Exploring Careers in Economics: The Making of an Economist
Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic and Senior Vice President Paula Tkac give advice to aspiring economists and explain why economics is not the dismal science in Maximum Employment Matters.
Video: Interview with Raphael Bostic
Video: Interview with Paula Tkac
What careers follow after an economics degree? Economics majors are successful in a wide variety of careers. Although various roles in businesses are most common, economics majors are successful in law, medicine, government, non-profits, and international relations, as well as in academic roles.
Help your students understand and remember the structure and functions of the Federal Reserve with this concise infographic. The online version is hyperlinked to our award winning Fed Explained video series. Order the print version to display in your classroom and use these hands-on learning activities to reinforce concepts with your students.
Do your students love studying economics? Would you like to encourage them to consider a career in this interesting and growing field? If so, this is the right lesson for your class. A related article discusses the need for diversity in the economics field.
Transcript: Interview with Raphael Bostic
Julie Kornegay: Good afternoon and welcome to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's webinar, Maximum Employment Matters. My name is Julie Kornegay and I'll be your host this afternoon. So I'm excited to welcome our guest today. With us we have Amy Hennessey who is director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Economic Outreach Program. And also we have Dr. Raphael Bostic who is our new bank president. Welcome!
Raphael Bostic: Thank you. It's good to see you, Julie.
Kornegay: It's good to have you. So I wonder if you could talk for a moment about the Federal Reserve Bank and our mandate for maximum employment. Why is that so important for the Federal Reserve as well as for our viewers?
Bostic: So, maximum employment is really important. If you don't know, the Federal Reserve has two mandates. One is to have a stable price level so that businesses can plan and families can make decisions about savings with some degree of certainty about what that money's going to be worth in years to come. And the second is maximum stable employment. And the idea there is we want an economy that provides opportunities for as many people as possible, but in a way such that we don't see a lot of volatility in the marketplace so there are large swings, so lots of jobs come out and then people lose a lot of jobs. So we try to keep it stable. And that stable level is a maximum employment rate. And once you get maximum employment that really gives everyone an opportunity to have jobs and have livable wages and pay and really pursue the quality of life that they wish.
Kornegay: Wonderful. Well, so, what got you interested in economics?
Bostic: So anyhow, I got into economics kind of by accident. I was a psychology major in undergrad at Harvard and wound up just taking an intro to economics class. And it was a class that everybody took. So, you know, I did it because that's what you're supposed to do. And I got in there and I just fell in love with it. It was interesting. It was intuitive. It was relevant for the real world. And so for me it just became something that, it's like, yes, I understand this, I see how it works. And then coupled with my psychology background, it gave me a really good setting, a feeling for how the world works. And I had always had an interest in policy, so it became a natural for me just to pursue it.
Kornegay: With all of the options from a bachelor's degree to a PhD in economics, what are some career paths that could be considered with a background in economics?
Bostic: Economics is just so important. And it's widely applicable. So it fits for a lot of different types of jobs. So I was just meeting with a bunch of energy CEOs to talk about how the energy sector is working. And every one of those companies has analysts that have economic backgrounds. So they can help companies make plans and decide about strategies for how to be productive.
You know, I was thinking clearly you could come work at the Bank and you could be a Bank supervisor or a research economist and really help us think about how the economy works. You could be a professor. So, I was a professor for 16 years and got to teach the next generation of leaders about how economics works and allow them to be in a position to make good decisions. You could even actually go work for a sports company. Right? So many sports teams these days have what they call analytics where they try to figure out just on the margin what players are going to be giving them that extra bit to get over the top. A lot of those skills are skills that people learn in economics program. So there are many, many different ways that you could go. And you could work for government, right? So you could be city manager, you could be a treasurer. There are many, many things in many ways to play. So I would encourage people as you think about your careers to don't forget about economics. It's something that fits in a lot more ways than I think people understand.
Kornegay: Wonderful, wonderful. So, aside from being the 15th president of the Atlanta Fed, what has been your most rewarding experience as an economist?
Bostic: See, that's a hard question because I'm an old person now. So I've had lots of careers and done a lot of stuff. For me, I would say they're probably…you've asked for the most rewarding, which is…
Kornegay: Well, if you have more than one…
Bostic: I'll say a couple. So, one, when I was working at HUD as an economist there, I actually got to work on some fair housing issues.
Kornegay: So, Housing and Urban Development.
