Economists research how to allocate scarce resources. They can focus on businesses and individuals or even governments and their economies. There are all kinds of careers for economists, ranging from management consultant to investment analyst to sociologist. If you want to be an economist, you can look forward to working for big business, the government or academia.
Understanding Economics 0:54-3:11
What Is An Economist 3:11-6:18
Career Paths In Economics 6:18-7:14
Skills For Economists 7:14-8:02
Personality Types for Economists 8:02-9:21
Education for Economists 9:21-12:27
Mentors for Economics Careers 12:27-14:20
Is A Graduate Degree in Economics Necessary 14:20-17:28
College Career Centers are Important For Economics Careers 17:28-18:35
Career Paths for PhD Economists 18:35-19:40
Economic Consulting Careers 19:40-23:47
Career Changes For Economists 23:47-26:34
The Fun Side of Economics Careers 26:34-27:05
Keys To Success for Careers In Economics 27:05
Careers Out There Host Marc Luber: Hey everyone – on today’s episode of Careers Out There, we’re gonna explore the career path of being an economist. We’ll be talking to Ben Wilner. Ben’s a PhD economist in Chicago with over 20 years of experience: first he was a finance professor at some of the top universities, and today he’s a litigation consultant at the global accounting firm of Grant Thornton.
On every episode of Careers Out There, we explore a career path by talking to a real professional who does that kind of work. They tell us what it’s really like and share all kinds of advice to help you decide if it’s the kind of path you want to pursue. I’m your host Marc Luber and since I couldn’t even get through Econ 101 in college, I think today is gonna be a learning experience for all of us! It’s gonna be a great show so stick around.
[theme song] OK we’re back – Ben, welcome to Careers Out There.
Economist Ben Wilner: Hi Marc.
[UNDERSTANDING ECONOMICS starts at 0:54]
Luber: Thanks for being here. So I said in the intro Ben that I couldn’t get through Econ 101 in college. I really couldn’t.
I was at University of Michigan, I was taking Econ 101 and the rule with that class was that of the 3 tests before the final exam, you could only drop the class after the 2nd test. The first test I got a C-minus and the second test I got a D. I usually would get an A or a B so for me to get a C or a D meant RUN! So I ran from the class, cancelled it the second I could, got out so it wouldn’t ruin my GPA and I was always devastated. I felt like an idiot and I felt that I wanted to get into University of Michigan’s undergraduate business program and that immediately gave me the boo t from that opportunity and I wound up going down the law path.
So when we talked on the phone and I told you that I had this issue, you told me that that wouldn’t have happened had I had the right teacher. I thought that was really interesting, because not only did it make me feel like less of an idiot, but it leads to my question, which is do you really feel that way? Do you really feel that most people could grasp economics with the right teacher?
Economist Ben Wilner: I think so. Because one of the things that I’ve found is that economics is like a foreign language and should be taught as such.
As an example, I have a course knowledge of French. So if you put me in the middle of Paris, I can say “how much for the baguette”, “where’s the Metro”, things like that. But if someone asks me a question in French, what I have to do is I have to translate that question in English, come up with an answer in English and then translate it back into French.
And doing Economics is exactly the same thing, where you have to go and take an economic question, translate that into English, use your English logic to come up with an answer and then translate that answer back into the economics language. When I talk to another economist, I can talk from econ to econ because both of us are fluent in that language.
But so often what happens is professors go and teach like the people understand the economics language, but really you need to go and understand the language in order to go and learn it.
[WHAT IS AN ECONOMIST starts at 3:11]
Luber: Very interesting! I like that. I can relate to that from the level of the Grateful Dead or Phish. When I talk to someone who doesn’t know those bands, I feel like it’s a different language! And I like to find when someone does know my language there. Ha! I understand what you’re saying. I love that. Tell us this. What is an economist?
Ben Wilner: An economist is someone who goes and studies how to allocate scarce resources. And those resources can be anything from goods and services to money to crops and strange services that you could never even think of.
Luber: Huh. Now tell me this – when I see economists on TV, they’re always on cable news and they’re always talking about the economy of our country, which is in bad shape right now. And they’re always talking about our country’s economic situation. Is that what most economists do?
Ben Wilner: No. There really are 2 types of economics. There’s something called microeconomics, which is the study of business and individuals, and macroeconomics which is the study of how countries and economies run. So when you see an economist on the news a lot, often times you’re seeing macroeconomists who go and study how the economy as a whole is going to run and make predictions about how the economy’s gonna go.
I was a macroeconomist early in my career and then as my career went on I moved over and now I’m much more of a microeconomist.
