With the announcement of the new Yale Board of Trustees, including Senior Trustee, Catharine Bond Hill ‘85 Ph.D., the Economics Alumni News was inspired to ask Dr. Hill and current board member Paul Joskow, ‘72 Ph.D., why they choose to study economics and how the discipline has influenced them in their careers.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO STUDY ECONOMICS?
: I always loved math, but also found policy issues intriguing. When I took my first economics course, I immediately knew I’d found a field that matched my interests.
JOSKOW: I really didn’t know much about economics before I was an undergraduate at Cornell, but I took an introductory microeconomics course that I really liked. I decided I wanted to become a professor because I worked as a research assistant for a Cornell professor and for a consulting firm during a couple of summers. I liked research, I liked teaching, and I liked the lifestyle of being a professor. Professor Alfred Kahn was my undergraduate advisor and he made economics interesting, even exciting.
WHAT ECONOMICS CLASS DID YOU ENJOY THE MOST AS A STUDENT AND WHY?
HILL: This is a hard one. So many were really amazing. Bill Nordhaus, Bill Brainard, Herb Scarf, Jim Tobin, and Paul Krugman all come to mind. I remember Tobin’s class because, although it was scheduled for the standard hour and fifteen minutes, he’d go as long as he wanted (always longer than scheduled) and no one objected! I remember a certain simplicity and elegance to Scarf’s classes. Rather than volume, he had a set of core principles that he wanted us to understand deeply, and he somehow managed to accomplish that class after class.
Don Brown was our DGS in those days, and although I never took a course from him, he was important to our cohort of students. He paid attention to how we were doing and his door was always open.
JOSKOW: I had a lot of good professors: Richard Nelson, Al Klevorick, Jim Tobin, David Cass, Bill Parker, and Marc Nerlove. I took microeconomics, rather than macroeconomics, with Tobin and my TA was Janet Yellen. It was a terrific class; I really enjoyed it. I also liked, very much, the first graduate course in industrial organization taught by Richard Nelson and John McGowan.
HOW HAS YOUR ECONOMICS DEGREE HELPED YOU IN YOUR PROFESSIONAL LIFE?
HILL: I followed the academic route and started as a faculty member at Williams College in the Economics Department. From there, I moved to the Provost’s Office. That is a position at Williams, but also at many other colleges and universities, that attracts economists. And, in turn, the provost position is great training for becoming a college president, with both academic and financial responsibilities.
My current job, managing Ithaka S + R, is focused on improving higher education attainment in the US, through research and advising. My economics training, and much of my research work and administrative experiences over the last two decades, are key to this work.
JOSKOW: After I got my Ph. D. at Yale in 1972, I came to MIT as an assistant professor and I’ve spent basically my whole career at MIT. I have taught many different undergraduate economics courses; the two-semester core industrial organization sequence, and supervised the industrial organization lunch and workshop. I have been lucky to teach the graduate industrial organization courses with Dick Schmalensee, Jean Tirole, and Nancy Rose, all of whom became co-authors of research papers and books. I have enjoyed supervising many Ph.D. students. I’ve also published about 150 papers and six books. In 2008, I became the president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and remained in that position for 10 years before returning to MIT this last January.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR UNDERGRADUATE OR PERSPECTIVE GRADUATE STUDENTS WANTING TO PURSUE AN ECONOMICS DEGREE?
HILL: Take the classes that you find really interesting. If it is economics, great! An economics major at the undergraduate level prepares you for all different kinds of paths after college. And, if you go on to get a Ph.D., again, it will prepare you well for a variety of opportunities, from an academic path to all kinds of options in the private sector.
JOSKOW: I think it’s important for undergraduates to take all the basic economics courses; microeconomic and macroeconomic theory, and econometrics. It’s also important to take a lot of mathematics and statistics because those subjects are very important for graduate school and research. I advise my undergraduate students to take a couple of years off after they get their degrees and to get a job working in the economics industry as a research assistant. Good places to work at are the Federal Reserve Board, one of the regional Federal Research Banks, the IMF, Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, Resources for the Future, Brookings, or for a professor at a research university. After this experience students can then apply for a Ph.D. program if they really learn that they love doing economics research. Ph.D. programs are hard work, and it really is important for undergrad students to get a good grasp, not only for learning the tools to get in touch with the field, but to see if they really love it, because otherwise it can be a real drag.
DO YOU THINK YOUR ECONOMICS DEGREE HELPS YOU IN FULFILLING YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES AS A MEMBER OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES? IF YES, IN WHAT WAYS?
HILL: Ron Ehrenberg, a higher education economist, wrote a paper on the overrepresentation of economists in higher education leadership positions, and speculated on explanations. He rejects the notion that economists are particularly good at balancing budgets or investing endowments well, although some are in fact good at this, and instead comes down on the side of understanding opportunity costs and trade-offs. Decision making in higher education almost always comes down to doing some things and not others, and economists understand this.
JOSKOW: My economics education certainly helps. However, what I think is more important than my economics education is my experience at a fine research university and service on the boards of several for-profit and non-profit organizations. I think my experience at MIT as a professor, head of the economics department, and director of a research center, gives me a good perspective on the issues that come to the Yale Corporation. My experience on the boards of other organizations gives me a good perspective of the governance responsibilities of a Yale trustee.