This 17-minute podcast was released Dec. 18, 2019.
“One reason why the U.S. is still a world leader in terms of academic research is because we bring together so many people from all over the world to come to our graduate schools,” says Oksana Leukhina, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. She talks with Maria Hasenstab, media relations coordinator at the St. Louis Fed, about how her research might inform policies, such as the decision to invest in college education. She also discusses how her childhood in the Soviet Union sparked her early interest in economic systems.
Maria Hasenstab: Hello. I'm Maria Hasenstab, and you're listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today I'm speaking with Oksana Leukhina, a senior economist at the St. Louis Fed. Oksana, thanks for joining me today.
Oksana Leukhina: Oh, thank you for inviting me. I'm happy to be here.
Hasenstab: Tell me a little bit about the work you do here at the St. Louis Fed.
Leukhina: Well, our main goal is to produce high quality economic research that can inform the policy making process. I am a macroeconomist with special interests in economic growth and human capital accumulation. I can tell you a little bit about my recent research on college education, which is joint work with Lutz Hendricks. So in our recent papers, we focus on quantifying financial gains and risks involved in the decision to invest in college education. This is an important question, obviously, from policy making perspective. So if returns to college are high for most students, then policies that encourage college education would be helpful.
So the naive approach to measuring such returns would be just to look at the difference in lifetime earnings. So college graduates and high school graduates. For example, for the generation of man born around 1960, this difference is about 70%. But of course, part of that difference should be simply attributed to the difference in fixed characteristics of these two groups of students. In fact, those students that managed to graduate from college would likely make more money over their lifetime, even if they never went to college. In fact, we find that as much as half of that 70% earnings gap can be attributed to such selection effects, and then the remaining half would be your average return to college investment.
What is novel about our approach is that we actually model how college students progress towards earning an explicit graduation requirement, and this approach allows us to bring college transcript data to the table and tease out some information involved student characteristics that way.
Hasenstab: When you mentioned selection effects, could that include things like soft skills and other characteristics that people might have learned outside of the world of education?
Leukhina: Absolutely. What I mean by ability is actually any set of characteristics that would help you both do better in school and later on in labor markets.
Hasenstab: That's really interesting. This podcast series, obviously we've titled it Women in Economics. When you hear that phrase, what does it mean to you?
Leukhina: So women in economics, what comes to mind I guess is just that life for women in academic in general I think is a bit tougher than it is for men. We know, for example, that teaching evaluations are biased against women, and the studies that show these effects are actually pretty convincing, because they're based on online courses where the same instructors are assigned different names. And basically what we see is that students systematically give a high evaluation for the same exact course with the same exact instructor if they think the instructor is a man. So I find it really shocking, to be honest.
And also when it comes to tenure promotion, economics in particular seems to suffer from gender bias. So a study that comes to mind is a 2014 study in psychological science and public interest, and it follows women in STEM fields. And if you just look at the data and you see that women are less likely to obtain tenure in all STEM fields, however, this gap typically disappears when one controls for publication numbers or journal quality. In other words, if we think mathematics, for example, we can explain why fewer women get tenure relative to men by simply looking at their CV. It is because for whatever reasons, and I'm not going to get into that, they happen to produce fewer publications.
But the funny thing is that when you do that for economics, the gap actually remains even after you control for differences in CV. So I mean, I'm mentioning these studies because I feel like we need to raise awareness of the bias that exist, and I just feel like women have to work a little extra hard trying to be successful in this profession.
But I mean, my personal experience is just I come from academia, so I can attest to that. And I mean, I just feel like we need to have more role models. The John Bates Clark Medal didn't go to a female until 2007. So we just need more role models, and this way I feel like we can encourage talent among high school girls. If we could get them interested in economics we'll have more women and eventually the bias will disappear.
Hasenstab: Well, you mentioned that you come from the world of academia, so can you tell me a little bit about why did you choose economics? And then maybe explain kind of how your career progressed?
Leukhina: Sure, I would like to. So I was actually born in the Soviet Union, which was a planned economy with government controlled prices and production. I was a kid when the Soviet Union dissolved and I actually lived through the episode of hyperinflation and the near collapse of the payment system. So both of my parents are engineers, but at some point my mom switched to be a school teacher. And I remember when she wouldn't get paid for months and months at a time. And so just these memories as a child kind of made me think about economics and I wanted to understand what's going on around me. I wanted to learn how to better design the economic system. And so I think I just have that natural background, but I actually never really planned to study it. Actually, my aspiration was to become an international diplomat. So as soon as I got to college I declared political science as my major and I dreamt of going to the Fletcher School of Diplomacy.
So I think it was the summer in my sophomore year that I changed my mind. And what happened is I was fortunate enough to be a part of the Fund for American Studies Program. That brought together a bunch of students from all over the country, and we all came to D.C. We took econ and poly sci classes in Georgetown in the afternoons, and every morning we would go and work on Capitol Hill. I was interning for Senator Hollings from South Carolina. But the best part of that program was actually that we got to meet a bunch of government officials and we got to speak to them and ask a bunch of questions. And I think the advice that I got from Jamie Rubin – so he was the spokesperson for the State Department at that time, and he basically said that if you want to make it in politics without connections, you need to be a true expert in something so the senators would have to think of your name when something came up and pick up the phone and call you, because you're an expert. And his advice really stuck with me and it made me think hard about PhD programs. And since I always liked math and econ, economics seems to be like a natural choice for me. And I should also thank my economics and math professors that helped me form that plan and just always encouraged me.
Hasenstab: When you applied for that program, that you said where you ended up going to classes at Georgetown, where were you going to school at the time?
