Career Day: Economist

Tell us a little about yourself and about your job.

My name is Martha Stinson and I live in Alexandria, Virginia, right outside Washington, D.C.   I have a Ph.D. in economics and work for the U.S. Census Bureau, helping to collect, analyze, and distribute data about households in the United States.

What does your job entail?

The Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department of the Federal Government and our job is to collect data to inform policy makers about what is going on in our country.  I work for the part of the Census Bureau that collects data about households.  I help figure out how to ask questions that people will understand and know how to answer accurately.  After the data are collected, I help process it and get it ready to distribute to the public.  I also analyze the data myself.  My area of focus in the economics field is labor markets, meaning that I study where people are employed, how much they earn, and how this is correlated with other events in their lives.  Some of my current research projects include studying the effect of graduating from college in a recession, the effect of sharing an employer with your father, the effect on children of maternal employment, and the cumulative effect of choices about what type of job to hold on your wages when you are 40.

Why did you want to become an economist? What drew you to the profession?

I took my first economics class by accident.  I was accepted to BYU but didn’t realize that you had to register early or classes would fill up.  When I finally tried to register there were very few classes left and so I ended up enrolling in a 7 am Economics 110 class, which of course had plenty of spots left.  In spite of the early hour, I loved the class and at the end, my professor said I should consider a major in economics.  I decided I had to take Calculus first and if I could manage the math, then I would study economics.  Math had always been hard for me and I hadn’t enjoyed my math classes in high school.  To my surprise, I really liked Calculus, probably because I saw it as a tool to study economics.  So at age 19, I decided to become an economist.  I’ve been studying or working in this field ever since.  I like that economics is mathematically rigorous like physics or engineering but studies people instead of natural forces or inanimate objects.

What kind of education/training is required? Any post graduation requirements? 

For my job, a Ph.D. is required.  This usually takes 4-6 years and requires at least 2 years of classes, with competency exams at the end of each year which must be passed in order to continue in the program.  The main requirement is a dissertation which usually consists of three chapters that describe original research projects.  A Ph.D. requires patience and the willingness to be a poor student for a long time!  It also requires independence and creativity in solving problems.  No one will tell you how to write your dissertation or how to solve the problems you encounter along the way.   Most of all, completing a Ph.D. requires persistence.  You will be thoroughly sick of your topic before you are done and you just have to keep going till your advisor is satisfied that you have done enough.

What kind of job opportunities are there in your field?

With a degree in economics, there are many job possibilities in business and consulting.  Economics is a college major that teaches people to think logically and to analyze how people and companies will respond to the incentives they are given.  But it can be applied to almost any area of human interaction, not just business.  In addition to banks and large companies, economists work for Congress, the military, almost every federal agency, state and local governments, foreign aid organizations, and both liberal and conservative think tanks who study public policy and how people react to government programs and laws.

In order to advance within an organization as an economist and to pursue independent research projects, a Ph.D. is required.  Some people go straight to graduate school after finishing undergraduate work while others work for a few years first and then decide to return to school.

What types of jobs have you had within your profession?

My first job in economics was as a teaching assistant at BYU.  I graded papers and tests, and held study sessions and office hours to answer questions.  I loved this job because it felt like peer mentoring.  I was helping fellow students get through the same classes I had taken.

My last summer at BYU I got a job as a research assistant for two professors and learned to write computer programs to analyze data.  My love of data was born that summer and I have been working with data of some kind ever since.

I went straight to graduate school at Cornell University after finishing at BYU and while there I worked both as a teaching assistant and as a research assistant.  At the end of my third year, the professor who would become my advisor hired me to work on a new project he was starting in Washington, D.C. and I became a survey statistician for the Census Bureau.  This job was very similar to the research assistant jobs I had held while in school except that the data were many times larger and my job was to prepare data not just for my professor but also for the public.

When I finished my PH.D., Census made me an offer to stay as a staff economist, a position I have now held for 11 years.  In this role, I manage some data products and conduct independent research.

What is the best part of your job?

My favorite part of my job remains writing computer programs to analyze data.  Learning how to turn my analyses into useful information that provides insight into how our economy works is the challenge that excites me and makes me want to go to work.  I believe that good government policy is evidence-based, meaning when a new policy is tried, we collect data about the results, which in turn shapes future policies.  I love knowing that Census Bureau data is used for everything from counting how many school children live in a district, to assigning representatives to Congress, to calculating the unemployment rate, the poverty rate, and the rate of health insurance coverage among people who live in the United States.  Data matters and the better the quality, the better our public policy decisions can be.

