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Economics at Pembroke

Pembroke has a long and distinguished tradition in Economics. This dates back to John Maynard Keynes, who was the College's first Director of Studies in the subject. Spread over the three years of the Economics course there are around 15 to 18 undergraduates in residence at Pembroke, together with several research students working on MPhil or PhD degrees, as well as 1-year visiting students from a host of international backgrounds. Pembroke economists come from a wide range of backgrounds. In addition, there is a strong tradition of an  international mix of both graduates and undergraduates in the subject. Both affiliated and mature students at the appropriate standard are admitted as undergraduates.


The course

Known as the Economics Tripos, the undergraduate course lasts three years. In any one of the three years there are around 180 undergraduates on the course in Cambridge. Most of them follow the full three-year course, though some may join from other Triposes (or as affiliated students coming from other universities) in the second year.



In the first year (Tripos Part I) all five component-areas of the course are compulsory: microeconomic and macroeconomic principles, maths and statistics, social and political theory, and the economic history of modern Britain, each of which is examined in one paper. In the second year (Tripos Part IIA), students study microeconomics, macroeconomics and econometrics, as well as one of three options: mathematics for economists, development economics and labour economics.

In the third year (Tripos Part IIB) there are around fifteen options, including game theory and network economics, public economics, econometric methods, industrial economics, the economics of developing countries, and economic history.  Students select two of these, as well as compulsory papers in microeconomics and macroeconomics, and an individual dissertation on a subject of the student's choice . Dissertation topics covered recently by Pembroke's final year students range from studying determinants of the male-female wage gap in the UK, to analysing the presence of a possible bubble in the UK housing market, to pricing emission schemes for fighting global warming, to the evolution of the China-US trade relationship and its implications for global macroeconomic growth, to exploring the causes of the 2008/09 global financial crisis and subsequent "anaemic recovery". See also the Economics page on the University website for further details about the course.


What is distinctive about the course?

In Cambridge the subject matter is treated not as settled doctrine but as a set of analytical methods. Undergraduates are encouraged on any issue to explore the counterpoise to conventional wisdom (be it 'Keynesian', 'monetarist' or 'new classical'); textbooks, as opposed to primary works or current articles, are recommended for reference rather than as course-work. Another distinctive element in the course is its emphasis on applied economics, i.e., getting undergraduates to become proficient at telling a clear story from statistical material. In addition, from the first year onwards, the quantitative component of the course benefits from familiarity with economic databases; in the second year the examination involves use of standard software packages to prepare, as required work, an econometric project; and in the third year many dissertations involve sophisticated econometric techniques.


What skills does the course reward?

It is very useful to be able to articulate an argument formally and to write and communicate accurately; but it is equally an advantage to be willing to challenge the underlying  premises of an argument, and to not be shy about transferring methods or conclusions across quite different disciplines or problems. A feel for orders of magnitude and an interest in public policy and current international and financial affairs are also valuable. More generally, we believe that training students to confront competing economic theories with evidence is essential for becoming a successful professional economist.


What does an Economics BA lead to?

Cambridge Economics graduates have for some years been at or near the top of the European league-table in terms of employment prospects. In a typical year, if they do not immediately continue into graduate or other academic work, they join central banks, the government economic service, management and strategic consultancies, investment or international banks, other financial institutions, accountancy, the legal profession or the civil service, the media and research institutes or public interest organisations such as Transport for London or the NHS. The course leads straightforwardly into graduate or business school abroad.  Over the past few years, Pembroke students have been admitted to Masters and/or PhD programmes in Toulouse (IDEI), MIT and Princeton).


How is teaching in economics organised?

