E. Glen Weyl ’07
Assistant Professor of Economics, University of Chicago
Freshman Week I attended two departmental open houses: the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and physics. I was hesitating between my lifelong passion for public service and the love of theoretical physics I developed at the end of high school. Luckily, that fall I took statistics from Elie Tamer, who encouraged me to take a graduate class in economics, which he assured me was a perfect synthesis of my past interests, as well as being a longstanding interest of mine. Being an economics major who was truly passionate about the subject for its own sake was a bit of a lonely path at Princeton, where most of my fellow majors and even many of my professors saw the major as more instrumental to a career on Wall Street than to understanding the social problems I couldn’t help being fascinated with.
One day during the summer between my sophomore and junior year closed my contract as an academic economist. I was working at a hedge fund in New York and after completing a model that formed the basis for a trading strategy, I asked the fund’s principal what social role the trade I worked on served. After being told that such questions, which I could not help being preoccupied with, were not ours to ask at the firm, I sent an e-mail to the professor of my graduate economics class, José Scheinkman, who proceeded to take me out to dinner in New York. The most stimulating evening of conversation of my life to that point set me on the path that José, who became my mentor and one of my best friends, envisioned for me: rapid progress through my graduate work to the life of an academic economist.
Exploring new perspectives
Yet before fully orienting my academic attention to detailed economic theory, graduation and a desire to understand more fully the fascinating discussions I had with my classmates of diverse interests required me to sample more broadly from what Princeton had to offer. Given that this might be my only chance to see the inner workings of disciplines my future colleagues in other fields would be socialized in, it seemed like a wasted opportunity to simply take an introductory survey course. My resulting attempt to throw myself into the main flow of other academic areas has shaped the academic and extra-academic work I have done since.
Through the dedicated and selfless mentorship of so many professors who have become lasting friends, I developed a passion for philosophy, the history of the Jews and of economic thought, art, mathematics, and computer science. In the end, I realized that contrary to most external expectations, majoring in economics at Princeton can be an intense and broadening intellectual experience.
Having completed my class requirements for graduate school, I decided to stay at Princeton for my graduate work. However, in order to learn other perspectives and explore the world, I spent most of my year at graduate school visiting at the University of Chicago and the Toulouse School of Economics. This was the beginning of one of the most invigorating parts of my academic career: the ability to travel all over the world to engage in constructive dialogue with colleagues. My work has taken me to almost a hundred different academic, government, and private institutions on four continents.
Crossing continents and disciplines
After earning my Ph.D. from Princeton, I began a fellowship at the Harvard Society of Fellows that broadened my perspective further. The society is a collection of postdoctoral students from all fields of the humanities and sciences, both natural and social, who have three years to pursue their own research while sharing one another’s company at dinner and lunch three times a week.
My time at Harvard has proved rewarding in ways I could never have imagined. Conversations over the dinner table with two biology colleagues became lab meetings and eventually brought me to the Peruvian Amazon basin to run experiments on ant-plant mutualisms suggested by economic models. My closest collaborator has become a string theorist-turned-economist from the Society of Fellows whose dissertation in the Harvard economics department I am helping to advise. With the guidance of my colleagues and the assistance of a number of undergraduates at Harvard, I have published my work in the philosophy and history of economics, while simultaneously developing my more classically economic interests in price theory and antitrust policy.
Last year, when I gave a job talk at the London School of Economics, I spent one day with the philosophy group, one day with the economics and management group, and one day with the competition authorities of the United Kingdom government. My week thus spanned the full range from philosophical abstraction to practical policymaking. Yet all these disparate parts fit a unified whole: While talking to the philosophers I used my policy work to illustrate my arguments in the philosophy of science, and while talking to the government I drew on my philosophical principles to guide the development of a framework for merger review. My work at each part of the spectrum improves the quality of my thinking at all of these others.
I hope to continue this integration of a humanistic approach into economics as I start my new job this fall as an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago, where I also plan to be the first economist in many years on the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science. This integrative approach was made possible by the true liberal arts education I found as an economics major at Princeton and by the rich nourishment the Society of Fellows has supplied to those roots.