Suppose you are not accepted to any program of your interest or given zero funding: you should start considering alternative experiences that can help you become a more competitive candidate, in subsequent (after 2+ years) application cycles.
Some people choose to pursue a master’s degree in a related quantitative subject, such as statistics. In fact, if you are a candidate who studied in a non-US institution, you are strongly recommended to apply to PhD programs with a master’s degree under your belt.
If you graduated with honors from a respectable four-year institution in the US, however, you may consider working as an RA for two years, before you give another shot at graduate school applications.
By working as an RA at a top economics department or prominent research organizations, you can attain legitimate research experience and build relationships with academics who will become your advocates when you apply to PhD programs, second time around. It will also be a great opportunity to affirm or reconsider your intention to pursue a PhD, since your daily routine will not be too different from your life as a graduate student or an academic.
If you end up needing or wanting to be an RA for the next year or two, here are a few of the links you should first check out:
2. World Bank/IMF: recent college graduates are eligible to apply to the Junior Professional Associates (JPA) program. The common misconception is that World Bank and IMF only consider applicants with advanced degrees, but there are a limited number of positions available for those with only bachelor’ diplomas! Networking and luck play a much bigger part with regard to securing those positions. The same goes for RA positions at the IMF.
3. Top10 Economics Departments: Top-tier economics departments almost always have postings on RA positions that are open for recent graduates, with interests in pursuing econ. PhDs. Take a look at Stanford’s or Harvard’s employment website.