Returning Wolverine and third year economics PhD student Lea Bart’s first impression of economics in high school was not a favorable one. The short unit presented the discipline as limited to prices and profits, so it wasn’t until her first year as an undergraduate here at U-M that she gave it a second chance and discovered how broad it could be. Lea came to see economics as a tool to approach big, interdisciplinary issues and answer socially important policy questions from a quantitative perspective and quickly fell in love with the field.

While researching internships at the start of her junior year, Lea was most drawn to areas led by economists and realized she wanted to pursue a PhD and a career studying and shaping policy. After graduating in 2016 with a degree in economics and a minor in math, Lea spent 2 years in Washington D.C. at the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center to get a sense of what comes after graduate study. While there, in addition to advancing concrete skills such as coding, project organization, and translating research findings into writing, Lea also saw how research interacts with policy and how it can make a tangible difference in the world. Solidified in her resolve to attend graduate school, Lea began considering programs.

Already familiar with campus and U-M’s reputation, Michigan presented two additional big draws for Lea. Firstly, of all the schools she considered, Michigan had the most faculty members doing research that excited her. Second, Lea felt it was imperative to join a program where she would be part of a welcoming community and, after hearing really positive things about the social life and supportive culture of our program, Lea was certain she would get that here.

Lea arrived back in Ann Arbor interested in labor economics and public finance, hoping to expand on her undergraduate senior thesis which studied the effect of expanding public health insurance programs like Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program to teenagers on teen birth rates in the 1990s. She wanted to examine how women make big life choices around marriage, childbearing, and careers, the effect these choices have on their outcomes, and how policies can affect these choices. Now midway through her PhD program, Lea’s interests have evolved and she anticipates them to continue to do so. 

In her current work, Lea is exploring the consequences of making our social safety net contingent on employment, an idea that on the surface encourages people to work and reduces poverty. As a Population Studies Center Predoctoral Trainee—a fellowship within the Institute for Social Research at U-M which helps support her while providing specialized training in demography—Lea knows, however, this is not so simple in the complicated and untidy real world, and sees herself in academia, a research institution, or as part of a government agency continuing to do research that informs and shapes the design of social safety net programs and policies like TANF, SNAP, the EITC, and paid leave policies.

As Lea’s goals and plans become more focused, she has felt supported in the process by the camaraderie and friendship found in her classmates, making the program easier and fun. Though it helps that the program hasn’t felt competitive, Lea does wish she had learned to code earlier in her academic career, feeling it would have been easier to pick up skills in R, STATA, and other programs as an undergraduate student. 

Lea also notes how exposure to math certainly made understanding the material and programs in her introductory economics courses easier to digest, but she does not want undergraduates considering graduate work in the field to be intimidated by the math in economics, “remember that you can be a great economist and a bad mathematician.” Rather than overwhelming yourself, speak with advisors, mentors, and professors early on to plan coursework that prepares you for graduate school and get involved in research. Identifying your interests and gaining hands-on experience will help develop your confidence in whether advanced study is the right choice. Once in a program, try studying like an economist—reflecting on the marginal benefit and marginal cost of decisions when studying, and recognizing the importance of self-care; “Often, the benefit to taking a night or weekend off will outweigh that of studying more, and that’s okay… Holding on to a sense of identity outside of economics is super important for mental health, and will help make [things] easier.”