What is the worst part of your job?

Working for the federal government can be challenging.  This past fall due to budget disagreements in Congress, we closed for 2 1/2 weeks.  When we returned I had two major deadlines that were only 2 weeks away but which still needed 4 1/2 weeks of work.  That made things really crazy for me.

Federal government workers often have a bad reputation.  It is hard to hear news reports of people complaining about how we are overpaid and do nothing when my colleagues and I work so hard and are all paid much less than private-sector economists.  Everyone likes to feel valued and appreciation can be hard to come by as a government employee.

What’s the work/family/life balance like?

When my son was born, the Census Bureau agreed I could work part-time.  Federal government pay for economists is significantly lower than the private or university sectors so it is hard to hire qualified, well-trained people.  Census was anxious to have me stay since I had already worked there four years and they knew what kind of worker I was and that it would be hard to replace me.  Hence they were willing to be flexible with my hours.  I continue to work part-time to this day.  For eight years I worked 16 hours (2 days) a week.  Over the last three years, as my youngest child went to school, I have slowly increased my hours so that I now work between 28 and 30 hours a week.  That means three days a week I can pick my kids up from school and get them to piano lessons, gymnastics, sports practice, etc and one day each week I am completely off work so I can do errands and take care of things at home.

I am able to have a fulfilling career and still have time for my family because I successfully draw boundaries at work and yet am still able to accomplish substantial work that benefits my employer.  There are three key things I have done to make this work:  be paid hourly, work in a team environment and establish successful working relationships with my team members, and work efficiently when I am on the clock but don’t agree to more than I can reasonably accomplish.   My reasoning behind each of these suggestions is the following:

Hourly pay:  When I was pregnant a good friend told me that if I agreed to work half of the regularly required hours and receive half of a regular salary for the position, I would end up working extra hours but not being compensated for them.  This situation causes many women to decide that part-time work is a bad alternative because they end up working more hours than they originally planned but get paid far less.  So Census and I agreed that I would be paid by the hour.  I have a set number of hours I have to work each week but if I work more, I am paid accordingly.  This system prevents me from feeling like I am being taken advantage of and allows Census to calculate the true cost of my output.

Team environment:  My trick to working part-time is to minimize the amount of work I need to do on my days off.  When my kids were babies and preschoolers and I was home 3 days a week, I realized that if I had to spend a lot of time taking care of things for work, this would be stressful and throw off my work-life balance.  Working as part of a team helped solve this problem.  When I worked only 2 days a week, I had a meeting with my team at the beginning of the week.  I then worked on my parts of our project while I was in the office and when I left, I passed things off to another team member.  That team member had my cell phone and knew how to get in touch with me if there was something he needed from me to keep the project going while I was out of the office.  When I returned later in the week, my team passed things back to me.  In this way, I knew our project was moving forward even while I was gone, unless I got a phone call otherwise.  This kept me from having to monitor email constantly on my days off.  While today I am in the office more frequently, we continue to use this team approach very effectively and by passing work among ourselves, we can allow everyone to have time off when needed.

Efficient but realistic work:  I try to never make personal calls or check personal email at work.  When I am at work, I am focused on getting my work done before it is time for me to leave.  I also try to limit social time in the office and I usually eat lunch at my desk.  This means I carefully consider every interesting seminar or office gathering and often conclude that at this point in my career I don’t have time to join the office basketball pool or serve on the social committee.

More importantly I try to be very realistic about what I can accomplish in the time I would like to work and then decline projects that I simply don’t have time for.  This can be painful.  I miss out on interesting work, useful seminars, and opportunities to do things that carry prestige in my part of the Census Bureau.  However, when I remind myself that I am choosing to miss out on these things and remember that the reason is to have time to spend with my children, I feel comfortable with my decisions.  I have found that working hard on the few projects I have time to do and successfully completing them is more than sufficient to earn high marks in my performance reviews and respect from my supervisors.  I now have a reputation for completing important work in less than 40 hours a week and hence have been given more responsibility and more interesting work over time.

What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

People think economics is all about money.  Many people ask me about the stock market, a topic about which I have no special training.