Bostic: Yeah, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And I got to work on fair housing issues, which is really an issue around getting people equal access to quality, safe, stable housing, which then allows them to get on a good trajectory. And we did lots of stuff to really improve people's ability to have that access. And, you know, I was very excited and pleased that we could create an environment so people could actually thrive.
And then a second thing is, it happened almost every week in class where, you know, we're teaching a subject. You see at the beginning of class someone was a little confused. And then there's that moment where it flips. And you know that they know. And there's something that's incredibly rewarding when you see your work put someone else in a much better position. And that reward just is a gift that keeps on giving.
Kornegay: Well, I guess at this point we need to see if we have any questions from the audience. Amy, is there anybody that's....
Amy Hennessy: We do. This is coming to us from our Facebook Live. What do you see as important skills over the next five to 10 years for students who are exploring economics career?
Bostic: So, I think in terms of skills the things that I would be thinking about first—and I don't even know that this is a skill, hard work and perseverance. Right? So, quality and character. The things that we need answers for are not the easy things anymore. And we've solved all the easy problems. So, when we were in a world where there are hard problems to be solved, we need people who are going to work hard, dig deep into the issues, be willing to do a lot of research and try to be creative in finding new solutions. Definitely, math is important. So understanding how math works, the basic skills around math. There's some degree of history. I think that, you know, understanding how we came to where we are and why the institutions that exist have the structure that they do…
Hennessy: Provide context?
Bostic: That context is critical. And it will really give you an opportunity to…or will give you an opportunity if you're doing economics to understand the range of things that could be possible tomorrow. So as you start to make recommendations we can do that. Another skill I would say is public speaking. So much of persuasion, we're going to do an analysis, we're going to try to figure out, you know, how to convince someone that my view is right and my understanding of the world is right, you're going to have to talk to them. You're going to have to speak to them. You need to be compelling. You need to be coherent and be able to talk in plain language so that everybody can understand it. And that's super important.
Hennessy: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. We have an additional question. There are relatively few African-American economists. Why is it important to have diversity in the economics profession? And do you have some suggestions as to how to achieve that?
Bostic: So those are really two different questions. You know, the first is, what does diversity matter? And, you know, diversity matters in part because people bring their own life experiences to every issue and every problem. And it's sort of like if you think about an elephant. If everyone is blindfolded and they touch the elephant from their perspective, they may be feeling the trunk, they may be feeling the tail or the leg or the side of the body. But it's all the elephant. Right? And if you don't have all those perspectives and all those voices contributing to trying to find solutions, there may be parts that we miss and we don't incorporate. And then the ultimate approach or the lesson that we learn doesn't work for everyone. And so we need to make sure that we introduce that diversity so that whenever we grapple with the problem we're hearing all the perspectives and we have a deeper understanding.
And one more thing I would say on diversity is that different people from different backgrounds actually ask different questions. So there may be some questions that are really important to some parts of our population that are not so important to others or maybe haven't even dawned on others. And so giving a voice to those sorts of perspectives can also be quite important and useful. And finally, I think that people will learn differently when they're around people who are not like them, right? So, just having the mix becomes a special sauce of diversity of togetherness, which I think can generate new ideas and new approaches that you probably wouldn't come up with on your own.
You know, I do a lot of my research with coauthors. And one of the reasons I like to do that is because the coauthor sometimes ask a question I had never thought of. And it sparks us down a whole other line of thinking and usually it really improves the final product. So I'm a big fan of diversity. And I try to bring interesting perspectives to all the work that I do.
Hennessy: That's critically important. You've obviously come from a research background. Do you intend in your new role as our president and CEO to continue doing some research?
Bostic: Absolutely. You know, I love research.
Amy Hennessy: Do you have plans?
Bostic: There's a reason I became an economist. I really love it. I love doing the research. I'm curious, you know, I really enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and trying to create new information. So I've got lots of projects that I'm trying to get moving. Some stuff on financial literacy, which I know you care about a lot.
Hennessy: Yes, we all are passionate about that.
Bostic: I'm doing stuff on housing markets and housing finance. I'm actually doing some work even on how historical patterns of segregation are driving house values today. So even after those formal rules have disappeared, there's a legacy. And the impact can last over a longer period of time, and that's important.
Hennessy: Well, how do you develop policies to address those without answering those questions?