The instruction is divided roughly 40-60 between University lectures and College 'supervisions'. Lectures are provided by the Economics Faculty, a 10-minutes walk from the College.  They are generally large and formal, lasting 55 minutes each; undergraduates on average attend three lectures a day. The supervisions, organised in Colleges, are normally given by members of the Faculty and attended by undergraduates in groups of 2 or 3; they typically last one hour , occurring twice a week. (For Mathematics and Statistics there are often somewhat larger classes.) Supervisions call for work prepared in advance, such as a 2,000 word essay, which draws on a week's suggested reading and on lectures; at the supervision issues arising from that work get discussed with the supervisor. At the end of each term supervisors report on the student's work they have supervised.


Teaching Fellows

Pembroke has three members of the Faculty who are teaching fellows in the subject, with research specialisations covering the three main teaching areas of the Economics Tripos: Dr Demosthenes Tambakis (macroeconomics and international economics), Dr Donald Robertson (statistics and econometrics) and Dr George Kolios (microeconomics and public economics). The College is very fortunate to be able to fully support all undergraduate students core teaching microeconomics, macroeconomics and econometrics in-house.


The College Library

The College Library contains a high proportion of the works required for the core of the course (around 1,200 volumes), together with five of the main academic quarterly journals and standard works of reference such as the New Palgrave Dictionary. There are also direct on-line links to the Faculty of Economics Marshall Library's resources, including e-books, e-journals and on-line article searches, borrowing and data download facilities. Some Pembroke professional economists: S.N. Afriat (Ottawa), P.K. Bardhan (UCLA), M. de Cecco (Rome), P.A. David (Stanford), M.R.D.W. Foot (Bank of England), S.A. Marglin (Harvard), S.J. Nickell (Nuffield College, Oxford), M.V. Posner (European Science Foundation), G.v.G. Stevens (Federal Reserve), Dr Roger W Ferguson, Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve, who has been made an Honorary Fellow.


The admissions process

What subjects do I need?

For those applying to Pembroke College it is essential to have achieved an A Level in Mathematics or equivalent, and an A Level in Further Mathematics or equivalent is also highly desirable. University economics can involve sophisticated mathematical solutions, and it often requires a thorough understanding of mathematical and statistical notation. The Further Maths qualification is currently under discussion following the Government's recent education policy change. Otherwise, there is no preferred combination, although an analytical subject (such as Economics, History, Philosophy or Law), a science subject (such as Physics or Chemistry) and an expositional subject (such as a language, Art or Music) are all useful.

Overall, it is important to be interested in applying quantitative methods to social and economic policy issues as, for a good degree result in Economics, learning and enjoying to formulate clear and precise arguments is of great value; and it becomes an integral part of one's active involvement in the subject-matter.

Applicants are required to sit a "pre-interview" admissions test in Economics.  This will be part of an applicant's overall assessment, and will be common to all applicants regardless of their initial choice of College.  The test will consist of three parts: (a) A multiple choice section based on the Problem Solving component of the existing Thinking Skills Assessment test (TSA); (b) A multiple choice section testing mathematical knowledge and aptitude; and (c) An unstructured (essay-based) section testing applicants' ability to reason sensibly about economic issues.  This section will NOT require a technical knowledge of Economics, as it is possible that a number of UK applicants, and many overseas applicants, will not have had the opportunity to study economics at school. Details about the written assessments can be found on the University of Cambridge website.

Is a prior qualification in economics necessary?

Although the answer is clearly 'no', it is true that at the start there is a distinct advantage in knowing something of the special language of the subject (e.g. 'marginal cost') and to be able to recognise some elementary but important propositions (e.g. that under certain precise conditions, 'price should equal marginal cost'). Those without such knowledge of the subject are urged to read widely in the gap between secondary education and university. It is also useful to have done something connected with the subject if a 'gap year' is taken before university. In any case it is a good idea to be reading the financial press, especially the Financial Times, or the Economist, before coming to interview. Further enquiries about Economics at Pembroke College should be emailed to Dr Demosthenes Tambakis at Pembroke. See also the Faculty of Economics website for details of the courses available.


A Day in The Life of ...

One of our recent Economics graduates, Helena, has written a blog about being an Economics student and you can find her blog here.

Go to the Economics faculty website