Published 24 August 2022 by Ulrike Böhm
Women in Research #LINOecon: Katharina Bergant
Katharina from Austria and Italy is a Research Economist at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC, USA.
As our world and our economy become increasingly interconnected, so does our financial system. The focus of her research is on capital flows across countries. She uses financial microdata to analyse the determinants as well as the effects of international financial flows.
Katharina participates in the 7th Lindau Meeting on Economic Science.
Enjoy the interview with Katharina and get inspired:
What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?
Ever since I went to middle school, I have dreamt about working in an international environment, contributing to international cooperation, and helping to resolve global problems. During high school, I considered different fields – from languages to journalism, from law to business. Ultimately, I opted for a Bachelor’s Degree in Business and Economics, hoping that it would keep as many doors open as possible. But life holds many surprises, and after only one semester that included an excellent course on Statistics, I realised that I was drawn only to the numbers and equations. It fascinated me how mathematical models can help us understand complex economic systems, not only at the local but also global level.
Who are your role models?
My parents. Both of them are first-generation university graduates (medical doctors), and they have come a long way before raising my sister and me to become educated young professionals. Our parents provided us with all the support that they themselves had never received or experienced. My grandparents were barely allowed to finish primary school, and I had the privilege of conducting research at Harvard University. This difference in educational opportunity was made possible by the hard-working generation in between.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
After the Statistics course in my first term at university, Professor Janette Walde offered me an assistantship to support her and another great Professor (Achim Zeileis) with statistical programming. Those two Professors/mentors introduced me to the world of scientific research and showed me that with good technical skills, the sky was the limit. With their encouragement to pursue my postgraduate studies abroad, I chose the MSc. in Economics at Trinity College Dublin, where I had the pleasure of writing my thesis under the supervision of Philip Lane. He eventually offered me to stay in Dublin for my Ph.D. research, funded by the highly generous Grattan Scholarship. Professor Lane has since become my role model, and I consider him one of the most impressive scholars in our field. Very few people that I have met have exhibited his unique ability to grasp the interconnections and complexities of our economic system. And because he was/is so brilliant at his job, he soon received a higher calling – only three months after I commenced the Ph.D., Professor Lane was selected as the Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland. While I was no doubt cheerful for my mentor, it posed a huge challenge for me. After all, my decision to stay in Ireland was largely motivated by his offer to supervise my Ph.D. research. I had to adapt and decided to change my strategy. I seized the opportunity and connected to as many scholars as possible, broadening both my network and my horizon. I went to countless conferences, reached out to junior and senior researchers in the profession, and helped to organise international seminars and events. I learned so much from so many people, and by the time I was looking for a job, my network provided great support.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
I never feel proud of myself. However, I do remember a moment when I felt accomplished: the moment when I was offered several of my “dream jobs” at the same time. Our job market is very competitive, and I knew I was competing with people from top US universities for the same professional opportunities. Following the statistics of past graduates of my university, the chances of getting one of the positions I was aiming for were extremely low. It made the entire process nerve-wracking, and I came to often doubt myself and my capabilities. In the end, however, the outcome exceeded my expectations. I was offered professorships, jobs on Wallstreet, as well as positions at international organisations. I ultimately went for the latter, as it allows me to combine academic research with relevant policy work. You can only choose one job, but I felt good to have a choice and to get an insight into so many career streams. I also met so many inspiring, smart, and kind people on the way!
What is a “day in the life” of Katharina like?
I start my day with financial news. Besides the usual sources (FT, WSJ), we receive several specialised news briefings that inform us about political developments as well as market movements. As Washington D.C. is six hours behind Europe, the calls with co-authors and meetings with European counterparties start soon thereafter. The rest of my day is a mix of academic research and policy tasks. Besides reading academic journals and writing up results, my research mostly entails data work and the programming of statistical models. The policy work is very broad. In the last 18 months, I was part of the surveillance team for the U.S. and for the Bahamas. This meant that I helped create macroeconomic forecasts and write country reports about those two countries. We also meet frequently with the governments of those two countries, which of course, included traveling to the Bahamas. In my experience, a mix of research and policy work is extremely fulfilling, and it was the main reason for choosing an institution over becoming a professor at a university.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
In the short- and medium-term, I try to publish my academic articles in good scientific journals and learn as much as possible. In the long term, I want to use this knowledge to help make informed policy decisions. My mentor Professor Lane continues to be my role model – he was a successful academic for 15 years, which later enabled him to obtain the highest economist position in Europe (he is currently the Chief Economist of the European Central Bank). I do not dare to dream this big, but I hope to put my knowledge into practice someday.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I like so many things – there is just never quite enough time. At the moment, I use most of my free time to do sports, mainly running, biking, and tennis. When I still lived in Austria, of course, my favorites were skiing and hiking. I also love to sing and dance, although this has been difficult to pursue during the pandemic.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
As a researcher, I am, of course, tempted to name the project that was read most widely. It was my first project at my current job at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where I was asked – together with three amazing co-authors [two of them are Lindau Alumni!]– to write an analytical chapter for the IMF’s flagship report, which is published twice a year. The project analysed how effective macroprudential tools were in helping emerging markets to dampen external financial shocks. Our conclusions are aimed at helping authorities (central banks, financial authorities, finance ministries) in emerging markets to decide whether and how to use these macroprudential policies in order to improve financial stability and thus the resilience of their economies. The fact that this report is known to be cited in hundreds of newspapers around the world and will support policymakers in making hard decisions for their countries was both humbling and motivating.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?
Do it! Pursue your interests no matter how many women or men are in that field. There are still few females in my field (Financial Economics). The first session of the first high-level conference that I attended consisted of 27 men, me, and the wife of the organiser. And yes, there are still some men who think that women are not “suited” to be in Finance, and yes, they might exclude you from publishing or from conferences – but with an increasing awareness of discrimination, these examples fortunately become rarer by the day. I tried to also see an upside. The vast majority of my co-authors are naturally male. In this process, many of them became my friends and mentors, and as someone who always had mostly female friends, the experience certainly expanded my horizon.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?
I think this will be new data. One reason why we make so many theoretical assumptions in our mathematical models is that we do not have the data to test them. This will change, especially in Finance. There are new datasets every year, and there will be a point where we will have daily data on every single financial transaction in the whole world.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
Many people are talking about quotas for hiring women after the Ph.D., but the change needs to happen before that. First, women should be encouraged to go into quantitative Economics or Finance. They see mainly male professors and male peers around them choosing this specialisation. If someone would mentor them and encourage them, I believe that many women would at least give it a try. Secondly, our job market for academic and other high-level jobs is built on strengths that are more prevalent in men, which means that females tend to struggle with this last step before starting a career. Many of my colleagues compare our job market to a “strategic game” where timing and also signaling matter significantly. It is normal to openly compare how many interviews people can score, and a lot revolves around notions of reputation and famous references. If you do not show confidence that borders intimidation, you have already lost. While the number of female financial economists in Ph.D. programs is increasing, the number of those participating in the job market is not. Therefore, if we continue this system, many employers have no chance of finding many talented female PhD graduates who refuse, often for understandable reasons, to “play this game”.