Ten Questions

February 18, 2013 12:01 am

Emily Oster

Emily Oster

Emily Oster: "Too little effort is made to actually explain the content of our research to people outside academia."

Emily Oster is an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, which she joined in 2009 after working for two years in the economics department of the university and studying for a PhD at Harvard University.

The daughter of two economists, one of whom – Sharon Oster – is former dean of Yale School of Management, Prof Oster grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. In her spare time, she enjoys writing about economics for a popular audience – she recently published an article questioning the pricing strategy of Mattel on different Barbie dolls.

Prof Oster’s first book, Expecting Better: How to Fight the Pregnancy Establishment with Facts will be published in August 2013. It uses the tools of economics to empower women to make better decisions while they are pregnant.

1. When did you know you wanted to teach?

I’ve always loved doing research. I remember doing a research project on the Babylonian numeral system in the eighth grade and thinking, this is pretty awesome – is this really a job you can have? This led me toward a career as an academic, although it took me until college to realise that economics was the right field.

2. What do you enjoy most about your job?

My best day is one when I’m just far enough along on a project that I think I know what the answer is and I have the data to figure it out for sure. The greatest moments are those when you see the result pop up in a graph or in your statistics analysis – that moment you realise you know something no one else does and you get the pleasure of thinking about how to tell them.

3. What would you do if you were dean for the day?

Call my mother, Sharon Oster, to ask for advice.

4. What academic achievement are you most proud of?

Getting into graduate school. The first time I applied I was rejected everywhere. I spent a year doing a full-time consulting job plus a part time research assistant job, desperately trying to change the results. The second time I got in everywhere. I’m proud of the outcome but also that I pushed myself to try again.

5. What is your biggest lesson learnt?

Be careful and thorough. When you think you are done – when you have convinced yourself that your findings are right – go the extra mile to make sure you can convince others. If all that happens is that your argument becomes more convincing, great. If you end up finding a flaw, better to have done that before you show off the result. I learned this the hard way early on and it’s ultimately had a big influence on how I work.

6. What is the worst job you have ever had?

My first summer in college I worked in a fruit fly lab where I had two jobs: dissect the fruit fly larvae brains and incinerate the old tubes of flies. The former task gave me RSI and the latter involved the worse smell I have ever experienced. The next semester I enrolled in more economics.

7. How do you deal with pressure?

Poorly. But since I’ve had my daughter I have found the ultimate pressure release is to come home to her and realise as long as she is healthy and happy everything else can be managed.

8. What advice would you give to women in business?

Outsource everything you can. I think women – relative to men – tend to feel that they have to do the household chores on top of everything else. This becomes even worse once you have kids. It’s enough to have a full time job, a full time job plus a family is even more. You do not have to also do the grocery shopping. The men you work with probably aren’t doing that or at least are less likely to do so. If you can outsource it, do.

9. What is the last book you read?

Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday. It was interesting, although there was perhaps a bit too much glamorisation of child-bearing in settings with 50 per cent infant mortality and about 10 per cent maternal mortality.

10. What is your plan B?

Be a writer – specifically, communicating research results to a popular audience. I think too little effort is made to actually explain the content of our research to people outside academia. It lessens the value of what we do and it means people aren’t making their best decisions.

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