An Interview with Dr. Ron Kneebone

"The best part of my job by far is to see some of my students succeed"

Dr. Ronald Kneebone finished his PhD in 1988 in economics with a specialization in public finances. As is the case with most academics, his early research emphasized economic theory. Over time his research emphasis started to evolve – less in the theory part of economics but more in the practical applications. He was Director of the Institute for Advanced Policy Research (IAPR) for a few years. The IAPR’s goal was to apply the tools of economics to issues of public policy. The IAPR was absorbed into the School of Public Policy in 2009. He remains with the School of Public Policy where he is director of one of the School’s three research themes and is also director of the School’s graduate program in public policy. His goal is to change how the government thinks about public policies and implements them.

Register here to listen to Dr. Kneebone give a keynote speech on February 3rd at the SUE Industry Night Gala

BF: What did your education path look like?

"My undergrad was a joint degree in economics and political science. I actually wanted to be a historian, and I remember working my ass off in first year history, but I got lousy grades. Although I skipped most of my econ classes and got A’s so clearly somebody was telling me something! I still read history as a hobby, but didn’t pursue it academically. I really enjoyed political science as well, but I didn’t think it would get me a job as well as economics would so when I decided to go to graduate school in went into economics. As well as enjoying my political science courses, it was in those courses that I learned how to write and that has been of great benefit to me in my career."

"I actually wanted to be a historian..."

BF: What pulled you towards macroeconomics vs micro?

"Mainly my one of my professors in graduate school. He was a fascinating guy who sold me on the idea of public policy, which has been an interest to me. He showed me how macroeconomics can be used to improve outcomes. Not that microeconomics doesn’t do that too, but I had an inspirational teacher who was really happy doing macro. I think that’s true for a lot of people; you get the right person talking to you at the right time and taking a personal interest in you. You never know where that person is or what they’re going to say to you that will inspire you."

BF: How long have you been a professor? What pulled you into teaching?

"I got my first job at Wilfrid Laurier in 1986, so a long time. What got me into it? Well, I like teaching, and it was a good opportunity too. What brought me to Calgary was that they had offered me a job. It was also a good fit for my wife who at the time was also a professor but who decided she would prefer a career in industry. So we wanted to move to a city with a good university for me and lots of opportunities in industry for her. Calgary was a great fit for us. I like teaching because it’s very satisfying. The best part of my job by far is to see some of my students succeed. Staying in touch with them and seeing them turn from a second year econ student to become a deputy minister or a key player in the community or industry is very satisfying. That is definitely the best part of teaching."

BF: Is this where you thought you would end up? "No. I kind of stumbled along. It came to the end of fourth year, time to get a job, wasn’t having a lot of luck because it was in the middle of a recession. I carried on and did my MA. That went well, so I decided to stick with it and pursue a PhD. Then, an academic job seemed natural at that point. I tried to get into government but I didn’t have a lot of luck, but the stars aligned when my PhD was finished. I got a couple publications from my PhD and it was all very well timed with a job opportunity in Calgary. So, you have to be lucky."

"They (policy makers) need to know that you’re not going to run to the media..."

BF: What is it like working closely in politics?

"Early on in my PhD, my advisor did consulting work for the federal government. He would show me the work he was doing advising the federal government. One of the big things that did it for me was that I felt like I could do the work that they were doing. He introduced me to some senior bureaucrats and I realized that they were just regular people. It seemed less daunting to me that when you get involved talking with government, you realize that they are just really busy people who are overwhelmed and are looking for advice and help. They’re not looking for harsh criticism, but they want academics to be involved. We can make suggestions based on economic literature that we should be moving in a certain direction. How much? It’s going to be hard to say, there are a lot of things to consider, including politics – whether or not it’s politically acceptable. But it’s interesting to talk to policy makers but you have to gain their trust. They need to know that you’re not going to run to the media or attack them unfairly."

BF: Opinion on the election?

"I have a lot of respect for democracy. So generally, people get it right. What does “right” look like? I have opinions as others do and reasonable people can disagree. I do know that a lot of election campaigning is just rhetoric. The average person generally gets it right; we’ve never gone to the extremes in Canada. It’s also just four years. Nothing the government will do will be something that can’t be undone if it proves to be a mistake. That should give comfort to everyone regardless of where they are on the political spectrum."

"I can’t overestimate the benefit of being able to write effectively will have for you in your career"

BF: What would you suggest to students just starting in the degree?

"To any economist, I would suggest to read and write a lot. I can’t overestimate the benefit of being able to write effectively will have for you in your career. Take courses that require you to write and to read. Reading teaches you how to write. I would encourage you to learn Excel-all employers expect you to know Excel and to write well. I would also tell you that the stuff that you learn in first and second year is the core of economics. After second year you are going to see the same stuff over and over again with more math and econometrics. But the guts of economics are what you learn in first and second year. There is a lot that you can do with demand and supply diagrams and you know a lot more than you think you do."

BF: What would you suggest to students nearing the end of their degrees?

"Earning a master’s degree is a great way of increasing your employment prospects. In that regard you have options. One is to enroll in the School of Public Policy’s Master’s of Public Policy (MPP)! You take several courses and then during the summer you write a capstone project, which is applying what you’ve learned in an area of public policy to all sorts of questions. The other approach is to enroll in a Master of Arts (MA) degree such as that offered by the Department of Economics. I think of economics as having 2 players: the high theory types of people and then those who are using those ideas and asking how can it be applied to peoples lives, and how can it be modified? They both play a very important role and they need to respect one another. Without the high theory guys, I wouldn’t have anything to apply, but they also need to recognize that if it wasn’t for people taking what they’re doing and applying it to the real world, industry, government and the community would shut them out as being irrelevant to them. If you want to do the really high theory stuff, you should think about an MA or PhD in Economics. But if you actually want to take what you’ve learned apply it to issues of public policy, you should think about doing a Master’s of Public Policy."

"Always do what turns your crank!"

BF: How would you suggest that people approach graduate schools?

"Always do what turns your crank! What will get you a job is good grades because that puts a stamp on your forehead that is saying that you’re a smart person who works hard and meets reasonable deadlines. That’s what employers are looking for. Earning first class grades, regardless of discipline, will do more for your job prospects than earning lesser grades in a discipline that you think might makes you more employable. Besides, your goal should be to get work doing what you enjoy doing! How do you get good grades? Do the stuff that you love doing and you will earn good grades. Have faith that it will lead to a job.

Having decided what you are passionate about, what graduate school to choose? What kind of degree? Well now you have to make a decision. If you want to keep open the opportunity to do a PhD, you should do an MA in Economics. If you want to learn how to apply what you’ve learned to the work world, the MPP is a very good option. Then the question is “What school do I go to?” That depends on a lot of factors. Schools will offer you money to do graduate work. Which school offers you more? The better options come with some investigation about the specific qualities of each school. For example, if you love tax theory, there are some schools that do tax theory better than others. You should ask your academic advisor, or the person who taught you tax theory. He or she should be able to give you some good advice. It’s really hard to make big mistakes. There are a lot of really good graduate schools."

"Economists value facts over opinion..."

BF: What is your favourite part about economics?

"Economists value facts over opinion and data over anecdotes. We also discipline our thinking with a core set of beliefs and axioms about how people and organizations make choices. Many other disciplines do not work from these foundations. That’s where our strength is. That’s what makes it fun."


Register here to listen to Dr. Kneebone give a keynote speech on February 3rd at the SUE Industry Night Gala

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