People also think that their private personal data is in danger when the Census Bureau surveys them.  They think we will publish their personal data or give it to the IRS or accidentally put it on the web.  They don’t understand how careful we are with data and how the things they tell us are much, much safer from the public than the things they write on their Facebook pages.  We take confidentiality very seriously at the Census Bureau because we know that public trust is essential to the collection of accurate data.

What opportunities have you had because of your education?

I have learned a great deal about computers.  I have traveled to some interesting places for conferences.   I am able to represent the church and provide a different perspective in circles where most people are not religious and where religion is thought to conflict with education.

What stereotypes or criticisms have you faced as an educated Mormon woman with her own career?

Economics is a male-dominated profession.  I have definitely had difficulties with my male peers over the years.  Some of my BYU undergraduate classmates thought I was wrong to go to graduate school.  When one of them met me some years later at a professional conference, he asked if I still went to church.  On the other side, when I decided to work part-time, one of my male Census colleagues told me I was wasting my Ph.D.

Happily I have never encountered discrimination from people whose approval was essential.  My professors at BYU went out of their way to be helpful to me and to encourage me to attend graduate school.  My supervisors at Census have always been completely supportive of my need to balance work and family and have worked with me to find ways to allow me to be productive and still have time for my family.  My current division chief worked part-time himself when his children were small so he completely understands and supports my need to be home some days each week.

My only real challenge with a supervisor was with my dissertation advisor who was still advising Census on our project when I decided to work part-time.  He was very afraid I would quit completely and tried to talk me out of “taking time off.”  I had to argue hard that working part-time was different from completely “taking time off” and would still enable me to do meaningful work.  I remember saying that I didn’t want to end my career but just wanted to slow things down.  In the end, he not only agreed to let me try a part-time schedule but he set up a team for me to work with and this team ensured my success as a part-time worker.

Criticism is hard and I have certainly shed tears over thoughtless and mean things people have said to me.  However over time, as I become more sure of my career goals, it has become less important to me what others think.

The single most supportive group I have known has been Mormon women in my ward here in Alexandria, VA.  Some of these women work but many of them do not.  However they are universally accepting of others and have supported me in spite of my unusual situation (how many part-time Census Bureau economist – moms are there?).  When my kids were little, they remembered which days I was home from work and planned playdates around my schedule.  They helped me develop a set of friends outside the office – something I didn’t really have before I had kids – and they respected me as a mother.  They even stepped in to help in emergencies.  When my babysitter’s dog died and she called me at work, sobbing, one of my friends took my kids so my babysitter could go deal with her dog and I could stay at work.  I have been very blessed by so many amazing women in the church and feel grateful for their acceptance and love.

What spiritual guidance have you felt as you have pursued your education and developed your career?

My junior year at BYU I went to a seminar for women majoring in economics where the guest speaker was a female faculty member from another school visiting the department for a few days at the invitation of one of the BYU professors.  She scared us all to death telling us stories about leaving her babies when they were very tiny to go back to work full time because that was the only way to remain competitive in the field.  I don’t think she did anything shocking relative to what is commonly done among professional women but she made it seem so harsh – like you had to force yourself to leave your children before you were ready because that was the requirement when you had a job as an economist.  I was pretty far along at that point in my plans for graduate school and I was really upset by the all-or-nothing picture she painted.  I called my mother who had worked part-time for 15 years and had just recently switched back to full time work.  I asked her if maybe I was crazy to pursue an advanced degree in economics.  I wanted to have kids in addition to a career and I wasn’t sure it would work.  She gave me thoughtful and extremely useful advice.  She said that at every step of my life, I should pray about what to do next and Heavenly Father would open the next door and show me the way.  I didn’t have to figure out right then what to do when I had a newborn.  I just had to figure out what to do as a junior in college.  This advice has gotten me to the point I am at now.

After my junior year of college, because of strong spiritual promptings, I took time off from school to go on a mission.  When I came back, I continued to feel strongly that I should pursue a graduate degree and so I researched graduate schools and chose one that I thought was the perfect match for me.  I applied to other schools as back-up but was certain that this school was where I should go.  However it didn’t work out for me to attend that school and I was completely heart-broken.  I thought the door had shut in my face.  But then 2 weeks later I got a call from the director of graduate studies in economics at Cornell, offering me a spot in their entering Ph.D. class that even came with a scholarship.  I had never been to upstate New York and had to look Ithaca up on a map.  I was very scared and uncertain about going alone to a new strange place but I realized it was my chance to fulfill my dream of graduate school so I accepted.