Luber: So then a microeconomist is more likely to be found at something like a big company analyzing that company? Like let’s say I work at Apple and I’m a microeconomist at Apple. What am I doing for Apple?
Ben Wilner: So what you’re doing is you’re looking at how consumers would react to the latest product that you’ve developed, what prices potentially you should charge for the product as well as studying what new products are out there and what competition can do to your own pricing.
Luber: OK. Very good. So I want to talk about some of the different examples of career paths people can go down with an economics degree but first I want to talk about what you told me over the phone when I asked you that same question. You said that economics is really a way of thinking. Does that come down to the same kind of thing as speaking the language that you were saying earlier?
Ben Wilner: Yes. So what economics comes down to is a couple basic principles. And once you understand those principles, you can go and apply them in a multitude of different contexts. And so for instance in microeconomics, the key thing is to go and for each additional you would go and get something until and keep getting that one thing until the cost becomes sufficiently high and then you stop going and getting it.
So it’s just that with that one concept goes and drives just about, not just about every, but a fair number of different applications of economics.
Luber: So it’s really all about just grasping that thinking style.
Ben Wilner: Exactly.
[CAREER PATHS IN ECONOMICS starts at 6:18]
Luber: So once you’ve grasped that thinking style, what are some of the different career paths that you can go out and apply it to?
Ben Wilner: Oh there’s so many different career paths that you can do. You can become a straight economist such as myself, you can go be a lawyer, you can go be a sociologist, you can go an investment analyst, a management consultant, there’s just so many different ways in which you can go and apply that economic way of thinking. And so that’s why I think it’s really good to go and have an undergraduate degree in economics, so then when you go potentially to grad school, you can study something specialized but you know the field of economics and have that economic underpinning that you can apply.
[SKILLS FOR ECONOMISTS starts at 7:14]
Luber: Huh! I’m gonna ask you more about that educational path in a little bit. I want to get into that – the issue between just getting an undergrad degree and then going on to grad school. So we are gonna get to that. And I also want to get to your specific path and what you do as an economist, but first I’m wondering who in our audience should consider becoming an economist? Let’s start by talking about skills. What skill sets should people bring to the table?
Ben Wilner: So there are 2 main skill sets that I really think that you need to bring to the table. One is a strong background in mathematics. So much of what I do is very mathematics-based. And the second thing is solving puzzles – because what you’re often times asked is you come up with a question and then you go and use economic thinking and try to put various pieces together in order to come up with the right straight economic logical answer.
Luber: Are you one of those people who does the Sudoku things in the newspaper all the time?
Ben Wilner: I do the Sudoku, Kakuro, KenKen, all that good stuff!
[PERSONALITY TYPES FOR ECONOMISTS starts at 8:02]
Luber: All of them! Wow! Nice! Ha! What about personality type? Would you say this is a path for introverts?
Ben Wilner: You can either be an introvert or an extrovert in doing this. If you’re an introvert, a lot of times you can go and just sit there and solve puzzles and present it to someone who can go and explain it well. Or if you have both an introvert and extrovert in you, then you can go and not only do the models yourself, but you can go out and explain the models as well.
Luber: Huh! And you were saying something to me over the phone about if someone is an introvert, it’s possible to pair up with an extrovert? How does that work?
Ben Wilner: Sure. So what you do is as your career evolves, you will go and there are extroverts who can’t go and do a lot of the modeling that an introverted economist can do and so as time goes on you find a symbiotic relationship and you can pair up together and you both can do very well.
Luber: I like that! So that way anyone can fill in their missing personality aspects with the other partner and then be a killer team!
Ben Wilner: Exactly.
[EDUCATION FOR ECONOMISTS starts at 9:21]
Luber: That’s very cool. So let’s get to education then. Let’s talk about high school first and if someone’s watching and they’re in high school and they love Sudoku, they love math, they don’t need a calculator as much as I do, they might want to be taking some classes right now, right? What classes should they start looking at right now in high school?
Ben Wilner: Sure so not only should you see if your school offers any economics classes, that is key, but then also study mathematics. The more math you know, the better you’ll be able to handle economics.
Luber: OK. So as many math classes as possible.
Ben Wilner: Exactly.
Luber: Then what about this? You told me that in high school you knew you wanted to be an economist. So let’s say there’s other people watching right now and they know it too. They’re convinced this is their path. This is their calling. They’re in high school now. What should they be doing? Maybe their parents are watching on their behalf right now. What should they be doing in terms of choosing a college? What should they be looking for?
