What do economists do? How do you become one?

OECD Muette
The nerd centre of international economics?

Sebastian Foulkes-Best, student at the Cité Scolaire Internationale de Lyon (CSI), France

In France, when you get into ninth grade, the classes and work are similar to the year before, although harder. Though there is one thing to get excited about, and that is that you have to do a one week internship in a company or organisation of your choice. That is how I, Sebastian Foulkes-Best, 15 years-old ended up at the OECD for a week. I wanted to get a closer view on economics, a subject that already interested me, and I thought that working and seeing the day-to-day operation of an organisation such as this one would be a good way to find out if economics is what I want to study (and possibly work in, later on).

The problem is that we all know what people like bus drivers or cashiers do, simply because we see them every day. But what about economists? Most of us end up thinking of the well-known nerdy stereotype, constantly with his head buried in numbers and data, or the talking head that gets cited in the Financial Times and says what inflation or GDP will do next year. I was to discover that these (like most stereotypes) are both totally wrong.

I had not heard of the OECD, but when my mother talked to me about it, it seemed like a great place. It was partly the way I had imagined it, with long corridors and impersonal offices but I never ever would have thought that a château would be used to host these offices. The Château de la Muette was (to me at least) the most beautiful part of the OECD, even though the Delta building was well designed and pretty too, but in a more modern way. (Also, I imagined the canteen as serving bad quality food, which again was totally wrong.)

My idea was to try to talk to some economists about what they did and how they got into the profession. I had the chance to interview many of them, including the OECD’s chief economist Catherine Mann and Professor Diane Coyle who was at the OECD to give a seminar on GDP. This was an enormous privilege and made me feel very adult but also a little out of place. They both gave fantastic answers to my questions and I even got my copy of Sex, Drugs and Economics (an introduction to economics written by Diane Coyle) autographed.

Basically the economists (at least the ones I talked to) do a research process to end up with a policy being communicated to the people that will be able to use it to make our lives better. It all starts with an intuition, a thought that maybe something isn’t going quite right (for example, productivity growth). Then, there is the formulation of the question that they will try and answer (for example: “Is there a problem with productivity growth?” or “Is productivity growth slowing down?”). Economists then collect data and transform it into usable and understandable graphs to either confirm or refute this hypothesis. Then, after the study of the data transformed by economists and the answer to the first question (such as: “Yes, there is a problem with productivity”) starts the second part of the job: finding the solutions. They look closely at why there is a problem (econometrics are usually used) and how it can be solved (the suggestions and solutions that will be written in the policy). Once that is done, the formulation of a policy to solve the problem ends the research process (for productivity growth) and it all starts again for a new problem, a new intuition.

Another part of what economists do is to communicate the findings to the people, companies or countries to whom those findings are relevant to make lives better on a larger scale (“Better policies for better lives is the slogan of the OECD after all”). Obviously the jobs of the people that communicate require a whole new set of skills other than the skills needed by the people who do the hardcore data finding and refining, who in turn need different skills than the ones needed by the people that will implement the policies.

One of the first things I learnt while interviewing economists at the OECD is that there is no one economist, they all come in different shapes and forms. As Sabine Zigelski said, “It’s a career that is very hard to predict. When you start studying economics there are so many different options, which can be frightening because for a long time you don’t know where you will end up”. I literally have not found one common thread between the careers of the economists I’ve interviewed. For example, out of the people I interviewed: one studied philosophy, one played the trombone for 10 years, one worked for the Canadian government and now they all work at the OECD.

A recurring theme in the interviews was that economics, more than just a matter of facts and numbers was, a way of thinking more than anything. Which explains why it then gives such a free career path for anybody wanting to study or work in it. Philosophy for example, helped my interviewee question the basic assumptions that the markets are based on (the market is always clear, people are rational, those types of things). These seemed ridiculous coming from a philosophical perspective where you have to justify every premise and cannot really assume anything. But especially, as economics are used at a very high level of government, how could governments make large decisions that would influence people’s lives following something that seemed to be using shady assumptions? That is what got my interviewee interested in economics, and he now works at one of the most respected economic organisations in the world, the OECD.

As a conclusion, I’d like to mention that even though I am honoured to have met them, I only got to interview a small number of the OECD staff, therefore this article is not a summary of the OECD but more a report of my experience here. Indeed, the economists here work on a very vast range of subjects (health, agriculture, outer space, environment, education…) and it would be impossible for me to cover all of them in only one week.

Now that I have met some economists, and more or less understand what they do, I think I would like to become one.

Useful links

You can hear Catherine Mann’s interview here. The charts she refers to were presented at the launch of the OECD study on “The future of productivity” at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington with Jason Furman, chairman of the US President’s Council of Economic Advisors. You can see the charts and find out more about the event here.

If you’d like to work for the OECD, visit our careers page.

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  1. Rachel - 21/12/2015 Reply

    Congratulations and thank you for sharing your experience with us! It sounds like you made the most of your week at the OECD. Well done!

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