Cecilia Rouse

"What are your core principles for how to lead your life?"

Cecilia Rouse is currently Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International AffairsRouse joined the Princeton faculty in 1992 after earning her Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University, where she also completed her undergraduate work. Her primary research interests are in labor economics with a focus on the economics of education. Rouse has served as an editor of the Journal of Labor Economics and is currently a senior editor of The Future of Children. She is the founding director of the Princeton University Education Research Section, is a member of the National Academy of Education and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 1998-99 she served a year in the White House at the National Economic Council and from 2009-2011 served as a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. 

Read and watch to learn about Cecilia's path from Princeton, to the White House, and back (twice), the time in her career when she was most afraid, and why she thinks it's so important to have unusual experiences

1. Tell me about your path since graduation.

I majored in economics and graduated in 1986. I like to travel and was interested in having a bit of experience, so I applied to be a Rotary Scholar and spent almost a year in Dakar, Senegal immediately after my undergraduate studies. While I was gone I applied to Ph.D. programs in economics. I ended up back at Harvard where I completed my Ph.D. and then I joined the faculty here at Princeton. And that would be my long winding path to the academy.

2. Looking back, what would surprise you most about your path?
I guess that I'm actually here. My parents were both very invested in education. My father is one of the first Ph.D. physicists, if not the first black Ph.D. physicist, at Caltech. Education has always been in the family spirit. When I went to college it wasn't, “Are you going to graduate school?” it is more, “Which graduate school?” I always knew I wanted to go on and do something post getting my bachelor's degree. I didn’t know what I wanted to do per say, but I started working as a research assistant for a professor who actually got his Ph.D. here at Princeton, David Bloom. That experience fundamentally changed my life. He was a phenomenal mentor. He became my thesis adviser and in the course of writing the thesis I really fell in love with doing research. So I felt that if I loved doing research that much I should go on and get a Ph.D. in economics as well. Although I have to admit I started my Ph.D. program and I wasn't confident that I really wanted to be an academic. I was very involved in the undergraduate program in the Harvard Economics Program. I really loved helping the students find the right classes with advising, I loved teaching, and so I thought, why don’t I go on the Ph.D. market and become an academic and we'll see what it where it leads me. Maybe I want to be an academic my whole life, maybe I want to do university administration, which is funny that now that is what I'm doing, at least at the moment.

I loved doing the research. I loved teaching. That's what an academic does so let me do that market. I never would have ever dreamed I would have an offer from a place such as Princeton, so obviously I accepted. It’s got the best Labor Economics Group in the country. I continued loving doing the research, loving the teaching, loving my colleagues and so I feel as if what is surprising is just how fortunate I have been in having a job which I love as much as I do and which has brought me as many opportunities as it has.

3. What made David Bloom such a good mentor?
What made David Boom just a phenomenal mentor was that he cared. He took interest in me aside from what I was doing for him as a research assistant. He was very generous with his time. His wife was an MPA alum from Princeton, that's where they met. They would have students over for dinner. I worked very closely with his secretary on a survey that they were doing where we honed the cover letter. He just made me feel part of his team. As his thesis advisee he pushed me and kept encouraging me to try different things and to take on questions that were interesting.

He was associated with an organization in Cambridge called the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), so I had a carrel there. The NBER in Cambridge is the hub that brings economists together from the different institutions around Cambridge and around the country. I spent a lot of time at the bureau with graduate students and with faculty. I got to know them as an undergraduate. I bumped into them in the kitchen, got advice from them, and talked to them about everyday things. I felt like I fit into the community of economists, which I think is unusual for a black girl.

They made me feel at home, so I spent a lot of my time there. I have very good friends from there. I went on to be a faculty research fellow of the bureau, then a research associate, and now I'm the Princeton representative on the board. But the bureau was part of that and David was the one who brought me into it as his research assistant. It was David himself, but it was also the opportunities that being a research assistant for him afforded me.

