The Graduate Level: An Interview with Two PhD Economists

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Beth Freeborn and Liz Callison, two PhD Economists at the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC is an independent agency of the United States government that works to promote consumer protection and maintain competition in the marketplace. Beth and Liz work within the Bureau of Economics, which supports the Bureau of Consumer Protection and the Bureau of Competition by providing expert economic knowledge. Both have had careers in academia before their time at the FTC. We sat down to discuss their experiences pursuing PhDs, being women in the male-dominated economics field, and the challenges they’ve faced along the way.

RV: What are your educational and professional backgrounds?

BF: I went to undergraduate at the University of Virginia and then I stayed right away and went to UVA for my PhD. I taught for seven years at the College of William & Mary and have been at the FTC since 2011.

LC: I went to Wellesley College; I was actually a biology major. Then I took a year and completely converted to economics. I worked at the Brookings Institute as a research assistant and then I went to University of Pennsylvania for my PhD in economics. After that I taught for a couple of years at the University of Colorado Business School, and then came here, to the FTC.

RV: How did you all decide that you wanted to go into economics?

BF: I actually took economics in high school, and I liked it, but it wasn’t what I thought I wanted to do. So when I got to college, I tried a bunch of other classes, but I kept doing economics, and then the week before I had to declare my major I decided to stick with economics. And then once I started getting into it I really enjoyed it. I like the math part of it and I liked being a student, so that’s why I stayed on through grad school. I liked the idea of being a professor, that’s an appealing profession.

RV: Why?

BF: I like solving problems, and I like finding out ways of getting someone to understand something. I started doing some tutoring, I’d study with friends; I got a lot of utility out of coming up with new ways…that’s something I liked about being a professor, was when a student struggled, but I could lift the conversation until they could understand it.

LC: I started out as a biology major, and was a biology major. I took my first economics class my junior year of college. I liked it; I liked micro not macro. I took another course in my senior year. I was doing an honors thesis in biology and I had done a fellowship in a lab for the summer so I was way deep into my studies of bio. Probably the winter of my senior year I decided that I had started getting narrower and narrower, and although it turns out this isn’t really true, at least not any more, but once you commit to an organism in biology you’re locked in. I didn’t like the concept that I was going to be stuck forever doing research on a narrow thing, whereas economics used the same analytical thought processes as the sciences, but the world was my oyster in terms of topics, and once you know micro economics you can do labor, and a much broader swatch which was very appealing to me. So I dropped my honors thesis because I had to take more economics in my second semester. When I went to my job I had a mentor pushing me pretty hard in the economics direction. I too liked the teaching part, but I didn’t like the departmental politics.

I did a leave of absence here [FTC] after two years teaching. I was pretty miserable [teaching]; I was an agent of change in my department; and a female agent of change, and an economist in a finance department. With all those things combined it was pretty miserable. I took a year of absence here, and stayed!

RV: At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue a doctorate?

LC: It was the year after college, and I knew I wanted to do more, and had a lot of people really pushing in that direction. I don’t think at the time I really quite realized what a big commitment it was. I knew I had to go back for more school no matter what I did, not that there weren’t things I could do, but the kind of things I wanted to do all required advanced degrees. It was pretty clear to me that I needed to go back to school one way or the other.

BF: For me it happened after I took my statistics class, which was taught by a graduate student at UVA. I remember talking to him after class one day, and saying, “I really like this and I want to do what you’re doing,” and he said, “Well, how much math have you taken?” I hadn’t taken very much because I’d come in with credits from high school, and he said I needed to take as much math as possible. That was the fall of my junior year, so that spring and my senior year I worked toward getting a math minor, to make me more attractive to graduate schools.

I wouldn’t say I knew exactly what I was getting into, because I had no research experience as an undergraduate. The first couple of years of graduate school were tests and reading and papers. I could do all of that. And then we got to the research, and I didn’t know how to do all of that. I had to learn that all over. At the time, I had friends who were econ majors and were coming out [of undergrad] and making good money doing interesting work. So I always felt that yes, it was a commitment and that the end goal was that I wanted to be a professor, but I always knew that I had outside opportunities. It’s a big commitment, but with every step you make on an econ PhD, you’re also giving yourself other opportunities. People with Masters have job offers. I always felt secure about the path that I was on.

RV: Did you face any major setbacks in pursuit of your higher education?

BF: I had a pretty major one. I really struggled with finding a topic for my dissertation. At UVA, by the end of your fall semester fourth year of graduate school you need to have proposed a dissertation topic. It was August, and I’d worked on several things but they’d all fallen apart for one reason or another. So I was pretty desperate, and I was ready to leave. But one of my professors called me into his office and really pushed me. I credit him with getting me back on track. I didn’t even tell him that I was thinking about leaving; I think somebody else told him. He helped me a lot and connected me with my advisors.