Bostic: Exactly, exactly. And if you don't really know, sort of, the baseline foundation of things it's really hard to understand, or actually to come up with policy. You can understand things but to come up with policies that really address the fundamental issue that we're facing. That's important. And there's always work that we're doing to try to better understand the housing crisis. And what got us into the Great Recession so that we are prepared and can make sure that never happens again. So that's a big goal for me.
Hennessy: Yes, I agree. Yeah. What words of advice would you have for high school students who may be watching today as they make choices even beyond whether they pursue a degree in economics?
Bostic: I guess there would be a couple of things. First, learn your passion, right? Find out the things that you really like and understand why you like them. Because, you know, almost every job I've had there are good parts and bad parts to it. And it's easy to do your work when you're in the good parts part. When you're in the bad parts part it could be a lot more challenging. And so when you love what you do, it makes it easier to wrestle through those bad part moments. And so finding that passion will help you work harder, work more sustained, be more creative, and ultimately, I think, be more successful. So, I think that's a first thing.
The second thing is, don't be afraid to say you don't know. Right? So, too often…I know I've been in situations where…I was in a meeting today where a guy used a phrase I thought I knew what it was but I wasn't really sure. And so I asked him, when you said that, what does that mean? And, you know, there's an assumption the president's supposed to know everything. But that's actually not true. Like, nobody knows everything.
Bostic: Right? And so being willing to say you don't know and ask, can you please explain something? That really helps, I think, round you out so that when it comes up again you really do know. And you don't suffer in silence and perhaps have an incorrect perception of something. So, I would say that's a second thing.
And the third is like, pay attention to people who you view to be successful. And ask questions. Because, you know, a bunch of people have lived before you. And they've gone through stages and challenges. And to be able to draw from that wisdom and maybe learn lessons they learned the hard way so that you don't have to learn it the hard way, that's actually the best way to learn.
Hennessy: Yeah, I agree. And piggybacking off of that, do you have a mentor or someone who has helped to guide you?
Bostic: So, I've had a couple of people. You know, whenever I give thanks for my career path I always give a thanks to Glenn Canner. He was my first boss after I got my PhD at the Board of Governors at the Federal Reserve. And he was a great boss. He mentored me. He gave me access to interesting questions. He let me have some independence about how I worked. And he trusted the team was a team. And he allowed us all to have our own voice. And so coming right out the box, you know, I was able to leverage the environment he established to gain some confidence, to learn how to work effectively and do well.
A second person is Susan Wachter. So, she's a professor at the Wharton School at Penn. And I didn't know Susan for a long time. And in 1998 and '99 we were at some conference. She came up to me, she said, "I'd like you to be my special assistant. I'd love to be an assistant secretary. Come be my special assistant." And so I went to work with her, kind of, sight unseen. And we worked very well together. And since then she's just kept an eye out for me. She invites me to conferences. We've done some papers together. And she's made sure that I've been in the right place and been aware of things, which has been really good.
The last person I would say is Don Brown. And these are professional mentors. I should say I have people on my family side as well. I was thinking much more on the professional side. Don Brown, he always seemed to be around in pivotal moments when I was in grad school. So if I was having a bad day or a bad week or something that frustrated me and I was like, "I can't do this anymore," Don would always be there to offer some wisdom to say, either, I know you're frustrated, and the reasons you're frustrated are right. So, like, own it. And what are you going to do about it? Don't just wallow around and feel sorry for yourself. And sometimes he'd be like, no, you'll just have to work harder. Right? So, get up, buckle down and make it happen. And he was very instrumental in me getting through my program.
Hennessy: Oh, that's huge. Yeah, so we have another question from Facebook Live. How important are internships for young people?
Bostic: Internships can be a great way to learn. I personally never had an internship.
Bostic: I never did. It was my error.
Hennessy: And look at you now.
Bostic: So there are many pathways. Right? But, you know, internships can be really important and really useful. Mainly because they give the intern like a bird's-eye view of what it's like to do a certain job. Right? So a lot of people when you take a job it's the first time you're actually in that environment. And you're learning about whether you like the environment at the same time that you're learning about the job. And that can be difficult. And you may find out you like the job but you hate the environment or you hate the environment but you love the job. An internship can give you an opportunity to make assessments and have a deeper understanding for yourself about these things. And if you're in a good internship where either you shadow someone who's doing real things or you're given a project and asked to really interact with the rest of the staff can be really, really helpful. So, you know, I'm a big fan of internships. We have internships here at the Bank.
Hennessy: We have a great program.
Bostic: And so if you're in our area… I think we've had interns even from people not in the Atlanta metro area. So, for those of you out there, if you're thinking about an internship, you should definitely consider the Bank because it's a great place to work. And I think you'll learn a lot about yourself and about some of the issues that we work with.
Hennessy: Yeah, I agree. So, here's one for you. Economics is a tough sell for students sometimes. How do we make it a more attractive major when it's commonly referred to as the dismal science?
Bostic: Yeah. I've heard the dismal science thing.
Hennessy: Yeah. I don't agree with it.
Bostic: Yeah. I don't agree with it, either. But, you know, I would say a couple things on this. One, there's a lot of lingo in econ. Like, a lot of lingo. And economists sometimes we can go overboard on lingo to make it so that the issues don't seem accessible. It's like, they're too crazy things you don't want to be talking about. And I don't see how it really fits into the world that I live in. So I think trying to ground it and things that people live. So, everybody lives economics every day. Right? When you decide you've got to get that apple or that shirt, you're making decisions about other things you're not going to have or do. When you make decisions about taking one course over another you're starting to think how do you allocate your time and your resources to achieve the goals that you have for your life? When you decide whether you're going to study for another hour or you're going to go, that's a labor/leisure type of breakdown. So, trying to find ways to have the economic concepts really show up in real world.
You know, it's the same thing. A lot of times people would complain, you know? I don't understand why you need to know algebra. And, you know, that's another one, we use algebra every day. And part of the challenge is that if it's always 3x + 2y = 14, right? That's a bit of an abstraction. And sometimes it's really helpful to bring it to ground so that people can say, oh, when I was at the store and I had to figure out how many extra apples I can buy, how many more apples I can buy with my $4, right, I was doing algebra. It's that kind of stuff that can be super, super helpful.
Hennessy: I couldn't agree more. So, how have you overcome obstacles or barriers to success in your career?
Bostic: So, one, I think, is just be doggedly relentless. Right? And, you know, so much of life is really, the first time someone says no, you know, you can't just accept that. Or if something doesn't work out the way you wanted the first time, that's not the time to just go home and go turn on the TV. No. It's time to recommit yourself to work hard and to really say, I'm not giving up. Right? And not giving up is important.
A second thing is to reach out to people and ask, this didn't work, why? People who you trust and who, maybe, have been successful before, take advantage of their knowledge and try to learn. Because sometimes, it's rare that there's only one pathway to success or one pathway to a goal. And so, as you go through life, you're going to learn lessons. And then the important point is to incorporate those lessons into what you do next and what you do next. And if you do that well, by the time you get to a certain level, a certain stage of your career, you've amassed so many lessons that you earn the total package. Right? All those weaknesses and weak points and things that you weren't so good at, through living and learning you can make things that were weaknesses real assets and strengths.
And one other thing on this is understand where your weaknesses are. So, I worked hard to know where I'm not good at. And then work hard to get better at those. So, focus energy to those things where you know you need growth. So, I used to tell my students all the time, when you're going to do group projects, and I would say in your group I know there's some people who are better at the finance or better at the design or better at the writing. Right? Don't let them do those things. They're already good at those things. You should do the things that you're not good at and have them help you as you move forward. And that's really how you can improve and grow.
Hennessy: I couldn't agree more. So, we have another one from an educational reporter, actually in Oklahoma City by Facebook Live. So, shout-out to Oklahoma.
Hennessy: Yeah. And it seems that while economics is obviously a math heavy field, it's also philosophical. First of all, would you agree with that assessment? And second, what can we do to ensure future economists have a solid moral/ethical background and understand the various implications of their research just like other scientists should?
Bostic: So, that's a very good question. And that's a question that, I think, is left out of a lot of discussion about economics. So, economics is not normative. For instance, at a very basic level. It doesn't say whatever the outcome is, that's where we should be happy. What economics is really a model of if you take it to its furthest extreme it says we want to find a way to maximize the total amount of resources in the economy? Right? We call that surplus. But it's the amount of extra profit, the amount of extra savings. Economics is silent on—once we have that big pot of money—how it should be distributed. And that's where the normative comes in. And that's where the moral and the values come in. And so, in a lot of our policy discourse we spend a lot of effort to try to maximize the total amount of surplus. The conversation about once we have that surplus and we find out where it lands today, is that where we wanted to ultimately be distributed or how we wanted to ultimately be distributed, we don't directly have that conversation. Now, there it's complicated, right? So, we know that if people are given large lump sums of money there's less incentive to work, less incentive to invest in themselves and invest in the system. And so that's an issue. We also know that by intervening in the marketplace, by doing things to change those distributions you can create unintended consequences. So there's a feedback loop that also exists. So we need to recognize all those things, wrestle with them, and then figure out at a societal cost-benefit level whether we're happy with how things are today or whether we need to think about trying to get to a different kind of equilibrium. But this is a hard question. But it's an important question and is one that we definitely need to have.
