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Andy Brownback

Brownback pic 2015K-State graduation year: 2010
Degree: BA Mathematics and Economics
Current employer: University of California, San Diego
Position: Ph.D. student

How many times did you change your major during college?

I’m not sure, but at least twice. I always had mathematics as a major but switched around from engineering to just math to math and economics.

Describe the process of choosing your major:

I have always loved math and was looking for a practical way to utilize it. After taking economics and realizing how much math there was under all of the practical intuition, I was sure that economics was what I wanted to study.

What activities/organizations were you involved in while in college?

Economics club
Delta Upsilon fraternity
Ichthus campus ministry

Did you complete an internship or have related work experience prior to receiving your job?

I worked at a few economic policy organizations in my sophomore and junior years and after my junior year I went to Honduras on a research trip through the agricultural economics department. That summer I also interned with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. They were all rewarding experiences in different ways and they helped me learn to apply my knowledge and skills and learn new ones. Perhaps most importantly these experiences led me to new and interesting places in the world, which gave me a broader perspective on my studies.

Describe the process of finding your first job (interview process, networking, time spent searching):

I looked through a lot of graduate school books and guides. I searched endlessly on the internet, scouring rankings and message boards for information about the quality and style of various programs. I also consulted with my advisor about where she thought I would fit and where I would be able to get in. In the end, all this research didn’t significantly affect my decisions on where to apply, but in a few instances it did help when I was unsure about particular programs.

Briefly describe a typical day at your job:

I teach classes, hold office hours, grade exams, and do any other sort of teaching work for about 20 hours each week. My research then fills in the remainder of my time. In that regard I have a lot of freedom—I can study where, when, and how much I choose to. Of course, my job prospects after graduation will be a function of how hard I work, so I try to keep myself busy.

I also help manage the EconLab at UCSD. This is a controlled environment in which the record participants making economic decisions. This information gives us insight into nuanced economic mechanisms at work on the individual level.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love designing and executing economic experiments. It's the closet thing to an adrenaline rush you can get in academia. Your goal is to design an experiment that removes all confounding factors before subjects ever enter the laboratory, which is an absurd task given that you are working with human subjects who will enter with all sorts of different experiences. Attempting to simplify a complex decision-making process down into a single choice takes a lot of work, careful reflection on human psychology, and some very strategic planning.

Once the experiment has begun, it is all up to you to navigate the variability that human subjects bring while maintaining the designed controls. This requires a lot of flexibility, quick thinking, and improvisation. It's really fun. 

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

It’s a large commitment of time and effort, so there’s no easy way to deal with the workload. It is stressful and tends to consume many of my nights and weekends. Perhaps the most difficult part is making sure that my job remains my job, not my life.

What advice would you give someone interested in your field?

Take lots of math classes since that is most of what economics graduate school is about. Real analysis, probability theory, and calculus are critical, so make sure you do well and understand those classes. You can also separate yourself by starting research while still at K-State.

Has your career path taken any unconventional turns that you never would have expected?  If you’ve made a complete career change, what has the journey been like? 

I didn’t think that I would like the particular fields of economics that I ended up enjoying. I had never even heard of experimental economics until I started grade school, and my first instinct was extreme skepticism. Just like any researcher, I'm still extremely skeptical of my field, haha, but I love it.

How have any changes in your life situation (marriage, family, changing locations, etc.) affected your career path? 

It was hard to move away from Kansas, but in light of all the opportunities a big city offers, in the end it was a decision that I’ve found really rewarding. Other than that, both of my sisters have gotten married. I guess that's a change, probably didn't affect my job, though.

What tips do you have for current undergrads about opportunities they should definitely take advantage of while they are in school? Were there any experiences you missed out on that you wish you would have participated in?  

I never studied abroad but I did spend a semester in Guatemala and a summer in Honduras, and I think those were the most rewarding and enlightening experiences of my college years. So in that regard I think going abroad for whatever reason is really important. It gives you interesting experiences, cool stories, and new perspectives on things you took for granted. There have been very few people who are unimpressed when I say that I was in Honduras when there was a military coup!

Was there a specific class you remember that sparked your interest in your career direction?

Public economics was a great class for me as far as understanding the relevance and practical implications of economic intuition. It definitely solidified my desire to be an economist.

Was there one specific person in college who had a significant impact on your life or career? Who was it, and how did they affect you?

My advisors were great in both economics and mathematics. They always took care to get me settled in the best schedule and the best classes. Also, one of the professors in the agricultural economics department helped me more than I will ever deserve. He was great to talk to about the role economists can and should play in the world.

What didn’t college teach you that you wish you would have known before you started your career?

I felt a bit sheltered since Kansas is so different from other parts of the country and world. I wish my college experience impressed upon me the importance of experiencing other cultures.