A Look Into Econ: Kelly Bedard on Her Journey to Teaching Economics at UCSB


Alexandra Vassilev

Staff Writer

Known for its extensive course offerings and esteemed faculty, the economics department at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) is one of the most popular undergraduate programs on campus. Professor Kelly Bedard, who specializes in Labor and Health Economics, has taught several foundational courses, including ECON 1, 2, and 9. The Bottom Line (TBL) sat down with Professor Bedard as she shared what led her to pursue a career in teaching and research, valuable advice for students interested in Economics, and insightful reflections on her journey as a professor. 

TBL: Thank you so much for joining me today. I thought that we’d start a bit with your educational background. Could you share a little bit about your academic journey and what inspired you to pursue economics? 

B: I started in college [and I] wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I took sort of your usual first year GE type classes. Economics was by far my favorite class. I sort of started taking economics and then very quickly realized that I really liked economics. Even as an undergraduate, because I was at a more teaching focused institution, I really liked research. And so I decided to go and do a PhD, and so I went directly out of undergrad into a PhD program. 

It was research that I was excited about. I sort of say my job is 75 or 80 percent research and 20 or 25 percent teaching. So I do love teaching. I love being around students, but my first love is research. 

TBL: Another aspect of being a professor can involve conducting extensive research. What areas of economic research are you primarily involved in, and what would you say has been the most impactful research you’ve contributed to and why? 

B: I’m a labor economist, and what that means is it’s quite broad, but essentially, labor economists study everything from sort of the personnel economic side of incentivizing people to work and how contracting works and so on, all the way to, you know, how. What is the impact of unions, how does education and skill accumulation affect later life, to sort of demographic issues around family. I mean, it’s very, very broad. And we have several faculty at UCSB who work in various parts of labor economics. I’ve sort of worked in several areas, more so in things on education. 

I did a lot of work quite a few years ago now on the effect of how old you are when you start school — on how well you do and whether or not that has implications for the rest of your life. More recently, I’ve done a fair amount of work on family, on sort of female and family policy, thinking about impacts of family leave, but also on the way we set up sort of contracts and incentive structures and whether they, you know, in what cases they benefit women or men more. 

I’ve also done a fair amount of work over the years in health economics, thinking about incentivizing certain kinds of behavior and so on. I’ve worked in several parts of labor economics over the years. 

TBL: One of the undergraduate courses you currently teach is ECON 2, which primarily focuses on the study of macroeconomics and having to teach such large class sizes. What are some common challenges students seem to face in understanding economics, and how do you help them overcome these obstacles? 

B: Yeah, I don’t think 800 person classes are ideal. 

I think [economics is] not alone. There are large electives in the lower division in many disciplines, and it really is a matter of trade off. We have limited resources, meaning limited faculty and the number of classes we can put people in. We also want to be able to offer a broad range of upper division electives so that students get a sense of all the kinds of areas that economics works in. 

The trade off that we’ve made is that instead of having four or five ECON 1 classes with 250 or 300 students, we have two that are very large, and then we can use those resources to teach upper division electives. 

I think large lectures are hard for a lot of students. I think them staying engaged is hard. My goal is always to try to structure the course so that, you know, people have, there are sort of touch points on a regular basis where people are doing assignments and have an incentive to come to class. We try to have lots of contact, but it’s hard. 

TBL: On that point, what do you think students should be doing that maybe you aren’t seeing enough of? 

B: I think that lower division classes have always been a challenge because some students, you know, the first time away from home and getting used to being on their own and, you know, and that’s an important process, too, I think, especially since COVID it’s been a challenge to get people sort of really reconnected in community and really engaged in in-person activity. 

I think that’s a big part of university: talking to other people, working on things together that otherwise you could just do online. I don’t think people learn that well online. I think a lot of the other parts of learning are really important. You know, how to form an argument, how to, you know, talk about all of these are really important. 

And so to me, that’s been a challenge since COVID is to try to re-engage people. That was part of the motivation for switching the sections to being activities is to get people to discuss things and to sit down and try to, as a group, figure out how to do something, which I think is taking time. 

TBL: If you could offer students who are considering majoring in economics a piece of advice, what would that be? 

B: I think that it’s really important that people come to university and try a variety of classes at the beginning. And I think that’s one thing that quarters is great for because it’s easier to try a wider range of things in your first year because I really do think that you want to find something that you really like- and in an ideal world- that you like and you are good at because you’re going to spend a lot of time doing it. If you can find that combination, then that’s going to be a very positive experience and also lead you to work hard and be successful. 

Does it need to be economics? I think it doesn’t, but I think people need to find what it is. Trying things is great in terms of economics. It’s one of the most versatile majors out there. 

Why is that? Because you get the opportunity to build — to continue to build your analytical and quantitative and reasoning skills. It’s really a combination of those. Those are very valuable when you’re looking for jobs or going on to further education. 

You know, there are other majors that also help you build those kinds of skills. Economics is not the only one, but I do think that it is a great pathway for a lot of people. 

It’s a natural set of knowledge and tools that are very flexible. Lots of students go off to law school, finance, or go into working in environmental protection, or other careers. It’s just very broad. If you look five or ten years out after college, outside of engineering, economics students have the highest average salaries. 

I think that reflects this skill component. It’s very flexible. 

TBL: From all of your inspiring accomplishments to the journey that led you here, what are you most proud of? 

B: Oh, wow. You know, I’ve had a fantastic career. 

I mean, I went to university at, what, 18, and I’ve never left. And so it’s such a great way, in my opinion. It’s just such a great career to get to mix things. I get to mix so many things that I like because I get to do both research and work with students. That’s a phenomenal opportunity in terms of really narrow things. 

I have some research projects that I have done that I’m very proud of but also have been very proud of the Department of Economics that has been built over the last 20 years that I’ve been part of helping to build and the undergraduate programs and graduate programs that we’ve built, and so I don’t really think I can point to a single thing. I think it’s about being part of a community and trying to build something that is building some good in the world. 

TBL: Last question: If you had to recommend one book that everyone should read, what would it be? 

B: In terms of thinking as an economist, there are some classics that people point to, like “The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life” by Steven Landsburg. Besides books, I also recommend the Freakonomics podcast series as well. I think both of those are great ways to get your feet wet and hear the ways that economists think about the world in ways that are very accessible.

Professor Bedard’s experience and extensive knowledge of the field is valuable insight for anyone interested in pursuing a career in economics. Her commitment to advancing knowledge through research and fostering student understanding highlights the significant role educators play in shaping future economists.


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