Reflections: Majoring in Economics at NUS

Where you will roam in your years as an Economics undergraduate.

Where you will roam in your years as an Economics undergraduate.

I stepped out of the exam hall two days back amidst cheers from my fellow course mates. For almost all us, this was the final exam of our time as an Economics major in the National University of Singapore. We had finally completed our fourth year which is sometimes referred to as the honours year. I thought I’ll share a little on the experience of taking Economics in NUS. Maybe this will help new undergraduates.

I took Economics without prior knowledge of how the course would be like. I applied to take Economics at NUS, NTU and SMU and received positive replies from all. I picked NUS because of a more recognized global name. You know, just in case I have to go overseas in future. I did not have the usual straight ‘A’s that most students in Singapore had in the GCE ‘A’ Levels. I completed my ‘A’ levels at Millennia Institute, a very rare path in Singapore. MI is a pre university institution. The common routes  are via Junior Colleges and Polytechnics. I have fond memories of MI but that is for another day.

More or less, I chose my major without knowing what the course would be like. I could strongly identify with the key logical concepts of Economics. This was introduced to us during the ‘A’ level course. I like how it was a blend of qualitative and quantitative components. I am a balanced person, not a specialist. My strengths are tied to being versatile and so the way Economics seemed to marry both components appealed to me. My four year journey at NUS began in 2009, seven months after completing my National Service.

 

 

The Programme

The Economics programme in NUS is moderately heavy if you are pursuing honours. Again, this is coming from a very average ‘A’ level student so adjust your expectations accordingly. The workload is dependent on your skill sets. I am a quick reader that is comfortable at both writing and speaking. But, I am weak in Mathematics. In fact, I decided to drop Additional Mathematics in the ‘O’ levels because it was boring. I made a bet with my then Additional Mathematics teacher that I will complete it somehow. He was playfully goading me that I’ll never touch Mathematics again. Due to that, I finished A Maths in MI. This is compared to those in JCs taking C Math at that point. As such, I have very little background in Mathematics and nothing in Statistics when I entered NUS.

 

The Economics course in NUS is heavily driven by Mathematics.

 

I have to put this out quickly because it is important. The Economics course in NUS is heavily driven by Mathematics. You will be expected to be comfortable with calculus mostly dealing with partial differentiation. It will look daunting at first but if you break it down it can be manageable. You are going to see very little of numbers. In their place will be greek alphabets. Tons of them. And you will be optimizing such equations in many Economics modules.

Most of the exams are basically mathematical exams. There are no sentences to write. You sit down and finish math paper after math paper 70-80% of the time. You can see how ironic this was for me. It was a culture shock. I was doing more math than almost every former classmate I knew. All this was done without a strong foundation in Mathematics.

 

It is still doable even if you a near zero mathematical background like me.

 

For a person who is far from being comfortable with mathematics, I’ll say the requirement level is not out of the world. Yes, you will face an uphill battle. Since everyone is continually progressing, you have to make a tremendous leap in order to out do them. Frankly, I basically kept up pace most of the time in maths. The few times I actually outdid my peers in Mathematics were sometimes more out of luck than skill.

In areas that I was disadvantaged in Mathematics, I made up for it in modules that focused on essay based papers or placed strong emphasis on presentations. Those elements came naturally to me. Needless to say, these were the modules that accounted for the lion’s share of distinctions. Unfortunately, these modules are rare.

The good news is that Economics is weirdly located in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Economics is a social science but the strong emphasis on Mathematics in most of the modules often strip the social element from it. Because of its location, a good proportion of undergraduates are not top end Mathematicians. Yes, almost all of them come from a minimum Math C (or H2 Maths) background, but it is still doable even if you a near zero background like me.

 

 

Modules Taken

I took the following Economics modules in NUS in my four years. Here they are broken down by semesters. I spent my fourth semester at a local exchange in NTU. That was basically to take a break and to fully exercise S/U benefits.

