’t just about money: it’s a social science, exploring the ways in which people produce, use and distribute resources. You’ll learn about elements of other subjects as diverse as politics, marketing and geography, providing a balance between statistical analysis and written arguments. This makes economics the ideal degree if you enjoy both maths and the humanities.

Economics degree entry requirements

  • The grades you need to study economics vary widely depending on the university. A typical offer can be anything from around BBC to A*A*A at A level.
  • Alternatively some universities ask for UCAS points (often 112).
  • You don’t need to have studied economics before but A level maths is often a required subject, especially for BSc degrees. Where it isn’t, you’ll usually need at least GCSE maths at grade B or C.

BA or BSc economics?

After studying economics you’ll gain either a bachelor of arts (BA) or bachelor of science (BSc) degree; this affects the content covered:

  • BScs place more emphasis on mathematical or statistical analysis.
  • BAs (MAs at Scottish universities) focus more on the broader social context, which takes into account factors that can’t be measured numerically.

However, all economics degrees involve elements of both. You’ll still need a good level of numeracy for a BA and writing skills for a BSc, as many core modules will be similar. If a university offers both courses they may share a common first year, or first two years at Scottish universities – this is the case at the University of Dundee for example.

Some universities require you to choose between the BA and BSc when you apply, while some only offer one or the other. Alternatively you might be able to decide after you start studying. At Manchester Metropolitan University ‘all students start on BA hons economics… and there are options to transfer to the BSc as you progress through the course’, and the University of Nottingham offers students ‘the flexibility to tailor their module choice to graduate with either a BA or BSc’.

Economics degree modules

Economics degrees begin with a broad introduction to the subject in your first year, and then allow you to specialise in the areas that interest you. You’ll normally be offered a wider choice of topics as you progress through the degree.

The first year of most economics degrees features compulsory modules on:

  • microeconomics – focusing on individuals or businesses within an economy
  • macroeconomics – the study of whole industries or economies on a national or global scale
  • the mathematical and statistical skills that economists need.

Many unis also include a compulsory first-year module on the history of economic thought, although others have this as an optional module later on.

Optional modules in the middle and final years generally include some or all of the following topics:

  • money, banking and finance
  • trade and international relations
  • industrial or labour economics
  • poverty and inequality
  • environmental economics
  • business law and ethics
  • marketing
  • experimental or behavioural economics.

Max Steventon is a BSc economics graduate from the University of Nottingham. He studied compulsory modules including macroeconomics, microeconomics and econometrics (a branch of economics that focuses especially on the application of statistics), and optional modules including political economics, developmental economics and the economics of health. He comments: ‘The module choice was broad each year so you could select whether you wanted all-round knowledge or more specialised. If you took a follow-on module the content became more specialised.’

Economics degree teaching and assessment methods

Economics degrees are normally taught through a mixture of:

  • lectures – listening and taking notes
  • seminars or tutorials – small group discussions
  • workshops, experiments or computer laboratory sessions.

You’ll mainly be assessed through exams, but some other methods might be used. Around half of Max’s modules included a group assignment and presentation, which amounted to 15% of the module grade.

Your final year will usually feature a dissertation: an independent research project allowing you to focus on a specific area of interest, assessed through a written report.

Economics degree contact hours

Lectures are the most common form of timetabled class; for example, the University of Warwick’s economics course has around eight to ten hours of lectures and three to five hours of seminars per week.

You are expected to spend your remaining time in private study. ‘After lectures you independently do work for the tutorials and then go through the problems in tutorials,’ Max explains.

Time spent in timetabled sessions decreases each year: Max had 20 contact hours per week in his first year, 15 in second year and 12 in third year.

Should I do a work placement year?

Many economics degrees offer the opportunity to spend nine to twelve months doing work experience with an employer after your penultimate year, before returning for a final year. This type of degree is sometimes called a sandwich course.

It’s worth considering a placement year because some careers are extremely competitive and it can give you an advantage when applying for jobs. You could even end the year with a graduate job offer but, if not, it’s still a useful experience to have on your CV and allows you to find out which roles do and don’t suit you.

Most universities that offer a placement year require you to decide when you apply on UCAS, as it has a separate course title. Others (such as the University of Southampton, the University of Reading and Lancaster University) allow you to choose after you begin your degree.

Economics degree skills

An economics degree will equip you with many skills that are sought after by employers, whether or not you want a finance-related career. These include:

  • thinking logically and critically
  • the ability to simplify complex issues and extract the relevant pieces of information
  • data analysis
  • written and spoken communication
  • problem-solving using your initiative
  • time management
  • commercial and cultural awareness
  • teamwork and interpersonal skills
  • research skills
  • presentation skills.

Economics degree jobs

A degree in economics (or joint honours including economics) is essential to become a professional economist. Economics graduates also commonly go into other finance careers such as:

If you’re interested in any of these areas, remember that they normally accept graduates from any degree background, so this shouldn’t be your only reason for studying economics. While an economics degree is a good route in, it’s not your only option.

Equally, economics graduates are valued in many sectors, not just those that are closely related to the economy. The transferable skills you can gain from an economics degree are useful in most jobs. TARGETcareers has more information on careers that are open to graduates from all degree disciplines. You can also read about possible career options for economics graduates in our article on TARGETjobs.

Areas in which an economics degree is particularly useful include:

Accredited economics degrees

Some economics degrees are accredited by a professional body, which can be useful if you want a career in finance. If you go on to study for a professional qualification and have already covered some of the content in your university modules, you might be exempt from certain exams. For example, the BSc economics course at Brunel University London is accredited by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).

Alternatives to a degree in economics

Depending on which aspects of economics interest you, there are a number of alternative degrees you could consider.

If you’re into all things money-related:

If numbers and data analysis are your thing:

If you’re more interested in the social context of economics:

Quick stats – what do economics graduates do after university?

Every year, UK universities contact former students six months after they’ve graduated to find out what they’re doing. These results are compiled in the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. The 2017 survey covered those who graduated in 2016 and found that:

  • The unemployment rate among economics graduates is 6.7%, which is slightly above the figure of 5.3% across all degree disciplines.
  • However, 56.3% of economics graduates were working full-time in the UK: above the national average of 54.8% across all degree subjects (other options included further study, travelling and working part time).

Among economics graduates who were working full time, the most popular job categories were:

  • business, HR and finance professionals: 54.3% (compared to 10.0% of graduates from all subjects who were in employment)
  • marketing, PR and sales professionals: 9.5% (average: 7.5%)
  • retail, catering, waiting and bar staff: 7.4% (average: 11.1%)
  • clerical, secretarial and numerical clerks: 6.6% (average: 6.1%)
  • managers: 5.4% (average: 4.0%).

It’s interesting that more than half were working in business, HR and finance, with only small percentages working in each of the other sectors. This is much higher than the proportion of graduates from all subjects working in that sector. However, that’s not to say that all of these needed their economics degree to get the job, or that these jobs were directly relevant to economics.

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