4. You said that feeling like you fit into the community of economists was unusual for black girl. Have you faced adversity within your field?
I've certainly had the experience where I make a comment in class and it gets attributed to another student. Or even students who are Princeton Ph.D. students who don't really acknowledge my contributions to their work. I have had all of that, but that's what life is. I'm not trying to dismiss it and I'm not trying to minimize it. In the American Economic Association I am the co-chair of the Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession. I spend a lot of time trying to think about how to improve representation of underrepresented minority groups in economics. But I also feel that when they get you down you just pull yourself up and you keep going. My parents certainly taught me this and my mentors have taught me this. That when I doubt myself or when I'm feeling down I just have to figure out how to get through it and how to conquer the next challenge ahead of me. I’m fortunate that I love what I do and that really keeps me going. So many wonderful people have helped me along the way that I try not to let those perceived slights get me down.

5. How do you balance your many responsibilities?

So how to lead a crazy, yet sort of balanced life. First of all, I don't think balance is truly a great thing to strive for. One of my mantras as dean is that there are 24 hours in a day. As I think about my staff, the faculty, and students; we can give you more money, we can give you a car, we can give you a better place to live, but the one thing I cannot do is give people more time, as much as I'd like to-my cloning machine is so close to being done and as soon as it's done I'll share.

But more seriously, I think my advice to younger people is don't try to do too many things. I think it's important to follow one's passion. Certainly take advantage of opportunities and different opportunities when they come your way, but ultimately there are 24 hours in the day. It's important to develop expertise, to feel competent, and to contribute meaningfully to a few things and that's much better than contributing not meaningfully to many. Which is what happens when people are spread too thin, because in the end there are 24 hours in the day.

For myself, I have two teenage daughters. I remember when they were babies that sharpened my priorities instantaneously. And so I try to keep track of my priorities. I can't do everything. And I have gotten better, I'm not perfect, but I’ve gotten better at saying no. Part of the way that I say no, I'm being realistic now, is that if I don't think I can do something well then I don't take it on. I'm not going to say I’m perfect at that, some people might say, “Well you're you're not contributing as you should be to a certain effort,” but I honestly do try to to only take on those things that I think I can do well.

6. I read that you are careful to get enough sleep. 
Everybody is different about how they're going to balance and schedule their time. The only reason I try to get to bed at a decent hour is because I just need a lot of sleep. I really envy those who do not need a lot of sleep, but I'm not one of them. So if I don't make a priority of getting sleep then I'm just no good to anybody the next day.

7. What exactly does your job as dean entail? 
So right now in my job, well aside from being a mom and a wife, but in my job, my main job is being the dean of Woodrow Wilson School. In my mind, if it’s not consistent with being dean of the Woodrow Wilson School then I'm unlikely to take something on. As dean my job is to make sure that we maintain our academic programs, that our students have the best academic programs that they can have, that our faculty have the resources that they need in order to help our students have the fantastic academic opportunities that they should have, and that we have staff that help support all of this infrastructure. That’s what my job is, and to help all these different groups work together to solve problems as they need to be solved.

Aside from that, I'm also a member of the president's cabinet, so I get to see a little bit higher view. To hear about what colleagues are doing in other parts of the University, which I really enjoy, because this is just a phenomenal institution.To see the challenges that they're wrestling with, the ways that we can work together or the ways that they intersect is a lot of fun. One of the nice things about being a dean is that one does not have to completely give up one's professional life in the academy. So I do a little bit of research. It's not a lot, it’s not my best, but it's work that’s meaningful to me. So I maintain some research and I maintain some outside academic activities as well.

8. How did you come to focus on education in your research?

Education was always important to me from my parents. I was studying labor economics as a graduate student, I’d studied it as an undergraduate as well. Labor economics is about labor, which is about people. In economics we say that your wage is equal to your marginal productivity, so how productive you are is going to determine how much you’re paid. What determines how productive you are? Well some of that is your schooling, or the question was how much of that as can be attributed to schooling? So I investigated some of those questions. What is the benefit of schooling in terms of the labor market? My dissertation topic was on community colleges.

