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Alumni News December 11, 2020

Q&A with IMF Chief Economist Gita Gopinath, Ph.D. ’01

Gita GopinathEach year, more than 250 Princeton juniors and seniors declare Economics as their major and begin preparing for rewarding careers in  consulting, finance, public policy, research, and more.

As an Economics major, students receive the technical and analytical background required to tackle society’s biggest challenges. Whether the task is combating global poverty, analyzing government programs, advising major U.S. companies (or starting their own!), training in economics prepares students to ask the right questions and develop innovative, workable solutions.

Like all Princetonians, Economics students pursue their studies “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” In that spirit, we reached out to Dr. Gita Gopinath—notable Princeton alumnus (Ph.D ’01) and current chief economist of the International Monetary Fund—to learn more about her career path and how she uses her training in economics to serve others.

Let’s start with your current role at the IMF. Tell us about your invitation to serve as chief economist and why you chose to take on the challenge. What’s your favorite part of the job?

I believe it was July 2018 when I was invited to interview for the position of Chief Economist at the IMF, and then offered the job in September. As an international macroeconomist there is truly no other job in the policy arena that is more exciting. I get to apply all the research I have been doing to device solutions for the economic challenges countries face, and I get to do it with highly talented and dedicated colleagues. My favorite part of the job is that I get to work on not just one country, but 190 countries. This means that policy advice must to be tailored to the unique circumstances of countries, and I am learning so much about how different economies work.

Throughout your career, you’ve surely worked with a lot of economists, but also many others with different specialties or other types of training. Thinking about past projects or efforts you’ve participated in, what special value-add do you think a background in economics can bring? 

The world is complicated. An understanding of economics gives you the tools to help simplify that complexity. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Great Lockdown that followed is unlike anything we have seen before. But economics helps distill the channels through which the pandemic can affect economic activity and what the right policy responses should be. It is not perfect and there is tremendous uncertainty also because a lot depends on the behavioral responses of individuals. Nevertheless, the combination of theoretical and empirical models in economics have been essential to understand this crisis and tailor solutions.

If you think back, can you remember the moment you decided to study economics? What motivated you to become an economist?

I am an accidental economist. I signed up for a three-year degree in economics in India because I was told it was a good subject to study to become a bureaucrat in the Indian Administrative Service. This was 1989. Then in 1991 India experienced a balance of payments crisis, when it started running out of foreign currency to meet its external commitments. The IMF came in as the lender of last resort and provided financial resources, and India embarked on a path of major reforms to liberalize the economy. These events had a transformative impact on India and on me and I decided to make economics my career.

What do you like most about being an economist? What do you find most challenging?

I like how economics can help make the world a better place. Every major issue, be it jobs, inequality, poverty, climate change, cannot be tackled without insights from economics. When I teach undergraduates economics, I bring in the newspaper to class because the front page always has some fascinating issue in economics that we can discuss. Relatedly, I like how economics is both theoretical and practical. It relies on math, but you also need to be something of an artist to build a model that is useful for the real world. Economics is about the real world and how people make decisions. Figuring this out can be highly challenging.

Obviously, not everyone who gets an economics degree goes on to study economics at the graduate level. If you hadn’t pursued a Ph.D. and become a research economist, what kind of work might you have explored? What do you think are some of the most exciting jobs today’s economics students should consider as they graduate?

There is a great diversity of careers you can pursue with an economics degree. You can work in strategy consulting, investment banking, in tech companies, in non-profits, in policy think tanks, in the public sector and many others. I have students who are working on digital currencies, on climate adaptation and mitigation, on social media. The world is likely to go through a structural transformation following this crisis. These are exciting times to be an economist.

What would you say to students who are considering majoring in economics but aren’t sure they would do well in advanced classes? Do you need to be a math whiz to succeed?

Math is the language through which a lot of economics is taught so it does help to be good at it and to enjoy it. That said, you certainly don’t need to be a math whiz. There are many fields in economics, and some rely more heavily on math than others. There are also different ways of studying an issue. Some choose to work with large datasets, others like to run experiments, some like to write theoretical models. I don’t see an economist stereotype.

What about students who want to pursue economics at the graduate level? Any advice for students looking to apply in the next few years?

To prepare for graduate school you should make the most of your time at Princeton. Take every opportunity to learn from the fantastic professors at Princeton, including reaching out to them outside of class. Challenge yourself by taking a rigorous set of classes. Try to gain experience in research by working as a research assistant or working on independent research. Graduate school is tough, but it is so worth it. You will gain a set of skills that will set you apart from others. Importantly, economics needs greater diversity of talent and ideas and I strongly encourage students from all backgrounds, gender, races, and ethnicities to apply. I wish you the very best for the future.

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