It can be very rewarding being an economist. When you find that solution you've been looking for, or contribute some research that actually seems to get read and make a difference, it can be the best feeling in the world. But this won't happen unless you work on yourself and the skills that are essential for becoming a successful economist and academic in general.
There are lots of skills that come with being a successful economist, some more important than others. Obviously, being able to sift through dense theoretical and scientific papers and sift out the information you need is one of the top skills an economist - and academics in general - should have. Seeing as you'll spend so much of your time reading, it's essential to be a good reader.
But there are other skills, both soft and hard, that are essential to your career as a successful economist. Read on for the ten we think are the most important, and remember, if you think you're a little weak in one area, there's always room to improve through courses, persistence, and surrounding yourself with other successful people who are good at the part you're not so good at.
1. Mathematical aptitude
Numeracy is a key skill for an economist. From dealing with large numerical datasets to interpreting visual data like graphs, you'll need to be comfortable handling numbers and working with mathematical principles. This is why many economists take preparatory classes in mathematics before beginning work or study in economics.
2. Knowledge of social sciences
Mathematics is not all you need to be a successful economist. Economics also has a lot of common ground with other social science subjects like psychology, history, and sociology. Having a working knowledge of both the factual basis of these subjects and the methods used in them is beneficial for economists who will be working in related topics.
In recent years, economics and the other social sciences have become ever more interdisciplinary, meaning a knowledge of these subjects is not only desirable but essential to be up to date with the field. Knowing a little about other, related areas will also stand you in good stead in life in general; a bit of history gives you something else to talk about at dinner parties, other than inflation rates.
3. Good at understanding complex systems
The fact is that economics is a complex subject which looks at complex systems. You'll need to be able to pull together information from different sources and different fields in order to be able to work with these complex systems.
This obviously takes time, effort, and a little patience. Above all, it entails reading, a lot, in order to get yourself up to speed with the latest developments in these systems, meaning (as a bonus characteristic, previously mentioned above) being able to sift through dense scientific texts is an essential skill.
In order to be successful as a student, professor, or researcher, you need to have a strong sense of curiosity. What is unknown or unclear in your field? How do insights from other fields affect the understanding of your subject? What topics are up for debate, and what are the arguments on each side? An interest in these questions is needed to motivate you to work your way through economics.
5. Independent thinker
While it's obviously important to have knowledge of other people's work and theories, to be truly successful as an economist you also need to have insights and ideas of your own. The ability to think for yourself and to question what you know will allow you to take new directions and to come up with original research which will make you a better economist.
Being an independent thinker will also stand you in good stead at conferences, seminars and lectures. It's engaging to be controversial, or at least to play the devil's advocate, as it facilitates discussion and deeper thinking.
6. Comfort with uncertainty
You will need to be comfortable with uncertainty, as not every question in this field has a clear and unambiguous answer. Economics is good at throwing curveballs and doing things you hadn't predicted or expected. And just like all the other social sciences, economics has the questionable characteristic of being one of those subjects in which there's rarely a 'right' or 'wrong' answer - everything is still being debated, and all is to play for.
This can be a scary thought when going in, knowing that there will be people who disagree with you all the way down to the dots on your 'i's, but also means the discipline is varied and exciting - linking back to the essential characteristic of being curious.
7. Written skills
It's no good having a great understanding of economics unless you can communicate that understanding to other people in a way which is meaningful. Good written skills are essential for making sure that your articles, book chapters, and notes are useful and comprehensible to others.
Unfortunately, in modern academia much writing is incomprehensible, made up of what linguist Steven Pinker calls 'academese', or the language of academics. Remember, simpler is always better, never use a long word where a short word will do, and remove any superfluous 'that's whenever you get the opportunity. (Read George Orwell for more on this.)
8. Verbal communication skills
As well as written communication skills, you'll also need to be an effective presenter so that you can speak at conferences and teach classes. You should be comfortable speaking in front of an audience and able to convey the essential points of your subject clearly and concisely. If you do this, and manage to become a clear and commanding speaker, people will take you more seriously and actually listen to you; there's nothing worse than having a speaker whose ideas are brilliant but the way he or she conveys them terrible.
These skills also help with other social situations like job interviews, speaking to the media, or making contacts to build up your network at conferences and other events. Being able to charm people or simply talk to them like a human being will be essential in the future for networking and for when you finally need to spread your work.
9. Open minded
For success in any academic field, you need to be open-minded. It's important that you are open to new ideas and do not become too set in your perspective. You need to be able to hear the views of others and to engage productively with them even if you disagree with their reasoning.
A debate with a colleague can be a highly instructive experience, but only if you are open to hearing their views and to adjusting your own opinions where necessary. Depending on how the debate goes, you could have your opinion changed and be brought about to a new way of thinking, or you could successfully reinforce your own ideas - linking back to the idea of being an independent thinker.
Something else that's important for academics, including economists, is the ability to motivate oneself. From postgraduate studies onwards you will be expected to manage your own time and set your own priorities, so you need to be able to push yourself to complete tasks without anyone else checking in on you or supporting you.
Of course, this is true from the Bachelor's level up; being self-motivated and able to get the work done will help to no end when slogging through long hours of theses, dissertations and PhDs. Remember though, that while it's important to be disciplined in work, don't forget to take time to yourself to unwind, relax, and refresh your mind for the next day of work.
For more advice for economists, see these articles: