Over at Steve Levitt's blog there is a debate raging on whether or not Steve Levitt could get into a top PhD program today. He argues that he probably would not get into Chicago because of the lack of undergraduate math background, but that MIT or Harvard might still have taken a chance on him.
The entire discussion made me think about getting into GMU's PhD program. I earned my PhD at GMU in 1989 and then taught elsewhere for roughly 10 years before returning in 1998. Among my closest classmates at GMU in the mid-1980s the alternatives to us attending GMU where UCLA, Yale, NYU, and Chicago. We had all obtained admission to those programs and offers of financial support, yet we choose to attend GMU because of the unique educational program it offered.
At GMU we have a large PhD program --- approximately 200 students enrolled in the PhD program at various stages of completion. Each year we get about 200 applications, and we admit roughly 50. Funding is very limited. In the comments at that Freakonomics blog it is stated that to get into a top PhD program it requires a GPA of 3.7 or higher, a 800 on the GRE quantitative (or near that), extensive undergraduate math background, already existing research experience, and 3 letters of recommendation from well-known economists strongly supporting your case.
At first a student reading that might say that is insane, but it actually makes sense given what I know of our own program at GMU. To be admitted to our program this year you needed the following:
GPA -- 3.55; GRE Quantitative -- 770; GRE Verbal -- 610. To receive funding you needed a much stronger record. The only offsetting factor to these competitive scores is letters of recommendation from professors that are known to the staff and willing to push their student in our unique areas of strength at GMU (Austrian economics, experimental economics, law and economics, public choice, and religion and economics). Still a student cannot be significantly under those baseline scores and get admitted to the program, and the opportunities for funding from the department are non-existent if you are under those scores (though there maybe some private funding).
Economics is obviously a very competitive field and it doesn't get any easier after admission to a PhD program. The market for academic jobs in economics is also very competitive and requires those competing for these positions to really distinguish themselves.
Is it all worth it?
Personally, I can not think of a better way to make a living.
Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the original pointer to Levitt's post, and also I think Tyler is 100% spot on with his wish list for graduate education in economics.