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Operations Research and Financial Engineering

Katherine L. Milkman ’04

Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Management, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

I arrived at Princeton intending to pursue a bachelor of arts degree and anticipating that I would major in something quantitative given my love of logical reasoning and questions with objectively correct answers. As a freshman, I took courses in the math department that made it quite clear that I was not destined to prove theorems for a living. I also found myself remarkably uninspired by economics at the undergraduate level. One of my roommates was an engineer majoring in operations research and financial engineering (ORFE), and the more I learned about her classes and the electives she would be able to take as an upperclassman, the more intrigued I became. 

The ORFE department offered courses to juniors and seniors about such wide-ranging topics as transportation systems, e-commerce, and human-machine interaction—all subjects that sounded fascinating to me. My sophomore year I enrolled in a core ORFE class about probability theory, and was immediately hooked. On the first day, the professor lectured about Tyche, the goddess of chance, and the important role her hand played in every event in our lives. After that lecture, I began to look at the world in a whole new way, and I knew I had found my home on campus. 

However, I also possessed a deep love of literature and culture, and in order to keep both sides of my brain stimulated, I chose to pursue a certificate in American studies while concentrating in ORFE. The combination led me to a fairly unusual thesis project (statistically analyzing the contents of 10 years of New Yorker fiction), which fulfilled the requirement that I blend both my primary and secondary fields of study in my independent work. This project opened my eyes to the incredible power and potential of conducting interdisciplinary research.

The power of interdisciplinary research

My senior thesis at Princeton was the first act in my love affair with empirical social science research. Waking up regularly in the middle of the night with ideas about additional hypotheses to test made it clear that I should turn down an investment banking job offer and instead pursue a doctorate. I headed straight to an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in computer science and business at Harvard, where I discovered the burgeoning field of psychology and economics. My doctoral research focused on understanding the peculiar ways that human beings deviate predictably from making optimal choices and documenting these deviations in large datasets containing observations of millions of consumers’ online grocery orders, DVD rental decisions, and so on. This path led me to my current position on the faculty at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach both undergraduates and MBAs about how people make decisions and how their decision-making skills could be improved. I continue to spend the majority of my time conducting empirical social science research.

It is crucial in my chosen career to be comfortable with statistics and probability theory, computer programming, and analyzing large datasets. As an ORFE major at Princeton, I obtained the analytical skillset I needed to succeed. Further, the ability to write and articulate thoughts clearly and to dissect a text is vital to an academic, and these are skills that the Program in American Studies helped me hone. Beyond gaining academic competencies, however, I learned far more important lessons at Princeton. The faculty I encountered as an undergraduate opened their doors to me and encouraged my interests in a way that I have since come to realize is extremely uncommon at a world-renowned research institution. Several ORFE professors offered me the opportunity to work on independent research projects with them as a junior, nurturing my curiosity about the world. My senior thesis adviser met with me every week, in spite of his incredibly busy schedule, and replied to e-mails containing inane statistical questions with shocking speed and thoroughness. Other ORFE professors and faculty affiliated with the Program in American Studies made me feel equally welcome in their offices with questions about coursework and my career. This experience shaped my views about teaching and mentoring undergraduate students in crucial ways. I constantly strive to be the kind of teacher and mentor that I encountered at Princeton now that I am a faculty member myself.