Skip to main content

Goals for First Year Graduate Students

These goals apply to students entering the program in 2020 and subsequent years. Goals for students in earlier classes can be found in the relevant student handbooks.

During your first year, students should:

  1. Complete the three core course sequences
  2. Maintain full-time continuous registration
  3. If necessary, undertake additional math training
  4. Achieve Candidacy
  5. Apply to receive a Master's degree
  6. Satisfy the spoken English requirements to permit receipt of a Teaching Assistantship in the second year
  7. Take Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) Training
  8. Start thinking about research during the summer after the first year

Core Course Requirements

In their first year, graduate students are required to take the following courses:

Doctoral students do not formally register for Economics 401 which is held prior to the start of the Fall Quarter. (The course is listed in the registration system in Fall Quarter, but just for undergraduates in the accelerated BA/MA program.)

Students must enroll for letter grades in the other nine courses during their first year. Failure to enroll or dropping any of these classes, except in the case of an approved leave, results in dismissal from the Ph.D. program.


 Tutoring services will be provided, at no cost, for those students who are struggling with the core classes. Requests for tutoring services will only be considered after the first midterm examination in a course. The criteria for receipt of tutoring services are that the student:

If a student meets the above criteria, they should request a tutor by emailing the Graduate Program Manager with a copy to the instructor of the course. Tutors will be assigned based on availability and will be in either one-on-one or small group sessions. If a student does not meet the requirements above but would still like to procure a tutor, a student may do so at their own expense. The economics department website maintains a list of tutors.


Students must register for at least three units each quarter to be a full-time student. During Fall, Winter and Spring Quarters, students register for Economics 410, 411 and 480. During the Summer Quarter at the end of the first year, students receiving funding register for TGS 500 to maintain their full-time status.

Additional Math Training

Students with weaker mathematical preparation, or who do poorly in Economics 401, should ask the instructor of Economics 401 or the Director of Graduate Studies for recommendations for additional math courses. These may include the Math Department's undergraduate Real Analysis course (Math 320-1) as a fourth course in the fall quarter. This course continues in the winter and spring quarters. Students with stronger mathematical backgrounds might consider the graduate level Analysis course (Math 410-1,2,3).



The candidacy rules were revised for the entering class of 2020. Students in the class of 2019 may elect to follow these new rules. Students from earlier years should consult the relevant student handbooks.

To achieve candidacy, students must pass qualifying examinations in each of the three core areas of study: microeconomics, macroeconomics, and econometrics.

 To pass the qualifying examination in a core area, students must achieve a cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 or greater in the three courses in that core area. Specifically:

Read about the grade points associated with specific grade letters.

Students who have not passed all three qualifying examinations at the end of their first year can remediate a lower GPA in a core area by retaking courses during their second year. Specifically, students can retake (in the second year only) as many of the core courses in a specific core area in which they received a B- or lower grade when the course was initially taken to bring the GPA in that core area to 3.0. When a course is retaken, the grade in the retake (whether higher or lower than the original grade) supersedes the original grade for the purposes of calculating the GPA in that core area.

The Graduate School (TGS) requires satisfactory academic progress defined in part as maintaining a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or greater in all courses combined. Students may be excluded by TGS for failing to remediate this threshold within two quarters. Students should note that in calculating the overall cumulative GPA, the university includes both the original grade and the retake grade with equal weight when a course is retaken. This contrasts with how the GPA in the core areas is calculated to determine whether a student passes a qualifying exam.

All qualifying examinations must be completed by the end of the Spring Quarter of the second year of study. Students failing to pass all three qualifying examinations by this time are excluded from the program. There is no additional remediation period associated with this milestone.

Filing for Candidacy

Soon after grades are filed at the end of Spring Quarter, the Department will send a letter congratulating you if you have achieved candidacy, or specifying which core areas are incomplete and the course(s) that may be retaken to remediate the GPA.  Students passing the qualifying exams in all three core areas should then submit the “PhD Qualifying Exam” form online via TGS Forms in GSTS.


Doctoral students who have passed all three qualifying examinations are eligible to apply for a M.A. degree in Economics if they are in good standing with TGS.

In addition, students failing to pass all three qualifying examinations by the end of the Spring Quarter of the second year of study can apply for a M.A. degree in Economics provided that they obtained a grade of C- or greater in each of the nine courses, and are in good standing with TGS. However, they cannot continue in the Ph.D. program,

There are some rare occasions when it is not in a doctoral student’s interest to apply for the M.A. An example might be if an external funder terminates funding if the student applies for any graduate degree. Please check for these rare circumstances before applying.

To file for the degree:
  1. First submit the "Request for Master's in Primary Field of PhD Study" form via TGS Forms in GSTS.
  2. After this form is approved by TGS, submit the “Application for Degree” and “Master's Degree Completion” forms via TGS Forms in GSTS.

Language Requirement

The primary source of funding in the second through fifth years is as a Teaching Assistant (TA). To serve as a TA, students must demonstrate proficiency in spoken English. This can occur in several ways:

Students who fail to pass the Versant test receive information on English as a Second Language (ESL) programs offered by TGS. Students then have several options to demonstrate proficiency in spoken English:

Please take fulfilling the language requirement seriously. Students cannot be funded as a TA until they demonstrate proficiency. Deadlines for providing documentation of proficiency are July 31 for Fall Quarter, November 15 for Winter Quarter and February 15 for Spring Quarter. In the past, otherwise qualified students have been ineligible for TA funding and have had to seek alternative funding.

Even students who are expecting to receive external funding in their second year are advised to meet this requirement as soon as possible. External funding rarely lasts for a student's full career at Northwestern. Moreover, TGS requires students serve as a TA for at least one quarter as a degree requirement.

Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) Training

Federal law requires that all students funded by or working on projects supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH) complete a training program on responsible and ethical conduct of research (RCR). The training comprises both in-person instruction and an online practicum. There are many faculty members in the economics department who hold NSF and NIH grants and involve graduate students in the projects as research assistants. Therefore in-person RCR training will be given to all incoming students at the start of our program. During Fall Quarter registration all first-year students will register for ECON 519 to certify their attendance. (ECON 519 is a non-credit course graded as satisfactory/unsatisfactory. It is not counted as part of the student’s grade point average.) Then, when a student is engaged in a NSF/NIH sponsored project as a research assistant, they will be contacted by the department’s Director of Finance and Administration to complete the online portion of the training. The department believes that all graduate students will benefit from instruction in responsible and ethical conduct of research and not just those who may ultimately be funded by NSF or NIH.

Summer after the first year

The first-year core courses are a lot of work, and students deserve a well-earned break. The Department recommends that students also take time during the summer on two things:

  1. Get familiar with the field course options. The department organizes a session for students to become familiar with the various fields and meet with faculty members in those fields.
  2. Start thinking about research. All faculty members should be willing to talk about a summer plan of work. Talk to one or two of them about a research project, a reading list, or other ways of getting involved in research. The summer after the first year is a great time for doing so.