Ben Wilner: Sure, so what you want is a college – a big college often times have great economics programs where they have people who do all the disciplines such as microeconomics, macroeconomics and everything in between. So you can go and best study under various professors. I was lucky to study a Nobel Prize-winning macroeconomist when I was an undergraduate as well as a microeconomist and my career evolved from there.
Luber: OK. But people don’t HAVE to go to a big school necessarily, right?
Ben Wilner: No, not necessarily. There are often times a lot of small schools. But you don’t have the breadth of economics faculty at a smaller school as you do at a larger school.
Luber: Would you say that people need to look for colleges that have good graduate business programs? Would that help ensure that the undergraduate classes for econ would be better?
Ben Wilner: Not necessarily.
Ben Wilner: There are a lot of great economics departments which are separate from business schools. For instance, my undergraduate degree is from the economics department in the college that I went to and my PhD or doctorate is from the economics department within a business school.
Ben Wilner: So it can work either way.
Luber: Alright, great! And then I assume the best major for someone to become an economist would be economics?
Ben Wilner: That would be a good assumption!
Luber: I’m smart! I’m smart, Ben!
Ben Wilner: But then again, if you go and take mathematics, that can also help you along in the process.
Luber: Got it. I picture Good Will Hunting when I picture the mathematics. When you major in econ, do you learn this way of thinking? Is that the main focus of the classes? To learn how to think this way?
Ben Wilner: It really is. So you need to go and get that way of thinking down and that’s one of the most important things I think you can walk away from as an undergraduate in economics.
[MENTORS FOR ECONOMICS CAREERS starts at 12:27]
Luber: And so you were fortunate enough to find this mentor who was a Nobel Prize winner, which if you guys can find Nobel Prize-winning mentors, go for it! That’s my advice for you! Definitely go for it! What would you say, then, about – it’s obviously always important to have a good mentor because it helps to get that advice as a young person from someone who’s seasoned and experienced. They can give you a leg up for sure and help you avoid some pitfalls, mistakes and just grow faster.
But I would assume in this field, it’s gotta be even MORE important since it’s a way of THINKING, to have that person you could talk to to kind of learn how to mold your brain that way. Is that the case?
Ben Wilner: Oh, very much so. You need people who can go and teach you in English the way of thinking. And to go and explain it in a way that is not in a foreign language to you. And then once you get that way of thinking down and once that person teaches you, then you can go running and you’re off to the races.
Luber: Maybe that was my problem! I don’t think my T.A. at Michigan even knew English! Ha! You told me you would definitely advise people to hunt down a mentor. That was something you stressed on the phone, right? Do you want to say anything to everyone about mentors?
Ben Wilner: So again, one thing that mentors do is they’ve been down the path before. They know what you’re going through. They know the ups and downs of going into a career. If someone can help guide you to the path, because going down a path in a career can sometimes be a lot of ups and downs to it – and a lot of downs – and so the more that you can get a mentor helping you through those downs, the better off you are in your career and the more you can just continue on through those down times.
Luber: That’s excellent. Good advice. You have a PhD in economics.
Ben Wilner: I do.
[IS A GRADUATE DEGREE IN ECONOMICS NECESSARY starts at 14:20]
Luber: I want to get back to that issue that we mentioned earlier. The difference between getting a PhD versus just getting a Bachelor’s. What would you say people need to think about? Do they need to get a graduate degree in econ?
Ben Wilner: So if you want to go and apply the way of economic logic and economic thinking, you can just go and get an undergraduate degree in economics and then get something specialized such as a business law or whatever degree afterward. But if you want to go and be an economist, you really need to go in and study economics as an undergraduate and then in graduate school.
Luber: OK. And what is it in graduate school, if you’re learning the way of thinking in undergraduate school, what are you doing beyond spending lots more money in grad school?
Ben Wilner: Sure. So in graduate school what you’re doing is you’re learning how to apply that way of thinking in the math language. And once you learn the math language in your first year of graduate school, you can then go and apply it in many different contexts, many more contexts in graduate school then you can as an undergraduate.
Luber: So then can people just getting the undergraduate degree go out and get jobs?
Ben Wilner: Oh, very much so!
Ben Wilner: There are so many jobs out there, again, such as being a management consultant, such as going to do additional study to become an accountant, you can work within finance, you can go work within businesses studying how to set prices for various products. There are so many different things you can do with just an undergraduate degree in economics.
Luber: And if you have that undergraduate degree and you’re out there in the working world, would you be considered an economist? Or are you not considered an economist until you have the graduate degree?
Ben Wilner: Well unlike something such as a CPA society, where you go and say if you pass a test you can call yourself an accountant, there’s no governing body which says who can call themselves an economist and who can’t call themselves an economist. So you’re not precluded from calling yourself an economist, but really to go and study and do true economics, you need some kind of graduate work.