I highlight this because of what it shows about how you find research questions. So I was actually working on a different problem that one of my thesis advisers, Larry Summers, had suggested that I think about, which is whether one could find relationships between the industrial composition of states and other aspects of states and how much they invest and what the return to schooling would be in that state. So I was trying to understand the higher education systems in different states. I was spending a lot of time at the Education School at Harvard looking through their digestive education statistics, and I realized that when they count up enrollment in colleges in different states it included people who had been to both four-year college, which I expected, but also people who had been to two-year colleges. And I'm from California where the community college system is huge. Almost everybody I know from California has enrolled in a community college for some reason, including myself. I took a typing class. I took a Shakespeare class. I thought, “Oh I wouldn't have thought of the community college as “college.” Let me learn more about that. There weren't a lot of data sets which helped one to understand students who had been to two-year college at the time, but there was one that I was working on as a research assistant for another faculty member and so I was able to better understand what are the economic benefits of going to a two-year college versus a four-year college? Who goes to to two-year college vs. four-year college? And whether starting at a two-year or a four-year college makes a difference for your educational attainment.

I highlight this because I think that really interesting questions are those that are right there in front of you and you realize that people have not studied them. So here what we had was that probably most people who have been to college in this country have been to to two-year college. So it's right there in front of us. It’s a big phenomena and yet, when academics had looked at the economic benefits of going to college, they had focused on the four-year college. So we just didn't know. Another place I suggest my students look is the newspaper. Newspapers are full of claims that have not been backed up empirically or been well studied. It’s based on intuition or someone's anecdotal experience. It’s full of it. So it's really a matter of questioning, being curious, and looking for things that really interest you. There are lots of questions out there that need to be answered.

9. What are some of your hobbies?
You mean aside from being dean and a mom and a wife? Okay, so what are the things that I enjoy doing in my two minutes of spare time? I love to walk, I love to go for hikes, I love watching movies. My girls and I like watching bad TV shows. I enjoy going to plays and musicals, though I don't get a lot of chance to do that at the moment. And I really love to travel. I get to do some of that through this job, which is really fun, and I've done some of it with my family as well. So those are some of the things I like to do.

10. You enjoy plays and musicals and study education. What's your perspective on arts education?
I am a big believer in liberal arts education. The reason I'm a believer in liberal arts, including “real arts”- music, dance, and visual art- is that creativity and innovation come from putting things together in new and different ways and understanding the world in new and different ways. When we get very siloed in our disciplines, or very siloed in one way of thinking, we can miss the forest for the trees. I really believe in arts education at all levels, partially for this reason: It's important if we going to remain creative, even if we're creative as a physicists, to be exposed to different ways of seeing the world.

11. What advice would you give yourself when you just graduated?

My advice to my younger self from my future self would be to just hang in there. Don't sweat the small stuff. Everybody has failures. Everybody worries about how they're being viewed upon by the world. But I would say, developmentally appropriate and I appreciate that you're just 18 or 20 or 22, but follow your passion. Don't worry as much about whether you're going to be a success or not, what other people think of you or not. Follow your own inner core and your own inner light and the rest will follow.

12. What do you mean by "your own inner light?"

So what I mean is what are your core principles and your core passions? I think it's important to have a moral center. I don't mean this in any particular religion or any particular way, but what are your core principles for how to lead your life? How important is integrity to you? How important is honesty to you? How important is love to you and friendship and being able to listen to others? People have different views. We all agree on the basics of these, but when push comes to shove I think we all have different views on how we weigh off different parts of these principles. And I think it's important to follow what really makes you excited, what your core principles are going forward.

13. What are your core principles?
I believe a lot in honesty and transparency. I also believe in respect, to respect others. My mom in particular raised us to be open to people from all backgrounds and all religions. It doesn't mean that they'll all be my friends, it doesn't mean that I am going to agree with them on every last issue, but that I should be open and we should listen and try to get along at least at some level.