Everything that has happened in my life since came as a result of going to Cornell.  Because I was at Cornell, I had the opportunity to come to Washington, D.C. and work at the Census Bureau.  Within one month of moving to DC, I met my future husband.  The job at Census turned into the perfect type of work to combine with motherhood.  One by one, the doors opened in front of me.  I look back with a great deal of gratitude for the time I have been able to spend with my children and for the interesting professional work I am still able to do.  Both of these have been the result of promptings and guidance from the Holy Ghost at each step and one large divine intervention at a key point to set me on the right track.

I am not a well-published research economist at this point in my career.  But I look forward to the future with a great deal of peace.   I trust that new opportunities will continue to come my way and I know I will never regret the time I continue to take to raise my children.

Any other thoughts, advice, or stories you’d like to share with other women?

I think as LDS women we undervalue the talents we have that are useful outside the home.  Because motherhood requires so much time, the hours we have to spend developing and using these talents are limited.  Hence it is easy to give up on these abilities and decide we only have time for one thing.  But I really believe that this is unnecessary.  Everyone finds their own unique balance of work that involves children and work that does not.  But even if you want to and are able to stay home full time, you can still spend some time each week doing something creative and fulfilling that increases your skills and expands your knowledge.   You will be a better and happier mother and a better and happier person for it.  I wish we could stop seeing these different parts of our lives as competing and rather see them as different strains of a beautiful Bach fugue, playing in harmony to create a complete song.  Sometimes one theme dominates but then another comes and has a turn.  All themes are necessary and valuable- dropping any one of them would leave a big hole.  Heavenly Father gave us the great gift to be mothers but he also gave us all these other abilities.  He doesn’t want us to throw the later out but instead to seek inspiration about how to weave our talents together in a way that benefits our families, the world around us, and us personally.


6 Comments on “Career Day: Economist

  1. This really resonated with me, particularly this line of advice from your mother: “that at every step of my life, I should pray about what to do next and Heavenly Father would open the next door and show me the way.”

    I have a PhD in English (Rhetoric and Composition) and could be working full time, but I’ve chosen to work part time when my kids are little–and it’s hard. Both because my talents are much better suited to being an academic than a mother, but also because I *do* wonder about my career future. But I take comfort in knowing that I’m doing the right thing for me and my family–and I do believe that God will open the appropriate doors for us if we’re trying to follow his directives.

  2. Martha,

    Love your post! We overlapped at Cornell. My wife Liz and I had that well-meaning but (in hindsight) condescending job of “shepard couple” for the YSA in the ward. 🙂 So great to see how things have worked out for you! Thanks so much for sharing your experience here on AMW. We really appreciate it. I am going to be coming through Virginia here this month and maybe occasionally over the next few. I would love to grab a hot chocolate with you (though clearly you are really busy!). A colleague and I are working on a paper on occupational geographical clustering and sex segregation that uses Census data. I would love to get your ideas on it!

    Happy New Year,


  3. I particularly liked this last point of yours, Martha: “He doesn’t want us to throw the later out but instead to seek inspiration about how to weave our talents together in a way that benefits our families, the world around us, and us personally.”

    There are so many ways and outlets for us to use our talents and gifts!

  4. So many things to love about this interview. I have felt guided and directed in my career path and it has been non-traditional from many of my Mormon female peers AND from my professional ones. At every transition I have wondered how the next step could possibly work out – and it always always does, often in ways I never could have anticipated. I love your last musical metaphor – every woman’s composition is different and as women we can be encouraging to one another and appreciate each life in its complexities and variation as equally beautiful.

  5. I liked the part about how your employer decided to keep you on part time because you had, in effect, made yourself indispensable. I think younger women too often assume that our bosses won’t want us once we follow the “mommy-track” so why try in the first place? I see instead a future where employers find their female workers such wonderful assets that they are loathe to lose them and find ways to adapt their schedules to fit women’s families instead of the other way around.

  6. My wise friend. Such sound advice and so wonderful to see someone achieving life-work balance in a demanding & male dominated field! You rock!

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