Luber: OK. Is that Bill Clinton over your shoulder?
Ben Wilner: Actually it is! I was lucky enough to meet him at an event and I got my picture taken with him!
Luber: Very nice! That’s very cool. Have you met Alan Greenspan?
Ben Wilner: I’ve heard Alan Greenspan speak in a room with about 100 people before.
Luber: Wow – intimate!
Ben Wilner: But we did not meet.
[COLLEGE CAREER CENTERS ARE IMPORTANT FOR ECONOMICS CAREERS starts at 17:28]
Luber: OK, very good! That’s a very cool picture. So, career counseling. You were telling me that because there’s so many different paths that someone can take with an econ major that it’s actually really important to go to the career counseling department at your college because there isn’t really a set internship kind of program for someone who is in school looking to get a career in economics. Is that right? Can you explain that?
Ben Wilner: That’s right. Because there really isn’t anything like in accounting where you could just follow a path to go and become an accountant. So because there’s so many different things to do, it’s really helpful to go talk to your career counselors who will help you understand the various different paths you can go down as an economist.
[CAREER PATHS FOR PhD ECONOMISTS starts at 18:35]
Luber: OK, good. And you guys should always take advantage of your career counselors because those people are awesome – they know what they’re talking about and they’re there to help you – AND you’re paying for it when you go to school.
So many people pay for it and don’t ever use the services. I know I didn’t – beyond choosing a major – I used it for that help – but not a career counselor. I think they’re really helpful and you guys should take advantage of that.
What would you say is the difference, then, for someone coming out of school with a Bachelor’s versus coming out of school with a graduate degree like a PhD? Does that provide totally different job markets to each candidate and different compensation levels?
Ben Wilner: Yes it does. In going and once you get a PhD, there’s a convention every year, the Allied Social Science Association just after the new year in cities that vary. You go and you interview with various schools and other companies and governmental institutions and other institutions that are hiring economists. So you go and you interview there and that’s only open to people who are going and getting their PhD.
Going and studying with an undergraduate degree, there really isn’t any formal process to go and get a job. It’s really all kinds of different ways and really using your career counselors who can help you down the process.
[ECONOMIC CONSULTING CAREERS starts at 19:40]
Luber: OK. Let’s get to a specific career path so that someone could learn the details of what is happening to a day-to-day basis. Tell us about what you’re doing! Tell us about your line of work now as a litigation consultant.
Ben Wilner: Sure so right now I’m a litigation consultant. What that does is when companies sue each other, so let’s say Company A sues Company B for alleging that Company B did something wrong. Lawyers often times come to economists such as myself to go and help them with the economic , financial and statistical portions of their cases. So that I might be hired to go and calculate how much damage B should owe A because of what B allegedly did. And I could be hired either by Company A’s attorneys or Company’s B attorneys.
Luber: So you’re sitting down with them, you’re applying your special way of thinking to their situation to help determine what that whole suit’s value is.
Ben Wilner: In certain cases, yes.
Luber: OK. And what would happen on a typical day? What type of things would you be doing on a typical day of your work?
Ben Wilner: Well really there is no typical day. Some days I will go and be reading all kinds of documents and studying up about cases. Other times I’ll be running numerical models to go and quantify some aspect of the case.
Luber: So as a litigation consultant, then, are you – and I’ll use this term since it might make sense to a lot of people – are you an expert witness?
Ben Wilner: Yes. That’s what I do is I’m called on to be an expert witness where I will go on the witness stand in the courtroom and go and say what I believe to have occurred.
Luber: So is it as dramatic as everyone sees on TV?
Ben Wilner: Sometimes! But a lot of times things are played out and you know what questions you’re going to get and there are very few Perry Mason kind of moments.
Luber: Ha! And then what’s it like- when you’re sitting on the stand, either in the courtroom or in a deposition, what’s the feeling that’s going through your head? What’s it like to be on that hot seat?
Ben Wilner: You really need to know your facts, know your information, because there’s someone there who’s asking you potentially very tough questions to go and really question and try to disprove some of the things you’re saying.
Luber: Got it. So is someone in your role expected to bring in clients to the business?
Ben Wilner: Yes. So that’s one of the things that I really need to do is go and network and meet with attorneys and go and show them what I and my colleagues can do to really help them help their own clients.
Luber: OK. And so your role, though, you’re not considered a sales person, it’s not like you’re out there as a sales person earning commission. You’re paid a salary, you just need to develop business for your organization that you could bring in and then handle.
Ben Wilner: That’s correct.