LC: Remember how Beth mentioned math? Well I went to an alternative high school, and I took calculus, but it was the theory of calculus from the Greeks. We never learned how to take tests, because we didn’t have tests! And so I went [to college] and I’d already taken calculus, so my first semester they put me in Calculus II or III, which is all fine and good; I understood the theory of the calculus, but I had no practical experience. We didn’t do that at my high school. I didn’t do so well in it. And then as a biology major, I didn’t have to do a lot of it.

The year I was at Brookings I went back and took Calculus I and II at George Washington [University], but then I started at Penn and it was at the start of the heavy math period. I’d never had matrix algebra; I’d never had diddly in math. I really struggled. There are several people who are amazed I passed my prelims; they were betting against me. At the time they failed a good percent of their students at the end of the first year in the preliminaries, and I was definitely slated for that route. I spent all of my first year basically learning the math without much economics. And I didn’t have much economics in undergrad, so I spent some time after that, when I was doing my research for my dissertation, having to integrate two different things that I really didn’t know all that well. It turned out fine, but that was hard.

RV: Economics is a male-dominated field. What has been your experience as women both in the educational field and in the professional field of economics?

BF: My experience has been pretty positive. I started at William & Mary which has a relatively high female economics professor ratio. Then, coming here, our managers are women. I am aware that it is a male-dominated field, but it hasn’t been an issue for me personally.

LC: For me, it hasn’t been an issue, but it’s been more brought out. When I was a graduate student there were only four women in my first year, and only two of us passed the prelims. It was very narrow. It was a time when there were some sleazy professors at Penn who aren’t there anymore, and it was tough. When you go out on the job market, before that you go to a seminar [with a panel of professors]. I learned while there that some of the professors, not my professors, but some were there with the goal to make me cry. And they didn’t. But it was horrible, and my major professors had to kind of whack them around a little bit. It was not very pleasant.

I come from a family of boys, so I was more used to this. But then when I went to Colorado, I was in the finance department, I was an economist, I wasn’t so sure they liked that, I was representing research, and I was female. There was one female in the department, and there were hardly any women teaching in the business school. It was brought home for me that I didn’t fit in.

But here, it’s never been an issue. When I came there were [very few] women, and there weren’t that many women in antitrust, which is what I do. But it’s never really been an issue for me as much as it’s been a fact.

BF: Yeah, you’re just aware.

LC: But has it really changed anything? I don’t think it has. I think I’ve gotten benefits.

RV: What kind of benefits do you feel you’ve gotten?

LC: I think my professors really cared about me in a different way. I always picked up mentors, so I had my mentors. I don’t know, I think that they realized that things were rough, that things around me were really ugly, and so they were mother hen-y to make sure that all of this stuff wouldn’t affect me. At Brookings they were definitely sheltering and nurturing to mentor [us]. I definitely think I got more of that than many of my male colleagues.

RV: Can you talk about your experience working at the FTC?

BF: I enjoy that I work on a variety of things, and that I’ve had the freedom to still do independent research. I have a very close friend at colleague at William & Mary with whom I continue to do academic research. I love the people and the challenges that we face. I think the other economists that we have in the Bureau of Economics are some of the brightest economists I’ve ever met. Any question I have there’s someone I can go to and talk about it with. I also have small children, and the work life balance here is really fantastic.

LC: I like the variety, although now I’m in the front office and do a lot of miscellaneous work that keeps these people going.

BF: And we appreciate it!

LC: But I still get to do economics. I’m later in my career at this point, so I don’t need a lot for myself like I did when I was younger, when I needed the cutting edge stuff. Now I may not know the details, I may not be able to do the high-level econometrics, but I know the concepts and I know how to relate to the other parts of the agency that don’t understand economics. That’s where the teaching comes in, because I know how to translate stuff like that. My career here has been very varied: staff economist, I did some long-term advising, I was in the commissioner’s office, I was a manager, and now I’m in the front office. I’ve had a really wide variety, which has been fantastic.

RV: What would you say to any young girls or current female college students who are considering going into graduate school or economics graduate school?

LC: See if you really like math. You can’t do economics without math.

BF: I think the school that you pick is very important. You need to find a place where you’re going to be comfortable, if you have a competitive spirit or if you need a place that’s going to be more nurturing. Talk to as many people as possible about their experiences. Talk to professors and make sure they’re people that you’d want to work with. And yes, math matters.

LC: I would echo that. It’s important to find professors that have interests that align with your. Or you may not know your interests, but if you have some general gist. They’re not going to spend time with you if you’re way over here, if you’re not doing something that they’re generally interested in in some way. I went to a very competitive grad school and they told you that on day one. Also really look at the job placement. This is a trade education, and you need to know what you’re going to get at the end of it.

BF: And I didn’t know how important the advisor was until I was into the dissertation process. Your advisor does a lot. They can make a big difference. I had an advisor that was incredibly nurturing. You might go to a school with a better rank, but they don’t have professors there that will treat their students very well. You figure that out by talking with people.

LC: Do your research. But you can always get out. You may think you really want to do this, but find out it’s really not, and that’s just fine. It’s really important to recognize that just because you went there with this idea doesn’t mean you have to keep going that way; there are always outside options.

Thank you to Liz and Beth for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States.