 

AY09/10 Sem 1 AY09/10 Sem 2 AY10/11 Sem 1 AY10/11 Sem 2
  • EC1101E*
  • EC2101
  • EC2102
  • EC2303
  • EC2374*
  • EC3102
  • EC3382*
  • EC3361 (NTU)
AY11/12 Sem 1 AY11/12 Sem 2 AY12/13 Sem 1 AY12/13 Sem 2
  • EC3101
  • EC3303
  • EC3322
  • EC3351*
  • EC3371*
  • EC3381
  • EC4351
  • EC4372*
  • EC4101
  • EC4102
  • EC4361
  • EC3304
  • EC4660*
  • EC4371*
  • EC4880*

 

Out of all these modules, only modules marked with an asterix are non mathematical. Do not take this as a guide. Modules change over time, non mathematical modules in the past can turn mathematical. Modules with great lectures are sometimes replaced with not so great ones.

In general, most modules were taught by avarage lecturers. There were 1-2 horrible ones. When I mean horrible, it is to the point that no one could understand what the person was saying and ended up simply reading their textbooks. Lecturers teaching 4000 level modules (Year 4 modules) are a lot better than the rest. That being said, there were stand out lecturers from the non 4000 modules as well, but they are rare. When selecting a module, know who the lecturer is for the semester you are taking it in. It can change things drastically.

 

When selecting a module, know who the lecturer is for the semester you are taking it in. It can change things drastically.

 

There are some concerns about the bidding system in NUS. It’s not rocket science and it should not cause you to miss out on a module unless you mismanage your bidding points. There’s nothing to worry about it. If all else fails, you can appeal and manually register. I didn’t face a single hiccup in bidding. In fact, I have quite a stash of extra points left.

 

 

Overall Experience

The Economics experience in NUS is one that is theoretically robust. However, it has serious weaknesses on applications to current economic affairs. Of the modules listed above, only 4-5 actually touched on economic issues today. NUS focuses a lot on ensuring a good economic foundation. Be prepared to spend most of the time diving into Nobel prize winning papers written a few decades before your birth. I have spoken to peers in foreign institutions such as LSE, Yale, etc. It is quite surprising (or sad) that NUS does seem to take a more heavy handed approach to theoretical backgrounds than other schools.

 

I especially enjoyed modules that worked with empirical tools and data.

 

I especially enjoyed modules that worked with empirical tools and data. It added a new skill set for me and gave me tools that I previously did not have. When reviewing papers, it can be a little scary how policies are formulated on what is sometimes poorly worked data.

As mentioned above, essay based modules were a breeze for me but the mathematical ones required more work. It is also for this reason that I turned to writing (on this site) to fulfill my desire to write.

Project work isn’t difficult. I took charge of most of my project groups. There are no deadline day horror stories to tell bar one and the experience was smooth. Most projects were completed 3 days to a week beforehand and were submitted in a polished state. I am probably lucky to have worked with very co-operative team mates and friends.

You are expected to do your readings. In truth, I seldom did those. Mathematical modules require practice and readings don’t really help. Heavy content based essays will need readings but these modules are rare. As such, most of the time, you’d be finishing your tutorials, working on mathematics and preparing for your exams. This is very different from other modules in the faculty. Other social sciences such as Political Science and Sociology are very heavy on readings. Economics is just different. I have often come across the comment that Economics majors are FASS students with no souls.

 

I have often come across the comment that Economics majors are FASS students with no souls.

 

Nevertheless, the experience was positive. It was not overly taxing even when pursuing an honours degree without a mathematical background. To those who are figuring out if they want to do Economics in NUS, there are basically two questions. Do you like the way Economists think? Are you open and ready to be handling mathematics most of the time? If your answers to both are positive, you will enjoy your overall experience in Economics at NUS.

I did.

 

 

Resources

I have included links to resources for the Economics modules that I took in my 4 years. Note that these resources are dated (some are 4 years old!). Also, modules change all the time so the value of these links are nothing more than a very rough idea of what a module is like.

 

 

Hope these are useful in some way. All the best!

 

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