Luber: OK. Got it. What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of this?
Ben Wilner: The most rewarding aspect is going and one – solving puzzles, and when you come up with the right answer – and a lot of times it’s very elegant. And also helping people – because a lawsuit can be very contentious and if you can go and do something positive within the lawsuit, that’s always a great thing.
Luber: Nice. What about the most challenging aspect?
Ben Wilner: The most challenging aspect is going and trying to solve the puzzles because the puzzles can sometimes be hard and so you need to study it a lot, think about it from 10, 12 different ways and be able to come up with the right answer.
[CAREER CHANGE S FOR ECONOMISTS starts at 23:47]
Luber: I want to get to the topic of career change – because you’re someone who went through a career change. You weren’t always a litigation consultant doing expert witness work. You were a professor. Talk to us about that. First tell us what it was like to be a finance professor and then led you to change course.
Ben Wilner: Sure. So originally I was a professor of finance at a couple universities within the Big 10. And I went and did everything you’re supposed to as a professor: I did teaching, I won teaching awards, I got published in all the right places, and I consulted businesses. I loved doing all 3 but I didn’t really like the proportions I was doing them in as a junior professor.
So I went and talked to mentors and talked to people to advise me and I really went and decided you know what – I can still do those same 3 things of teaching, research and consulting, but do it in more proportions that I like. And I found litigation consulting and it’s something that I’ve been doing for about 15 years now.
Luber: So how did you make that change? Think of this in terms of other people are watching who feel trapped. Often people who are considering a career change – I don’t want to say wimp out, but they get scared – they don’t pull the trigger. So if you could share the advice on what helped you to make that jump and make it happen and look how well it’s worked all these years – share some advice to maybe help other people who are stuck.
Ben Wilner: Sure. So when I went and decided I wanted to leave academics, I went and called an old professor of mine – someone who I knew and I liked who went on to a new career. And I went and I called her to go and ask her about making a transition and when I went and talked to her, she told me about what she did and it sounded very exciting and something that I really liked.
So I wasn’t planning to go into the career that she was in, which was litigation consulting, but I went and doing informational interviews and talking to people who you might know doing various things and might help you go and come up with careers that you didn’t even know existed.
[THE FUN SIDE OF ECONOMICS CAREERS starts at 26:34]
Luber: Yup. That’s awesome. Informational interviews are DEFINITELY the way to go. Such an amazing way to meet people and learn what else is out there and what’s it really like. That’s kind of what this site is. That’s what I always did – when I wanted to break into the music business and then the recruiting space – just sit down with everybody, talk to them, and learn firsthand what it’s really like.
Let’s talk about this -you were telling me something that surprised me. I think of being an economist as a VERY serious career. To me it SCREAMS SERIOUS! But YOU told me it’s a FUN career. How is it fun?
Ben Wilner: Because again, if you like puzzles and going and trying to solve the puzzles, then once you solve the puzzles and come up with answers and get the a-ha moment, it can be very exciting and very fun.
[KEYS TO SUCCESS FOR CAREERS IN ECONOMICS starts at 27:05]
Luber: OK! Excellent. So let’s do keys to success. Let’s get some advice for everybody. Wear the mentor hat and give everybody that’s watching a leg up by sharing your experience and give some keys to success to them so that they can go out and kick butt as economists.
Ben Wilner: Sure. So it’s again: study hard. Go and really look for what is the logic behind an economic question. It’s so very easy to get lost in mathematics and so if you go and look for the logic. There’s a lot of great books out there – for instance there’s a book called Freakonomics which was written recently which goes and takes the economic way of thinking to all kinds of different contexts: everything from drug dealers and how the drug dealer network works to many other different contexts.
And so a lot of ways that you don’t really think about economics being applied, it goes and applies the economic way of thinking in English, which a lot of people can understand.
Luber: OK, so you highly recommend that book. You say everyone should check out Freakonomics.
Ben Wilner: Yes.
Luber: I’ll put a link to that – an Amazon affiliate link to Freakonomics on the page so that everyone could check that out. Well this is all great, great advice. As always everyone at Careers Out There, we’re helping you find a career that fits you so you can love what you do like Ben does here. Ben, thanks so much for joining us today!
Ben Wilner: Thanks Marc.
Luber: Definitely appreciate it. You guys, I hope this was helpful to all of you. Please leave your feedback, your questions and your comments in the comments section below the video at Careers Out There dot com.
You can find episodes of Careers Out There on BlipTV, YouTube and iTunes and of course at Careers Out There dot com. Thanks again for watching everybody. I’m Marc Luber and look forward to seeing you again soon. Take care.
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