I think that has served me very well, especially in this job, and I think it served me well in the academy. It's why I believe diversity is so important in the country. It's also extremely important in an institution of higher education, because I just don't think you really develop as a person when you're only with people who think similarly to yourself. You need to be challenged to see the world a little differently. Those are some of my principles. I may have others. You know the the respect one is a tough one, but I recognize that, especially from my mom, it's very important to me.

14. Tell me about a time you failed.
So I'll give my most glaring example of this and let's just hope this doesn't kill my career. So after my first semester in graduate school at Harvard I did really poorly on my exams. I was in hysterical tears and David Bloom calls and says, “I hear things are not going so well.” I said “This has been the worst year of my life,“ and he said, “Let's hope so.” With those words it just put it all in perspective. I didn't fail my classes. It's true that I wasn't the top of the class in every subject and it was hard for me, but there is much worse. With poor health, with death, there are so many other things that could be much worse. I said, “You know what, you're right.” He said, “Now you need to figure out what you need to do differently in order to do better." It was a real turning moment for me. I realized that I had been studying with groups of students who understood the material faster than I did. I needed to wrestle with material myself, because while we may do the problem set together, I take the exam by myself. I developed completely different study habits that helped me to do much better, such that I completed and that I’ve had a career in the academy.

15. Tell me about your time working at the White House.
So I've done two tours in the White House. I went into economics because I liked the way the discipline helped one break down social problems and policy problems. I just liked the way it helped you organize your thinking. I don't think economics gives us the only answer, but I think it's a very smart way to help break it down and understand the different challenges. Policy was a big reason why I do what I do. I also knew that just seeing policy from the ivory tower was not a full view of the policy world and I wanted to spend some time having some real experience doing it. So I was invited one summer by Larry Summers to consider joining him at the Treasury Department. This was the summer before coming up for tenure, so it became possible. It wouldn’t have as big of an impact on my tenure case. When folks in Washington heard that Larry was talking to me, somebody from the White House, Gene Sperling from the National Economic Council (NEC), said, “Hey, might you be interested in coming here?” I weighed the two and ultimately decided to go to the NEC in the White House. I spent a year there as a Special Assistant to the President.

It was a trial by fire. The role of the NEC in economic policymaking is to coordinate the economic policymaking around the administration. This means that on any one issue you're trying to balance the concerns of the Labor Department, and the Commerce Department,and the Treasury Department, and craft the administration's position on the issue. I arrived just as a little immigration issue has arisen, which was on high-skilled visas. It was a little issue, but some people cared a lot. What was nice about this little issue is that in the course of a year I got to see it start from being an issue to actually being there when the deal was struck and seeing it signed into law, which is a pretty compressed time scale for something to start and to be brought to fruition. It was a wonderful experience for an academic in that short period of time.

I came back to Princeton because I knew I wasn't done being an academic and I wanted to get back to my research, and my teaching, and what I consider my real life. I actually didn't think I needed to go back to Washington, though I had a phenomenal experience while I was there. But then President Barack Obama was elected and I was asked to be a member of the Council of Economic Advisers. It was not an easy decision for me. I had two small children at the time and it would mean uprooting the family during the start of the recession. It was actually Alan Blinder, my colleague here, who said, “Well, the beginning of an administration is unlike the end of an administration. It's a very different time.” That's what led me to believe, "Well, if I'm going to go, I might as well go now." I had been in the Clinton administration in the second to last year, in 1998. This would be an opportunity to see a different period.

He was absolutely right. Not only did we have very different economic times, but it was fascinating to see the very beginning of an administration. So I stayed for two years; Princeton allows to up to two years of public service leave. I knew I wasn’t ready to give up my academic life to have a life in Washington. I'm much happier here than I am in Washington. It was a phenomenal experience, and I learned a lot. I learned a lot that helps me with this job as dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, but ultimately I'm much happier in the academy.

 16. What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?

You know mostly what I worry about is when I see young people who tell me, “Well in five years I want to have done X, and then in another 10 years I want to be exactly where you are, and then in twenty years even better than whatever you're doing."