Hennessy: I couldn't agree more. So, now we're closing in on time. And I thought it would be interesting if you would share with everybody your avocation, the birdwatching and your passion for birds.
Bostic: Oh, my gosh. You put this on Facebook after that?
Hennessy: Is that OK with you? That's awesome.
Bostic: That's fine. Yeah.
Hennessy: Because it's important, I think, to understand there's a balance, right, in work/life?
Bostic: Yeah. So there is a balance. Yeah.
Hennessy: And you just took a really fascinating trip, too.
Bostic: I did.
Hennessy: I think that the students watching would love to hear about.
Bostic: Yeah. So, I'm a birdwatcher by training. By training? By hobby. I've trained myself to be a birdwatcher. And for me I love the birdwatching because it's a hobby that makes me get away from work. To do birdwatching well you have to be very present in the moment. You have to be very carefully listening around. Because most of the time when you find a bird you'll hear it before you'll see it. And so your brain has to be fully focused on where you are. So, a lot of times, if many people leave work they'll have something on their mind and they'll go for a walk. And the whole walk they're thinking about the stuff at work. Right? And they never really get away from it. So, for me, birdwatching is that escape because I can't be thinking about other things while I'm doing that or I don't see any birds. And then it's not as relaxing as it could be. Yeah, so we just went to Tanzania and we did a safari for a week. It was fantastic. And we saw more than 180 different bird species on the trip. And it was definitely a highlight. I really, really enjoyed it.
Hennessy: Oh, I bet.
Bostic: You know, the friends who went with me, I know they were sick of me. Stop the car, stop the car, stop the car. But it was really a lot of fun.
Hennessy: Have you organized your pictures in albums? Put them out there on social media?
Bostic: We have pictures. You know, I actually don't take pictures, but my partner does. And so we got a lot of pictures that we're trying to sift through. So, hopefully, at some point we'll have them ready for public display.
Hennessy: You should do a Lunch and Learn for the Bank.
Bostic: Sign me up.
Hennessy: No, I know that your time is very precious. And we've thoroughly enjoyed having you join us today.
Kornegay: Yeah, definitely. So any outgoing, or any advice as we wrap up for the students that are maybe graduating from high school and looking at different programs and something that they can take forward into their next step in life?
Bostic: Yeah, as I was saying earlier on the show, learn your passion. Understand your passion. Understand who you are and why you like the things that you like. And if you do that, choices that you face in the future become easier. Now, they won't always be easy. There are maybe multiple ways you might go. But it'll allow you to narrow on the space of things that you want to do.
And then the second thing is you don't have to have all the answers about what you want to do for the rest of your life today. Right? So, if you had asked me 18 months ago if I was going to be the president of a Federal Reserve Bank, I would have said, "Absolutely not. There's no way that's going to happen." But always be open to possibilities. And imagine the possible as you go through life. And try to see opportunities in everything because there are more opportunities out there than I understood when I was growing up. And so that can be my lesson to you. Keep your eyes open.
Kornegay: Yeah, great.
Hennessey: Excellent advice.
Kornegay: Well, I'm afraid that's all the time we have today. Thank you for joining us. It's a real honor to have you here.
Bostic: It's been great to be here. This has been a fun job.
Kornegay: Oh, good. The video that we have today has been recorded and it'll be on our website at frbatlanta.org. On behalf of everyone here, we'd like to thank you for joining us. And tune in October 30 for our next Maximum Employment Matters exploring careers in financial services.
Transcript: Interview with Paula Tkac
Julie Kornegay: Hello. Welcome to Maximum Employment Matters. My name is Julie Kornegay, and today we're here with Paula Tkac with our research department. Welcome, Paula.
Paula Tkac: Thank you, Julie. It's a pleasure to be here.
Kornegay: Well, it's a pleasure to have you. We're exploring careers in economics, and you are currently... you have a PhD in economics in our research department. Why don't you tell us a little bit about, you know, what drove you to this field?
