I recently caught up with Professor Kowalski, below is our conversation about her career transitions, where she finds new research questions, and her advice for students considering careers in health research.
Erin: Although your home base is Yale University, you’ve taken sabbaticals at Stanford University, the Brookings Institution and now Princeton. How has the structure of the different institutions you’ve worked at inspired your research questions and research collaborations?
Kowalski: I’ve definitely seen my work shaped by my location. I can point to parts of my research and explain how certain places influenced them. Sometimes physical proximity matters immensely, especially for developing productive relationships with other researchers.
Almost all of my research is on health care. At Yale, my office was located in a building with colleagues who had a diverse set of research interests that did not necessarily include health care, but most of us shared a common interest in methods. Given that my environment provided frequent engagement with methods, it was natural for me to focus on how I could bring cutting-edge methods from economics to research on healthcare.
From 2011 to 2012, I spent a sabbatical year at the Brookings Institution. The lunch conversation that I had with colleagues at Brookings was so policy-relevant on a day-to-day basis. It gave me a set of questions that I wanted to answer. During my time at Brookings, I also started a collaboration with colleagues at the Treasure which was nearby to Brookings in DC.
At Stanford, one thing that I really liked was the applied microeconomics seminar at the Graduate School of Business. It would routinely draw at least ten faculty members with a wide breadth of topical expertise—from labor economics, to public finance, and econometrics. I was also close enough to the Stanford Medical School to start a collaboration with a PI of the Women's Health Initiative and I’m currently working with the data.
In the Center for Health and Wellbeing [at Princeton] there are a lot of people who study health from a variety of disciplines. One thing that I really enjoy about being here, is there is at least one MD who comes to the economic seminars regularly—Karl Le Roux who was visiting from South Africa. It’s been fun and productive to get feedback from an MD without having to solicit it externally. There are a lot of interesting things going on at Princeton. Janet Currie just has such a breadth of work; she writes papers that are excellent at the nitty-gritty level, and she also pulls together syntheses of the literature. I especially enjoyed a keynote address that she gave this summer that pulled together a range of research on “inequality in mortality over the life course: why things are not as bad as you think.”
I can’t say that one way of organizing an institution is better than another, but it has been important for me to be flexible and to consume the “steak at the steakhouse.” It makes more sense to think—how can my research be informed by the resources that are available to me in a particular place? I’ve done a lot to seek out these different resources and experiences.
Erin: What was your path from undergrad to both figuring out that you wanted to study economics and to find your niche within economics?
Kowalski: Over time, the path looks clearer and more linear than it actually was, but, I can point to some formative moments in my economics career. As a junior at Harvard, I took a very small class with Professor Benjamin Friedman on the moral consequences of economic growth. He took an interest in my writing and I later worked for him as a research assistant. I also wrote a thesis under Professor Martin Feldstein, who also took an interest in my career. I started to think that given my interest and skills, I could help more people by being a health economist as opposed to being a doctor. I had taken all the pre-med courses at Harvard, but at the time, I saw being a doctor as a lot of individual-level patient care. I saw myself as someone interested in health at the population level.
Erin: Did you begin your PhD after undergrad or did you work first?
Kowalski: After Harvard, I still wasn’t certain whether I wanted to do a PhD in economics, and I spent a year working as a research assistant at the Council of Economic Advisers in the White House. The Council is staffed by economics professors who are on sabbatical to provide advice to the administration, so I got to know more economics professors in that capacity. I had some time to do research, and I decided to apply to graduate school. In my admissions essay, I wrote, ‘I know that I want to study important questions in health policy but I want to get a PhD in economics so that I can understand the tools that I need to answer them,’—and then the rest is history! It’s funny—I look back at my admissions essay, and I am doing exactly that.
Erin: Can you tell me about what aspects you enjoy about being an economics professor?
Kowalski: The teaching and mentoring component of being an economist was something that was an unexpected delight for me. It’s been fun to see people go from not really understanding methods to understanding them. Currently, I have a team of four full-time research assistants, who have undergraduate degrees and are interested in pursuing PhDs in economics or related fields. They get to see the day-to-day of economics before they have to delve into the math required in a PhD program. I’m hoping this exposure will give them more of an end-goal and an understanding of what life will be like after a PhD.
I didn’t know what a professor’s job entailed until I started doing it myself, despite the fact that I interacted with professors all the time as a student. One thing that really surprised me was how much professors travel—I spend my days meeting with co-authors, going to conferences, giving seminars, talking to my research assistants. I’m not just sitting in my office doing proofs. I especially enjoy presenting in economics seminars, where much of the exchange of ideas in economics occurs. When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t really understand that continuing education for professors occurs through seminar. It’s really exciting how I get to see my colleagues across the country, even around the world, through seminars.
Another aspect economics that excites me is that I can talk to my colleagues in various places, and we basically use the same language and the same methods to look at the world. Economics provides a very powerful toolkit that people can use in a variety of fields. It doesn’t matter whether I’m training economics, business leaders, or future doctors, if they learn economics, they will be able to consume research with a more critical eye.
Erin: What advice do you typically give to undergraduates who are might be interested in healthcare or health economics?
Kowalski: I was a pre-med economics major at Harvard, which meant that my classes were normally huge. Some of the best advice I received was to enroll in a course with a small class size. That class was an opportunity to get to know a faculty member and to have him actually read my work. I think it behooves anybody to get to know a professor as opposed to just being in a huge class with problem sets.
When I have undergrads in my office who are interested in majoring in economics, there are several pieces of curricular advice that I give. One is to take statistics and econometrics early on because you will be able to engage with your other classes on a deeper level. Studying econometrics early, perhaps before macro, is a good way to take a great number of advanced classes as an undergrad.
Erin: How can economics students take an interdisciplinary approach to global and public healthcare?
Kowalski: I think interdisciplinary work is very important, but before you can do good interdisciplinary work, you need to understand your own discipline. I recommend diving deeply into a single discipline in your undergraduate years and even in your graduate school years. It’s been very productive for me to have done that deep dive before starting interdisciplinary collaborations. I’m currently working with scientists who run the clinical trials and political scientists who study the political economy of healthcare. Generally, I find that when people become interdisciplinary too early, the thing that suffers in economics is that they don’t get as much of the technical background, and the technical background is really what sets economics apart from other fields.
Thank you for taking the time to share with us Professor Kowalski.