What I worry about is that careers, and I think really interesting careers, are much more serendipitous than that. One can't control one's life. Certainly you need to think about what is interesting and exciting for you, but along the way be open to the unusual opportunities and recognize that you can't control where you're going to be at any point along the way-much less tomorrow. Oftentimes it's going to be those unusual experiences that allow you to have unusual insights that will make you all the more effective when you land on your ultimate career.

I saw this especially in Washington, where people who had unusual expertise just because, “Oh yeah, I actually flipped hamburgers for three years so I understand the fast food industry. Here's what we need to keep in mind.” That kind of insight allows you to think about the creative way to solve a problem, as opposed to the kids who have only had the internships that their parents lined up for them along the way. I say it's important to have the unusual experience. Don't be afraid to wash the dishes, to do the grunt work. You just never know when you’re going to meet someone interesting, or you're going to have an insight about a part of the world, a part of the economy, a part of our country that you otherwise wouldn't understand. That knowledge will allow you to really flourish as you go forward.

17. What are some key leadership lessons you’ve learned along the way?
One I've learned is that oftentimes it's better to wait to make a decision than to just try to solve every problem very quickly. I'm not trying to advocate for waiting two years to make a decision. The proverbial “Let’s sleep on it,” that with a little bit of time new insights and new ways to solve a problem can emerge. Sometimes a problem resolves itself. That is something I have learned, especially in this job, which is that if I don't know how to solve the problem, that if the answer doesn't come to me immediately that's ok. Oftentimes it’s figuring out a process. If I don't know what the answer is, who do I need to talk to and what other information might I need? Time can bring many insights to help make better decisions.

I also think it's very important to listen. My style is that I like people who are willing to push back with me. I like to surround myself with staff who are willing to say, “Hey Rouse. That was really not the best thing to do.” Or, “I really need you to do something else differently,” or “Don't do that, remember?” They are willing to push back and say, “I disagree with you.” I still might make a decision that they disagree with, but I like to hear what they have to say. I like to surround myself with people who are able and willing to stand up to me.

Aside from that, I think it's about threading a lot of needles. You know you're trying to get the thread right through that little tiny hole. There are not many ways that you can move that solution and you're just trying to figure out how are we going to balance so many competing demands and come out on the other end? It involves listening to lots of different perspectives, understanding the concerns that people have and what the issues are that we’re wrestling with, and then trying to find a creative way to address as many of them as possible.

18. What's your superpower? 
My superpower is threading needles. I actually think that's something I do pretty well. Maybe my colleagues and staff would disagree, but I think I'm actually pretty good at saying, "Okay, here are the problems. Let's understand what the different sides of the issue are and figure out either the solution or at least a process by which we will get to a solution."

19. What are your tips on raising a family while having an incredible career?
How does one have the family and the career at the same time? I would say, again it’s having a very clear understanding of one's priorities. Everybody does this differently. In my life, my family comes first. That doesn't mean I'm staying at home. What I try to do is understand what is most important for me on any particular issue, including with my children.

It really has been for me with my family to understand what I think is most important. For example, doctors appointments are important to me. I try to get to doctor appointments and to teachers' appointments. When it comes to dropping a child off at a friend's house or picking them up from school, that’s not as important to me. I like to be home in the evenings if I can be for dinner, to help with homework, to hear about the day. That doesn't mean I'm home every evening, but I certainly try to make time for that. Then at work it's not taking on too much. We're very strategic about my travel and if we can pack things together during a trip we certainly do. We ask a lot of questions before I’ll agree to do a trip. What’s the value of the trip? Does it really have to be for three days? Can’t we do this in a day and a half? So that I can be maximally effective at my job, but also not be away from home quite as much.  So it's about understanding what my true priorities are and and then arranging my schedule around them.

