Professor of Economics, University of California, Santa Barbara
Bachelor of Arts, Economics & Sociology (’77)
Dr. Peter Kuhn’s expertise is in topics such as labour markets, wages and immigration. But his interest didn’t originate solely from his economics education. It was also inspired by his upbringing in Kitchener, Ontario.
“My parents were German immigrants and factory workers: my dad made fire hydrants and my mom worked in a shirt factory,” he says. “I was always interested in the world of work, so I tried a different job each summer: construction, house painting, a slaughterhouse, a shoe factory and the Waterloo Mutual Assurance Company.”
Initially, Dr. Kuhn chose Carleton because it was just the right distance away from home—i.e. “no unexpected visits from the folks.” He went on to try numerous math and social science classes, eventually settling on the honours economics program.
“I was always fascinated by human behaviour and I realized economics gave me a way to combine mathematics and the beauty of human beings,” says Dr. Kuhn, whose classmates included fellow 75 for the 75th alumni Timothy Lane and Jeremy Greenwood. “There were only 25 of us so it was like a boutique experience.”
When it came time to choose a graduate school, he sought advice from one of his professors, who suggested he apply to Harvard.
“I thought, ‘People like me don’t go there.’ It wasn’t even on my radar screen to go to a place like that,” he recalls.
Becoming an academic was not out of the question: not only did his parents love learning, but his older brother had pursued a PhD in engineering and physics at the University of Waterloo.
Much to his surprise, Dr. Kuhn was admitted to Harvard’s Department of Economics.
“It was like drinking from a firehose. It was wonderful, but overwhelming,” he recalls. “I didn’t know if I would make it, but I thought, even if I just spend one year at Harvard, it’s pretty exciting. I did nothing but work my entire first year.”
In fact, Dr. Kuhn spent five years there, eventually earning a PhD. He also began developing his research on labour, which took him in many directions, including to China.
“My research on the Chinese labour market started by accident. I was in China for a conference and someone took me to the local labour exchange. There, I discovered that most job ads listed both the gender and the age of the worker they were seeking, which is illegal here,” explains Dr. Kuhn. “It’s a really fascinating project because while there’s a huge amount of literature on differences between men and women in developed societies, no one had looked at this.”
Dr. Kuhn is also working on the first textbook in the field of personnel economics designed for economics majors.
“I realized that 90-95 percent of our students will be going into the world of work and they need to think strategically about being in a competitive workplace,” he explains. “Economics isn’t just preparing young people for graduate school; it’s also teaching them to be informed citizens.”
His advice for today’s students is simple, “Think critically about everything, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if something doesn’t sound right.”
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