Tkac: Well, when I was in college, I was at the University of Chicago. I took a wide variety of classes, and each of them was sort of intellectually challenging. But I think I was drawn to economics because in class I saw that it presented a way of making sense of the world around me, and I liked the fact that I could take the things that I was learning and apply it to almost every aspect of my everyday life, if I was at the grocery store, if I was at the doctor, if I was reading the newspaper. And so, it really, to me, had that great appeal of being both intellectually challenging but also very connected to the real world.
Kornegay: When did you really decide that this was something you wanted to go to long term?
Tkac: Well, I'm a bit of an anomaly in that sense. So, I was in college and a real go-getter. So, I took my first econ classes, and there was an option, or an opportunity, afforded to me to begin taking more advanced, in effect, graduate classes without going through the entire undergraduate curriculum. So, somewhat spur of the moment, I decided, "Hey, I'm good at this. I really like this." And, I had the mathematical background to be able to take that opportunity, and I did. And so, for me, it was about being able again to push myself intellectually and do something that was ambitious and challenging and hard and exciting, but again, at the same time, just allowed me a lot of creativity in terms of what I studied and where I could go with it. So, I never really saw it as narrowing myself down at a very sort of early stage.
Kornegay: It's funny you mentioned math, and so, it's like, "Ooh, math."
Kornegay: What advice would you give to the students or anyone who is looking for a new career path in economics? What type of math classes would you recommend?
Tkac: Well, if you want to purse a PhD in economics with a research career goal, then taking a lot of mathematics is a prerequisite. It's a necessary condition, and that would be mathematics beyond calculus, so real analysis, some differential equations, depending on what you're doing maybe even some topology, a lot of advanced statistics and econometrics. Again, depending on the area in economics that you go into, you can become very, very, very mathematically sophisticated and get into Hilbert spaces and all kinds of abstractions—
Kornegay: OK, you just lost half our viewers. I'm just kidding.
Tkac: But I think that's the best part of economics. It's easy for me to get a student excited or interested without any mathematics as well. So, it shouldn't stop people from taking a principles class and wanting to be an econ major. Getting a PhD, it's just like if you wanted to be an astrophysicist. You'd have to take a lot of math.
Tkac: But a lot of people would really benefit and probably really enjoy taking that first astronomy class or that first physics class. You start to learn about things and see how much you enjoyed it, how much you want to work to be on the forefront of that field, and that's really kind of what we're talking about at a PhD level, is really pushing the knowledge forward.
Kornegay: All right. Well, what the favorite part of your job? What gets you up in the morning, gets you excited?
Tkac: Well, I'm going to circle back to what I said at the beginning. I think the best part about being let's say a researcher, or someone involved in the policy process, is there's always a new question to answer. And so, I have a great degree of autonomy in my job in deciding what are the questions that I want to go after, what are the questions that are important for our Bank president to think about as he goes up to Washington to weigh in on monetary policy. And so, formulating those questions, tracking them down, and getting answers that I feel confident about, sometimes, even when, you know—we don't have 20 years to get a lot of information and be able to have the value of hindsight and we have to do it in the moment—all of that is really challenging and really exciting. And again, it probably came out in most of my answers, but the intellectual challenge for me is a lot of fun. And so, that for me is the most important and kind of most interesting part of my job.
Kornegay: Yeah. So, it sounds like you have a really unique ability within your job to research and to look into things that... it's not the same thing every day, essentially is what I'm saying.
Tkac: No, you don't.
Kornegay: A lot of variety in what you're able to do and even maybe choose some pet projects or areas of interest that you can specialize in.
Tkac: Hmm, yeah. The economists that work in our research department each have areas of specialty that they've chosen since they were PhD students that they focus on, and research projects can take two years, five years sometimes to really sort of dig deep, and again, push that forefront of knowledge out. And that's a particularly gratifying sort of undertaking. Equally gratifying are these, sort of, more dynamic types of projects that come in from the policy aspect of our job. It's a little like... I talk to folks in more business careers. The policy part is a little more like business. The world's changing around you, and you need to figure out how can we adapt, what will make the business successful. We're kind of doing similar type things here, but with respect to monetary policy. How do we understand how the world is changing? The research side is the part that's a little different than a typical corporate career, because we do have the ability to go deep and to take the time that's necessary to really do a good job and be rigorous.
Kornegay: Good. So, I know we get a lot of students that want to come to the Fed and to have an internship. What is your experience with working with some of the interns or the young people that come in as analysts? What advice do you have for these folks that have already committed to their role in economics?
