People: Susan Athey: a league of her own
Publication Date: Wednesday Jul 5, 1995

People: Susan Athey: a league of her own

"Six months ago, no one knew who I was. I was just hoping to get one job in a good department." Depending on your viewpoint, Susan Athey is either in the most enviable position that a young, female academic can be in, or the most precarious.

The 24-year-old Palo Alto resident, who finished her doctorate in theoretical economics at Stanford in June, has been hailed--on the front page of the New York Times business section, no less--as "the hottest prospect among the Ph.D.s in economics."

She was crowned in adjectives and anointed in metaphors. "Pro football has its college draft and music has its Van Cliburn competition," the story continued, implying that Athey has the potential to become the next Thomas Malthus or Adam Smith. Never mind that Athey specializes in micro-, not macroeconomic theory.

Long before the New York Times found her, her dissertation, a mathematical model for examining personal and business decisions in the face of uncertainty (called "Organizational Design in a Stochastic Environment") had the academic world swooning. Universities, among them Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard and Yale, came a-courting in droves. She chose M.I.T.

The public came as well, seeking copies of her work in hopes of applying the principles to matters of business or personal finance. "I'm happy to send people a copy, but I tell them it probably won't help them," she said. "It's all theoretical. It's not going to tell you about risky investments, or how to win the lottery."

It's a lot like being chosen "most likely to succeed" in high school, only more so. If Athey succeeds, the success just burnishes her star. If she fails, she goes down in the glare of the a public spotlight.

But the down-to-earth young woman is not one to be seduced by hoopla.

So far, her response to all the razzle-dazzle has been to keep her feet on the ground, her nose to the grindstone, and her mind on her theories. "Every year there are stars in the job market," she said, "and I was the star this year.

"Some people who get that kind of attention go on to do great things, and others don't," she continued.

How does she think she will fare? "I think I have the potential, but I need to mature as a scholar. That takes time, and good teachers, and good criticism."

Athey grew up in Rockville, Md., where her father, a physicist, and her mother, an English teacher, encouraged her in reading and science. Although Athey showed early promise in math and science, she abandoned both in adolescence. "From 12 to 16, I just focused on my social life. I didn't do math club. I stopped reading. I did a lot of sports and field hockey. I had a lot of fun."

As an undergraduate at Duke University in Durham, N.C., she studied economics, mathematics and computer science. "Still, I wasn't really serious then. I was in a sorority, I did sports, I didn't think of myself as a big scholar."

All that changed when she came to Stanford for graduate school. "Graduate school really got me going. I started working really, really hard. I had a lot of lost time to make up for."

She no longer believes, as she did in sixth grade, that women get punished socially for being intelligent. "I'm finding just the opposite," she said. "The people I interact with admire success and ambition in other people; they consider them very desirable qualities."

But she does worry about calibrating the conflicting demands of scholarship and a social life. "There have been periods of time when I have pushed my life out of balance," she admits. "Ideally, I'd like to develop a personal style that isn't just a stodgy academic. Stodgy scares me."

--Diane Sussman 

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