For over a century, the Department of Economics at MIT has played a leading role in economics education, research, and public service. Francis Amasa Walker, MIT’s third president, introduced undergraduate studies in economics at MIT. Walker, who rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the Civil War and directed the 1870 U.S. Census, was a leading economist of his day. He was a founder and president of the American Economic Association. In the early part of the twentieth century, Davis R. Dewey, the editor of the American Economic Review for twenty years and a longtime chairman of the MIT Economics Department, played a major role in preserving and expanding economics at MIT. In 1937, the Department added graduate courses leading to a master’s degree. Four years later, in 1941, it inaugurated the PhD program that is renowned worldwide. MIT’s approach to graduate training in economics has been widely emulated at other leading institutions.
MIT established its School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) in 1950, with the Economics Department playing a central role within the School. The Economics Department expanded significantly in the years following World War II with entrepreneurial leadership from Rupert MacLaurin and a supportive university administration. By the 1950s, it wasestablished as one of the world’s leading centers for economic research. Graduates of the MIT Economics Department’s doctoral program are now well-represented on the faculties of virtually all leading economics departments.
The MIT Economics Department today is a vibrant collection of faculty and students. The Department’s scholars have received numerous awards, including four Nobel Prizes (Robert Solow, Peter Diamond, and the late Paul Samuelson and Franco Modigliani). Many faculty members are Fellows of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Econometric Society.
Numerous faculty members have served in various elected offices of the American Economic Association and the Econometric Society.
The Department offers one of the most rigorous undergraduate economics educations of any U.S. college or university, and its classes attract a very large undergraduate student enrollment. During the 2015-2016 academic year, 1,695 undergraduates enrolled in economics courses, 45 undergraduates were majoring in economics, 67 were minoring in economics, and another 268 took economics as a concentration. Many undergraduate majors, as well as students from other departments at MIT, participated in research projects supervised by the economics faculty. Many are funded by the Institute’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and departmental UROP funds donated by generous alumni.
The Department is consistently ranked as a top graduate training institution. Each year the MIT PhD program enrolls about twenty-four candidates, selected from approximately eight hundred applicants. During the 2015-2016 academic year, there were 131 graduate students enrolled in the Department’s PhD program. Student dissertation topics span a wide range of issues in microeconomics and macroeconomics, and advance the frontiers of economic theory, data analysis, and econometric methodology. An important development of the last two decades has been a growing internationalization in the demand for graduate economics training. Currently about half of admitted students have undergraduate degrees from American universities, while the rest have degrees from elsewhere in the developed and developing world.
Most doctoral candidates spend five years in residence at MIT taking graduate courses and doing research. The first two years of the PhD program are devoted primarily to course work, while the remainder of the program focuses on writing a doctoral dissertation. Graduates of MIT’s PhD program pursue diverse careers. While a majority enter academia, MIT economics PhDs are sought after by governments, domestic and international research and policy organizations, and private sector firms. In recent years, major Internet firms have hired top economics talent to design and oversee their market strategies.
As the Internet has enabled electronic dissemination of information to replace traditional print media, the MIT Economics Department has developed a closely followed web presence. The Department’s web site provides up-to-date information on department courses and seminars. It includes links to the many web pages maintained by faculty, who often post research papers, policy papers, and data sets on their sites. Graduate students and economics researchers from around the world visit these web pages to download current research. Faculty’s research papers are often widely read and cited months or years before they are published in academic journals.
The majority of classes offered by the Economics department—sixty-nine at last count—are also made freely available online through MIT’s heralded Open Course-Ware (OCW) initiative (ocw.mit.edu).
An undergraduate economics development course, “World Poverty,” made its debut on the new online course platform, MITx, in spring 2013. This has brought MIT economics to audiences all around the world. Since then, the course offering has expanded to include 14.74, “Foundations of Development Policy: Advanced Development Economics”, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) has also produced courses for the platform.