Leukhina: I went to a liberal arts college in Charleston, South Carolina. That was kind of a coincidence, maybe. I came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student. It was under the Freedom Support Act, which was an American sponsored program that the goal was to spread democracy. And so I came as a high school student and I was placed in a host family in Charleston, South Carolina, and my guidance counselor told me, “Well, you can go to the citadel or you can go to the College of Charleston.” And I just kind of – well, it was an obvious choice at that point, but I didn't have much information. But in hindsight, I feel very lucky. I feel like I got a very special treatment.
I remember my math professor, Martin Jones, just taught us the caustic processes class just for me and another student going to grad school, because he knew that we needed that class.
Hasenstab: So that was an eye-opening experience when you came over as a high school student, right?
Leukhina: Oh, absolutely. At that time, Russia was so different than it is now. And it was really like coming to a completely different world, a different culture.
Hasenstab: So you've explained why you chose economics. And then after your education you said you went into academia. Can you tell me a little bit about that path; how that happened? Were there specifics topics that interest you that drew you to that?
Leukhina: Yes. So like I said, I kind of decided that I would go for a Ph.D. program. I applied to a bunch of schools and went to the University of Minnesota, which is one of the very top programs in macroeconomics.
And the first year I would say was very challenging, just because there's a known gap between undergraduate education and economics in U.S., and what you have to know and do in graduate school. But I was very lucky to have excellent classmates and I learned a lot from my classmates. So these were the challenges early on, just figuring out what you want to do. And I mean, graduate school is all about investment and your tools, right? So you want to take as many courses as possible, learn the tools, because once you're out you never get a chance to go back and to really, really learn those tools. So here's your chance to invest in your skill set and kind of determine what it is you want to focus on, because it pays to stay focused on the research topics that you select. At least for a while until you establish your name.
Hasenstab: And so you mentioned some of those early on challenges. You want to talk more about those or any other struggles? And how did you overcome them?
Leukhina: Perhaps to give some advice to everybody graduating and getting an academic job or some research based job, I think it's important to develop your network of coauthors. You want to work with people that you can learn from, that you feel comfortable with, that are interested in the same topics and that can really drive your curiosity. And that's a challenge and it takes time, but you have to be active in developing your network.
Also, it's important to kind of reach out to the senior colleagues and make sure they know what you're doing, because at the end of the day, they're going to be writing letters of recommendation for you, and it's important to establish those connections early on and become a regular. Say if you go to an NBR group, you should be sticking to just one or two groups at most and showing up there every summer.
Hasenstab: Yeah. That's great advice.
Leukhina: Thank you.
Hasenstab: Do you want to talk about some of your successes in your career?
Leukhina: Well, just I feel like it's a tough profession to survive. I mean, just the fact that I'm still around and still get to do what I love. And I feel very lucky to be a part of this department, because it's just such a high quality department and every one of my colleagues is just amazing, and I feel like I can talk to them about my research, they can help, and they're interested in similar topics, and it's not that often that you get to have so many colleagues that you can talk to. Typically, if you get a job in a top 30, say, Ph.D. granting institutions, you're going to have just a few colleagues. Maybe one or two sort of in your field, right? So being in St. Louis Fed is actually great, because we have a department full of macroeconomists here.
So I feel like I have been successful in the sense that I am still able to do the work that I love, and my favorite thing to do is just economics research.
Hasenstab: Well, that's great. I wanted to ask you why do you think it's important to have women and other underrepresented minorities in the field of economics?
Leukhina: Well, that's kind of I guess an easy question. I feel that the best ideas come from diversity. So having people from different backgrounds, people with different experiences, I think that's one reason why the U.S. is still a world leader in terms of academic research is because we bring together so many people from all over the world to come to our graduate schools. Just the diversity of ideas coming from people with different backgrounds. I mean, if you think about females and males, I mean, females, for example, make most of the consumption purchases, right? And they do all the shopping, they make a lot of family related decisions. And if you think that families are important for aggregate activities and when we have more women who can offer their own perspective on things. And then just going back to that bias that I mentioned earlier. You know, the biases come from the unknown. The more women we have, the less bias we are going to have in this profession. And there is just so much talent among high school kids, and I feel like if we were to have more role models, more talent would be attracted. Men or women, it doesn't matter. But I think at this point, we definitely need to encourage some of the girls to join us.
Hasenstab: That's a great point: The more women who enter the field, the less it would be an unknown. How were you mentored throughout your education and your career? And do you try to reach out and mentor other economists?
Leukhina: Oh, absolutely. I think mentoring is super important. I reach out on my own, so there are mentors in my life that don't even realize that they are my mentors. I basically seek advice whenever I can get it. If I see an opportunity to get some advice, I will go ahead and get it. But I mean, again, just going back to high school, when I was back in Russia I had an excellent math teacher who just every Saturday, she would come and do math problems with me because she wanted me to represent our high school in various math Olympiads, which is kind of a big deal in Russia. She didn't get anything for it. Nothing. Right? She just kind of came and she did it because she wanted our school to do better. And so I'm thankful to people like her, and the same goes for college. I had excellent math and econ professors in college that spent extra time with me. In graduate school, Minnesota is a very special culture. If I were to do this all over again, I would go to Minnesota. It's just the camaraderie between students. There's a lot of co-authorships going on. You're actually encouraged to coauthor your papers. Lots of students coauthor with professors. It's quite a culture. It's just so much fun, and everything is about economics, you talk about economics, everyone's excited about economic ideas. That's something that is very special.
And personally, I placed a few undergraduate students into top graduate programs, and we keep in touch, and they still reach out to me and ask me for advice. Sometimes about little things, but it's very important to make yourself available to younger scholars, because that's one way to make an impact.
Hasenstab: Well, Oksana, I want to thank you so much for your time today. It's been so interesting to hear your story in your words.
Leukhina: Thank you so much for having me.