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GSAS Alumni Spotlight: Peter Passell, Senior Fellow, Milken Institute

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What did you study at Yale, and what is your current profession/job?

I’m a senior fellow at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, a hybrid non-partisan think tank in California, and I edit the Institute’s quarterly on economic policy, The Milken Institute Review. I have a PhD in economics from Yale received in 1970 (ouch!)

What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/ or rewarding?

I have enormous autonomy in curating and editing the magazine I created for the Institute in 1999. And while my office is nominally in Santa Monica, I’m able to do virtually all my work from my home office 75 miles away. The primary challenge is to keep the magazine fresh. I search for interesting ideas bouncing around below the radar; I look for young economists to write who’ve never written for a general audience before; I work with the Review’s freelance designer (located in Vermont) for design features and images that make difficult material more accessible. My big challenge at the moment is building an audience for the new online version of the review. I’m assuming we’ll need to make a transition to an all-digital future sometime in the next few years.

How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?

In part, Yale constituted a transition to a practical career trajectory after an undergraduate experience (at Swarthmore) that was marvelous but more an introduction to life than career. I chose Yale because the econ grad school was small and informal as well as highly-rated in the field. That gave me the chance to get to know faculty – and the life of teaching economics – very well.

What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career?

A good 80 percent of it was (a) learning much more economics and (b) acquiring the discipline to write a PhD thesis. But the department encouraged discussion and debate, often with faculty involvement, and I think this helped me acquire experience I’d need as a writer about public policy.

Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?

I was fortunate to have a friend and roommate who had dabbled in journalism as a freelancer. We wrote together about economics for a general audience in a variety of publications including The New Republic, The New York Review of Books and The Nation. And I also got involved in anti-Vietnam War activity, writing a professional journal article that quantified the material costs of the war and then testifying about it before a friendly Congressional committee.

What advice would you offer PhDs who are interested in your line of work?

I’m in the unusual position of having left a thriving profession for which I was trained (professional economics) for related work in a field that is deeply stressed (journalism). I think folks with PhDs in economics who want to become journalists today face daunting obstacles. That said, the world is still full of opportunities for well-trained economists who decide that they aren’t thrilled to be academics. Think: public policy in think tanks; offbeat corporate jobs, notably in the digital economy; administration/leadership in governments, multilateral organizations, NGOs. Getting away from the standard career track can be tricky (a) because doing well in grad school is a full-time job (b) the terms of the competition in high-end PhD programs usually define success as getting a prestigious academic job. One needs to be willing to reject peer pressure as well as a bit entrepreneurial to step off the beaten path.

GSAS Alumni Spotlight

This GSAS Alumni Spotlight is part of an ongoing series featuring alumni who have chosen non-faculty careers.