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Policymaker: Econ alum pursues his passion at the RAND Corporation

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Benjamin Miller

How did Krannert alumnus Benjamin Miller take the giant leap from an undergraduate political science student to a leading role as an economist with the internationally known think-tank RAND Corporation?

According to Miller, who hails from Liberty Township, Ohio, it started with a doughnut.

“I wanted to get out on my own, but without moving too far from home. So I literally got out a map and a compass and drew two circles — one about 2 hours from home and another about 6 hours from home. Then I looked at universities that fell in the doughnut.”

Along with its location and numerous family connections, Miller says Purdue’s University Honors Program (the predecessor to the current Honors College) was a big factor in his choice. “Purdue's campus and the people there made me feel welcome and valued,” he says.

Making the switch

Miller was originally intent on majoring in political science, but his parents were concerned about the extent of good job opportunities, so he reluctantly added a second major in economics.

“My high school required one semester of economics, but I ‘checked the box’ by completing a distance-learning course through a nearby university to avoid wasting my time with an actual economics class, which I thought would be boring and simple,” he says. “Instead, I found the distance learning course interesting; it seemed to pair nicely with my other interests and it appeased my parents.” 

When he began taking classes at Purdue, Miller quickly found himself more drawn to the economics point of view than the political science point of view, so he focused on the former and picked up minors in political science, math and philosophy. 

Miller gives much of the credit for his choice to study economics to an honors class taught by late Professor Mike Watts called "Economics in Drama, Literature, and Film."

“It was my first economics class — just seven students sitting around a table talking with the professor, which was great,” he says. “Mike was very encouraging and supportive in my journey to pursue economics and really got me off on the right foot.” Inspired by the course, Miller and Watts collaborated to publish an article on economics in Dr. Seuss stories.

Another key step toward Miller’s success came in his junior year through an econometrics course and subsequent research collaboration with Professor Kevin Mumford. “He took me under his wing to help me prepare for graduate school,” Miller says. “He essentially taught me how to do economics research, and gave a lot of really valuable advice and guidance along the way.” Miller and Mumford also co-authored a research paper together on how taxpayers responded to a change in the Child and Dependent Care Credit.

Miller graduated with a BS in Economics Honors in 2010 and went on to earn a PhD in economics from the University of California, San Diego. He says both of his undergrad mentors are examples of how Purdue and Krannert helped prepare him for grad school and his career.

“The ability to interact with supportive professors outside of a classroom setting, in addition to what was learned in the classroom, was really valuable,” he says. “All the extracurricular activities at Purdue are a really critical part of your undergraduate education, too. Graduate school taught me econometrics skills and how to succeed as an academic economist, but the baseline and soft skills all came from Purdue.”  

Putting it to work

Today, Miller describes his role as an economist with the RAND Corp. as “a fantastic and natural fit.”

“I had broad interests in using economic analysis to address policy questions,” he says. “I didn't want to be confined to a narrow topic, and I loved the idea of working collaboratively with smart and friendly colleagues from a wide variety of disciplines.” 

Despite having corporation in its name, RAND is a nonprofit. And unlike many think tanks, Miller says it is avowedly nonpartisan.

“I was attracted to RAND not only because it is one of the most preeminent and topically-broad research organizations in the world, but also because the colleagues were welcoming and there were opportunities to do work that I couldn't do anywhere else,” he says. “Much like Purdue, RAND has been a supportive environment that has really helped me develop as a thoughtful, curious, objective, and empathetic human being.”

From a broad perspective, Miller’s research focuses on measuring impacts of public policies and suggesting changes that might improve those policies. 

“My research has typically focused on structural, financial, and regulatory issues,” he says. “How is the program or policy organized?  How is it funded?  What regulations or policies govern its implementation?  For example, our team just finished a report for Congress looking at airport infrastructure finance — what are the federal policies that govern how terminals, runways, and everything else gets paid for? Are changes to those policies required to meet future needs, and if so, what needs to be changed?”

Does all that sound daunting to a student considering a major in economics? At Purdue, says Miller, anything is possible.

“If an aspiring Purdue student want to pursue a career in economic policy analysis, I suggest focusing your coursework on skill development — math and stats classes — while staying in tune with what's going on in the world around you,” he says.  “A recent graduate with strong quantitative skills and a healthy dose of common sense can make valuable contributions in a wide variety of policy settings.” 

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