Tkac: Well, we do get a fair number of interns in across the Bank, and a lot of them are interested in pursuing a major in economics or potentially thinking about graduate school. I'm also the mother of two children, now 26 and 21. So, I've been through sort of that cycle with them thinking about how to approach a career. And I think maybe the biggest piece of advice... two, actually. One is to look for role models wherever you are along many different dimensions. So, you might see someone in your internship that is really smart, and you say, "Boy, I would like to be as on top of it as that person." And you might see somebody else who just really deals with people well and think about, "Yeah, I would really like to be able to work in the group or to lead the way that that person does." So, try to look for different role models instead of, sort of, just thinking you're going to find one thing to shoot at. Try to pick and choose.
The other part I think is, for those of us that are a bit older, we all know that if you work hard and you apply yourself and you're creative you'll be, you know, reasonably successful. So, look for the things that you do like and are good at. You can't always do them and get people to pay you for them, but if you're creative and you're out there looking, you're more likely to work hard and to do a good job at the things that somehow excite you. So, I would say, although there's a lot of angst about getting a job and putting your time in, and you are going to have to do a bunch of things that, you know, you probably don't find very fun at the very beginning, there's always something to learn. And, if you can find at least a place—whether it's the Federal Reserve Bank or another firm—where something about it really captures your imagination and again, you see folks who are doing things that one day you'd like to do, that's the kind of signal you should look for as you try to pick a direction. And shoot for something that really inspires you, as opposed to something where you just think, "Well, this is the only choice I have or the way that I need to move." Those things usually in the end don't end up working well, and people end up choosing something different among many other things.
Kornegay: So, a lot of times you hear economics called the dismal science. How do you feel about that?
Tkac: Well, I never understood it, quite frankly, and I think sometimes it may come from how we've typically taught principles in college and maybe even how, quite frankly, sometimes it's taught in high schools. You get into abstract concepts like supply and demand very quickly. You start talking about the national economy, and for a lot of folks, you know, when you're in high school, [or] you're 20 or 21, these may seem like things are not very attached to the world that you live in. Some folks really get energized by thinking about those questions, and so, for them, economics is a natural place to go and they get excited.
But others, actually like myself, didn't find that particular part of economics the part that really inspired me. Instead, I was more drawn to the power that economics has to explain the world around me. So, you know, if I'm driving down the street and I see two gas stations on different corners and they have exactly the same price up on their signs, well, why is that? Well, economics can talk to you about that. If I'm thinking about a start-up and I want to decide if this is a good business idea, I start thinking about, "Well, what would I be providing of value? How much would people be willing to pay for it? What are my costs going to be? How can I become more efficient?"
Those are all questions about economics that are very tied to things that we do every day, and so, for me, when you see it that way and you see it as a way of thinking about the world, a way of making sense of what's going on around you, then it becomes endlessly interesting because you can run at any topic you like and apply economics or economic thinking to it. So, you know, I had professors in graduate school. I have friends that have applied the economic paradigm, the way of thinking, to thinking about what we call "marriage markets," so how people actually pair up and who ends up marrying who, how to help people who are battling addiction, thinking about how to help people get skills that are going to be needed so that they can have, you know, a better standard of living and higher wages and a more successful career. You can think about it as a way to manage a baseball team better. The principles of economics really speak to any of those situations. So, for me, once you see that part, saying it's not interesting is like saying nothing in the world is interesting. So, as long as you have the world as your playground...
Kornegay: That's fascinating.
Tkac: ... It's just an entry point for kind of going and playing around and understanding how things work.
Kornegay: Wonderful. Well, do you have any final thoughts for us this morning?
Tkac: I guess the last thing I'd like to leave people with, and hopefully I've given you a little bit of a peek at what economics might be about, how it might be applied to a variety of different careers or different interests, I think... I don't know that I've yet met a person who studied economics at some level, maybe it's just one class, who hasn't found it to be useful once they're out and working and voting. Again, it really is about the world that we all live in, and so, to the extent it helps you make sense of that, I think one of the things I've found as I've gotten older, I hear more and more that people want to learn more about economics and they see the value that it has. So, I think, you know, if you have a chance to take a class, you won't regret it.
Kornegay: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate you coming and joining us today on Maximum Employment Matters. And we hope you join us again soon at frbatlanta.org. Thank you for joining us.