20. What is the point in your career when you were most afraid?
I think that I was most afraid in graduate school. I know that's a bit pre-career. The academic career is a little different than many others. I’d been doing this research, but I didn’t know how good I was. I didn't know how people would receive the research. Would I get end up with a job? I was very open. Again, I was surprised I ended up here. I applied to all kinds of jobs. Some in the academy, some not in the academy, at think tanks, at research institutes. And I don't have any sense that I would be less happy if I had taken a different path, but I think I was just concerned. Will I end up with a job at all? That was pretty scary.

21. What is the most common misconception about economists?

I think the biggest misconception about economics is that it's all about finance. Especially women and minorities do not understand that economics is a framework by which we tend to analyze problems. It's true that we have a certain disciplinary lens, but economists address a wide range of issues including poverty, education, health, and how to address inequality. It is not about finance, but about many of the issues that many of us care about in our day-to-day lives.

22. Wow, can you give me an example?
So for example, this is when I really caught the bug. I was in the introductory course at Harvard called EC 10 and we were studying unemployment. This was just after the last big spike in unemployment in the early eighties, when the philosophy Ph.D.s who were driving cabs and all these things. The unemployment stories really bothered me; I was very concerned about them. What I liked about the economics is it says, “Okay, well what are some of the causes of unemployment?” Well, it could be lack of demand. It could be lack of skills, that’s sort of the macro way. From the micro perspective it could again be lack of skills. Is it that people don't want to work? Is it that the people’s skills don't match up with the jobs? It’s a way of breaking down the issues and then trying to address those different issues within the framework. It just grabbed me. Is it lack of demand? If it’s a lack of demand, what are some ways that we could stimulate more demand? If employers aren't hiring workers is it because the employers don't have demand for their product, which is lack of demand? Is it that wages are too high that the workers are demanding? Is it that that the workers don't know about the jobs? Is it that the jobs are in North Dakota and the workers are in Arkansas? If so are there some way that we could help match them together better? If we have high unemployment, what can we do to try to help?

23. What does success mean to you?
For me it means having a job you love, or having a life that you love. If you don't want to work I think that's perfectly fine too. It’s really contentment and happiness. Not in a placid way, because there are failures and toughness in life no matter what one is doing. But a certain contentment that one is doing what one wants to do.

24. If you had a magic wand and could fix one problem, which would you fix?
I think the biggest challenge we have right now is our growing inequality. I don't have a magic wand for how to solve it and I think that's the conundrum. I see us growing apart politically, I see us growing apart economically, and I see us growing apart socially. It's very hard to have a country where we try to have shared values, and a shared sense of purpose, and a shared understanding of what we're as as a community trying to do. We’re a big community, but that's what a country is, it’s a community. When we have such growing inequality along certain dimensions, the haves and the have nots, I don't quite understand how we're going to come together to solve problems. Ideologically we can have different views, as long as we have a shared understanding of what we're trying to achieve. If you have haves and have nots I think that’s a lot harder.

25. Who do you look up to as a prime example of living a good life? 

I look up to my colleague Orley Ashenfelter. Orley is sort of the Alta Cocker of labor economics. He was a student at Princeton. He was hired straight out of graduate school and he was the director of the Industrial Relations Section for many years. Almost every labor economist in this country of any stature can trace their lineage to Orley; Either they were a student of Orley’s, or their thesis adviser was a student of Orley’s. A lot of the way we think about labor economics today, and our empirical methods for doing labor economics today, can trace their way back to Orley.

Meanwhile, Orley has three girls, they’re grown, now he has grandkids and a wife. He loves to travel. His advice is when you go on a business trip is always tack on another two to three or four days and visit while you're there. And when he does that he finds the most exotic and interesting things to do. He's known for his love of wines. He's got a very complete wine cellar. He used to have a magazine, I'm not sure if he still publishes it, called "Liquid Assets." He has a model of predicting the quality of wine crop based on the weather. It's great to have dinner with him because the wine is always fantastic. He still does a bit of research. He's made very important contributions to economics and to labor economics. He's been devoted to his students. But he's also a phenomenal dad and husband, and he knows how to enjoy life too. He just has a joie de vivre.

This interview was conducted and condensed by Lisa Einstein '13