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Andy Brownback

Andy BrownbackK-State graduation year: 2010
Degree: BA Mathematics and Economics
Other degrees received: University of California, San Diego
Current employer:  University of Arkansas
Position: Assistant Professor of Economics 



How many times, if any, 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.

After graduate school, economics PhDs typically use a centralized system called the "Econ Job Market" to search for jobs. Employers--whether they are universities, federal agencies, or private companies--post jobs on this system, and new PhDs apply to as many as they want. If an employer is interested, they will typically interview you at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association. If you survive that round, you then go on to a "fly-out," where you present your research and meet your potential colleagues. It was through this process that I ended up at the University of Arkansas.

To find the best PhD program for me, 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.

During the semester, part of my job is to teach classes, hold office hours, grade exams, and do other sorts of work associated with graduate and undergraduate education. The other part of my job is to conduct research. This may involve data collection online or in the economics laboratory, which is a controlled environment where we record subjects making economic decisions. It may also involve analyzing data, writing papers, applying for grants, or preparing presentations.  

As I PhD student, I taught classes, held office hours, graded exams, and do any other sort of teaching work for about 20 hours each week. My research then filled 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. I also help managed 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 can overflow into nights and weekends, which makes it hard to ever really take time off work. Perhaps the most difficult part is maintaining a balance.

What advice would you give someone interested in your field?

Take lots of math classes since that is the language that economists use to communicate. 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. This will also give you an idea if you even want to do research for a living, which is certainly good to know before you start graduate school.

Has your career path taken any unconventional turns that you never would have expected?

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 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?

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 a specific person in college who had a significant impact on your life or career?

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.